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School dinners: 7 nostalgic facts to share

by Helen Renshaw
School dinners: 7 nostalgic facts to share
School dinners cake. Image: Andrew Burton

From Turkey Twizzlers to jam roly-poly – there can be no doubt that the great British school dinner has a special place in the nation's heart. But how many of these moments do you remember?

1. Return of the Twizzler

Three years ago, more than 27,000 ardent fans signed a petition demanding the return of the Turkey Twizzler. In response, Bernard Matthews reintroduced the infamous spiral – this time with reduced fat – and to honour the occasion, a three-metre statue of a Twizzler bearing the legend 'THEY’RE BACK!' was unveiled at the company’s Norfolk HQ.

2. School meals go Posh

In 2010, multimillionaire designer and former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham revealed that she liked nothing better than to roll up her sleeves for a stint as a dinner lady at her children’s school. ‘If I’m not working, I go to the school and help serve lunches to the children,’ she said. ‘They just love that.’

3. Bring back jam roly-poly!

When asked which school dinner they missed the most in a 2019 poll, over-50s voted jam roly-poly into top spot, followed by treacle tart, spotted dick, rice pudding and Angel Delight (butterscotch flavour, please. Or is that just us?). More surprisingly, spam fritters, tapioca, tinned peas and ‘ice-cream scoop mash’ also appeared in the top 25.

Roly poly pudding. Image: Andrew Burton
Roly poly pudding. Image: Andrew Burton

4. School dinners go viral

When nine-year-old Martha Payne hit the headlines in 2012 with her blog NeverSeconds, a less than complimentary daily chronicle of her school meals, the local council took exception and banned her from taking pictures in the school canteen. A public backlash followed, and human rights group Big Brother Watch stepped in, calling the ban 'an authoritarian infringement on civil liberties'. NeverSeconds returned – by 2014 it had reached 10 million hits and been awarded Observer Food Blog of the Year, while Martha had been guest speaker at a Copenhagen food conference and visited school kitchens as far afield as Malawi.

5. Go dinner ladies!

The special place dinner ladies hold in our hearts is evidenced by their many appearances in popular culture. The list is long, but here are a few: Lunchlady Doris is the dinner lady in The Simpsons, rock group The Darkness recorded a song called Dinner Lady Arms, and in the video game Bully, Edna is a dinner lady who coughs, sneezes and blows cigarette smoke on the food she prepares, claiming that it 'adds flavour'.

6. More curry, please

In September 2018, the nation voted on its favourite school meal of the previous 25 years in an online poll to celebrate National School Meals Week. The winner… drum roll… was curry and rice. The nation’s favourite school dessert was also investigated. In the running for the top five were fruit crumble, jam and coconut sponge, and pineapple upside down cake. But the runaway winner was chocolate sponge with custard.

7. Finish it up!

In post-war Britain, considerable moral force was applied to ensure every scrap of food was eaten. Prefects took it in turns to stand by a bin for leftovers, and if the prefect deemed what was being left was edible, pupils were sent back to eat it. ‘Many a time, we swallowed gristle with lots of water, as if it were a huge pill,’ says one who remembers.

Try some of our favourite retro school dinner puds:

Tottenham cake

Manchester tart

Jam roly poly

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