Boarding School Food: Down Memory Lane

It may have been bland and boring but school food still has the power to evoke strong emotions

1/31/2017 3:40:27 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

A lot has changed in India’s old English-style boarding schools over the decades. While it would be a stretch to describe our schools as Dickensenian (we had hot water tub baths twice a week and movies in our hall every Sunday), life was quite spartan. In contrast, today's boarders are no longer forced to sleep in cold dormitories without a shred of privacy, to attend chapel every excrutiating morning, to do without television and computers, to have all their mail censored and to eat bland English nursery food  every day.

By the standards of my boarding school and those of my husband’s – both old establishments in the hills built, initially, for the children of British colonials serving in the hot plains – today’s boarders live a life of luxury. The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is the aura of “prestige” that still clings to a boarding school education.

Then as now, the term boarding school was dripping with snob value but I am aware that, after scrimping and saving, my parents had sent my sister and me there in the belief that they were giving us the best education possible, which, in a sense, they were. My father, whose job as a government administrator kept him in the wildest frontier areas of North-east India, had no other option but to send us away to a beautiful pine and mist-clad town called Shillong, known as the Scotland of the East, as it was the closest hill station with several excellent schools. One of them, our brother school St Edmund’s, had the reputation of constantly producing the highest scores in the “A” Levels (known as Senior Cambridge exams) in the Commonwealth.

Whatever else boarding school may have done or undone for us, it made us hardy in mind and body forever and gave us a tremendous respect for food. Likewise for my husband who recalls with humour the awful “hard tack” (dog bisuits as the boys called it) they got early in the chilly morning before PT in Sherwood College. I never waste a morsel and consider a home-cooked meal the best repast, perhaps because of its association with my loving mother’s stoicness in the face of so much separation heartache.

Boarding school food prepares you for life. You learn to swallow the good and the bad without complaint (at least not in front of your seniors), to take anything on the chin that life dishes up to you and you toughen up. You do. Sure, there are one or two foods that are vaguely reminiscent of a breezy Enid Blyton style picnic but just one or two, like sardine sandwiches and rock cakes, and not much more. Those sardine sandwiches were what we made for our furitive midnight feasts with bread purloined from the refectory and tins of sardines from our tuck boxes, secreted away in our uniform pockets and sometimes even in our long warm viyella knickers or bloomers as the nuns called them. And our milk teeth did quite a battle with those rock cakes which we sometimes got at teatime, leaving tender gums sore but satisfied. The nuns were obviously skimping on the butter, unlike what I use in my recipe for rock cakes (page 45). 

And if they felt extra generous we even got a decent slice of jam tart for tea. But week-day lunches and dinners were an everlasting round of cruel and unusual punishment even for our unsophisticated palates. My particular purgatory was our lunch time mutton curry (or what passed for it) which had globules of fat and gristle floating in the greasy gravy but which I had to choke down before the next class under the gimlet eyes of the nuns. Not even the loveless gooey lump of sweet sago pudding at dinner could erase the lingering gamey taste that clung to my offended gullet. 

Dinner was always bland English nursery fare. Mostly, it was tasteless beef or mutton stew and bread. For some strange reason, no rice or Indian food was ever served at dinner. Perhaps the good British nuns felt the spice would disturb our sleep. I don’t recall any special food for vegetarians or Muslims such as my Tam-Bram and Pakistani classmates so I presume they had gastronomically liberal parents. The only dinners I looked forward to was our Tuesday and Thursday dinners – sherpherd’s pie and on Fridays fisherman’s pie. The crust of golden baked mashed potato on top was the best part for a fussy eater like me. On weekends we had custard or bread & butter pudding. I can’t remember the main dish so it must have been highly forgettable.

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