Remnants of a lunch box

The range gets turned off at the wall, the hot cupboard is getting cold now with all the trays being washed, the grill off, fans off and the deck hosed and scrubbed well, shutter down and door closed. That is the usual end to a day in the galley, with safety at sea in mind at all times, one last check to see if everything has been turned off, and that’s it for the day, a little reflection of how the day has gone, how the food was and could we do a certain dish again and in our ears the continues engine and propeller, that at 21 days, days rarely stops, after all it is a working ship and you do get used to such noises and vibrations.

This is a far cry from, a moment, at the end of a busy restaurant service, with all the comings and goings of waiting staff, the checks on, the fierce heat of the hot lamps, the pans hitting the stove, waiting to come up to temperature, to be be given the responsibility, with observation from the chef to let out the finest sizzle. This is just one playing in a quartet of stove top symphonies, where a breast of duck starts of low in a cold pan, but once rendering begins, it is in fine feckle and also lending harmonies. Then all of a sudden, squeezing to much out of the stove top, the chefs pushing more than the range capability, with some pans competing on one burner.

The noise of the extractor doesn’t help, but does help keep the orchestra cool. The whisking noises, the spoon to plate, where the spoon that strikes the plate does not change its composure through any point of the evening, as consistency is paramount. Service please is one of the chorus through the evening along with the discreet bell in the background. The dishwasher lending a wishy washy performance but never the less a major contributor. The whimpers of the kitchen porter, though warned of the hot pans piling at that section still manages to catch there hand on one, yet manages to soldier on with there part of the performance, no key changes in the performance, but the kind of song that just fades down at the end and not one that catches you out.

All is now silent, everyone has gone home? The stainless steel is back to the proud post performance shine, and the floor still half wet. The only noise, a rare sound, is the ticking of the kitchen clock, the performance is over, the audience have gone home and so have the orchestra, I’m left in the kitchen, reflecting, whether we gave it the best we could, was that the best performance we have given so far, what ratings will we receive, but most of all, what the actual heck happened here and what were the last few hours all about.

It is that moment that at the end of a very long day and a hard nights slog that always triggers my little brain back to when we were in Cross primary school and we had some class or other after lunch in the canteen, a time when the canteen was not just a place to eat in but also the gym, assembly and concert hall. Whatever class we had after lunch, what remained from the ‘kitchen’ was the odour of lunch that was had that day. That small kitchen was left gleaming from what I remember, and was about the size of a Wendy house kitchen, with the food being transported from Lionel, I can imagine that there was very little cooking composed on sight, perhaps reheated. But it was the lunch odour that still lingers with me to this day, the immaculate surfaces, all this memory mixed with a touch of pine disinfectant water yet to dry on the floor.

When it came to school lunches, the very earliest memory I have of primary was, the lunch time bell. We must have been in the early years of primary, as I remember us having to walk in pairs and hold hands, waiting in the hall way before being allowed to enter, although I know there was a time when the croilegan that was I think might have been used as the canteen. I recall that specific day as the item on the menu was ravioli. You know the tinned variety, similar to the one you can buy in the supermarket. My only concern is I believe the ravioli would have come in 3kg catering tins and God only knows what it was actually stuffed with, but the thing is… it was lovely. I can recall that sickly sweet tomato sauce, where the ravioli would have been sitting in the aluminium trays with the aroma just seeping through and vented through the ‘long’ corridor that ran the whole length of the school from the front door up to the canteen, and the beauty of this pasta Ravioli, was that it held its self well, meaning, it stayed the same consistency from being shaken from the tin, heated in Lionel, driven to Cross, rested briefly before lunch is served and delivered in the same fresh state it came out of the tin, delicious!

School meals for me were, I like to think, happy times. It’s like when I’m working on the ship, for some, probably one of the only things to look forward to in the day. From what I can remember from the primary canteen, there was very little that was processed on the menu. There were the usual culprits like mince and potatoes which was nice, OK it was adjusted in a way that we are all familiar with, ahhhhhhhh Bisto, the only other problem was, it was out of order how hot it was actually served, with the ice cream scoop of mash on the side, and yes there were times when lumps appeared in it, though still seasoned well and tasty.

Fish day was quite nice, if the haddock is supposed to be served in the classic orange crumbs,. I don’t know how the ladies managed to get the fish onto our plates, with out it breaking into four pieces with how limp it was , steaming up with all the other fish in the tray and food transporters. Now the chips if I think back would take the roof of your mouth off, it’s making me wonder if they had a fryer in the canteen, but I don’t think there was, at times the chips perhaps tasted like oven chips and had that strange soggy, weird taste to them, and the peas that come in pellet form, pinging off in any direction apart from ones mouth, though I think beans were at times an accompaniment to the fish, and the fish at times did come in the form of fingers and as I type this I can in my mind taste that meal from so long ago and as tonight is the last fish Friday on board I might just opt for beans instead of marrow fat peas although we do also offer the pois of petit or ‘real peas’ some like to call them.

When I decided to write about school dinners I actually thought it was going to be easy, but trying to think back it’s something that I’m struggling with. I know in my mind the clearest memory like I mentioned earlier is the ravioli and the lingering odour from the canteen, just so clear.

Now on the occasion, in the latter years of primary we we allowed to take a packed lunch. I’m not sure if we were given the menu the week before, so if there was something that was on the negative list on the menu for that week, packed lunch it was. Banana sandwiches, which has triggered another memory of the school lunch for me. The banana sandwiches were made with buttering the bread, a simple process, but never the less an important step as this protects the bread from the filling and going soggy, the filling in this case being a sliced banana. What else was in the box remains a bit of a blur, I know a yoghurt stood firm and perhaps a treat. There was no frubs, no cheese strings or even any form of baby cheeses, just some quick wit of a mother who had the lunches prepared the night before or at the latest before we got up that morning. What I remember about that lunch was, firstly it wasn’t just a Tupperware box that held the forward looking lunch, but the box was the new and up and coming theme, perhaps Star Wars, Superman, Thunder Cats, what is clear though though is the memory of opening my lunch box and that, clear smell of my lunch in my box, clean fresh, neat, all in order, nutritious, wholesome , delicious, and the banana slices still between that two slices protected by butter unmarked by oxygen and still fighting there corner with there counter part, the bread. Then there is the other part of the spectrum, getting home, the lunch box that was, only one of the two clips remained sealed, once opened to be cleaned, remains a used teaspoon, an empty bottle of milk that once held juice. The memory or lack of care of what was in that box at the end of the day, long gone, what remained were the ghostly yarns of over exaggerated primaries from the canteen.

Now what I can remember are the school puddings, I think that is why I can lean slightly towards favouring the sweet side of cooking to other aspects. Semolina and prunes was the stand out pudding for me, though the fruit did vary from fruit cocktail, pears, peaches. Although it was the sheer simplicity and innocence of it with the simple sweetened flavour of the semolina and I’m not even sure if vanilla essence ever went near it, the tinned prunes were served on top, stone in, so had to be extra careful with that obstacle, with the juice (best part) offering almost a ripple effect into the semolina with each spoon full removed, from the almost set semolina. The flavour of the prunes, sweet, juicy with almost a buttery, caramel, chocolate flavour.

Other puddings that spring to mind were of course classics, iced sponge and custard, toffee tart, jelly and ice cream, well some form of frozen liquid. Mincemeat tart, I don’t know what they were thinking of, even the name was a no, no for me. Now, come October time in 2019 and previous, I make kilos of mincemeat, to my own recipe, that is packed with juicy fruit and other little festive treats for the mince pies we sell at Christmas through Stramash, a joy to make and eat. Other offerings were angel delight, a strawberry mousse/blancmange that had a good intense flavour. Possibly rice pudding, but can’t be sure, rhubarb crumble that made you wince with every bite although balanced out with custard of some kind.

Many sweet memories from a time that seems like a lifetime ago, memories that offered a brief delight for all of us, sharing a moment, all under the one roof, in that small canteen, that dished out some delicious meals, that nourished our little tummies in our active and hectic little lives, when in that few hours of schooling gave us something to look forward to, perhaps we just didn’t appreciate it then, now that time seems to have gone in the blink of an eye, but today, our tummies, still need to be nourished and now with an understanding that a favourite meal, doesn’t just relate to the meal its self, but a particular time, place and the people around us.

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers; the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.
—The Wonder Years

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