What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding HALF a worm! That was one of my mother’s favorite jokes and probably the earliest joke I remember hearing. I didn’t understand it and I know I asked where the other half had got to … even now, I don’t get subtle jokes and prefer obvious slapstick comedy. But worms were often on the menu at the Boma – feeding 500 girls three meals a day meant the odd worm was sure to be roasted or braised. School food tends to be horrible, but when there’s no option except to go hungry, you tend to eat what’s available. There are few things I won’t or can’t eat – like standing quietly in line, I learned to cope. There’s plenty I prefer not to eat – principally it’s a texture thing, like pears or fried and battered food, but I really can’t eat oysters (very allergic) and I won’t eat goosegogs, which is what we called gooseberries and even typing this, I can feel my nose wrinkle in distaste. They are greenish berries – about the size of large blueberries and are always stewed … to death, or made into jam. You don’t eat them raw. We had them for dessert, probably with custard.
Feeding time at the Boma took place in the huge dining hall. Tables seated 10 or 12 – five down each side and a teacher or prefect at the top. Tables were grouped by houses and the placement never varied. I wonder why they didn’t move us around the hall each term. Nightingale was to the right as you walked through the doors. Two monitors from each table went up to the kitchen to wheel a cart back to the table – there must have been some sort of assignment sheet. The food came in huge metal lidded containers and you didn’t know what was on the menu until it arrived. The person at the top of the table served the food and passed the plates down the table. You absolutely had to finish what was on your plate, no exceptions. If you didn’t like something, you could shout up, “No spinach, thanks,” or whatever special request. You also could request a “dirty plate” which meant the server dipped the spoon into the food and moved it round and round on the plate as evidence that food had actually touched the plate and been devoured already. When the patrolling teachers walked by, you had evidently finished your meal with relish. I don’t recall how we handled a dirty plate request if we happened to have the housemistress at our table. For lunch and dinner, we had dessert, so the monitors loaded the empty tins onto the cart, went back to the kitchen and traded them for the next course.
Many details are fuzzy but I remember the plates being heavy green plastic, definitely unbreakable. In each corner of the dining hall was a still room (like a supply room) where the monitors delivered the dirty plates after the meal. Breakfast could be bacon and eggs, porridge, sausages – anything to fill us up. Our favorite was “Continental breakfast” – rolls and milky coffee. We didn’t have that nearly often enough. One memorable breakfast was a disaster. The kitchen experimented with omelets, but when the aluminum pans came out of the oven, the eggs had turned green. Several hundred girls refused to eat anything and they never tried that again. Break was around 10 a.m. and I don’t remember anything other than sandwiches. I didn’t like dripping – which is the fat left from roasting meat. We often had Marmite, as ubiquitous as the American PB&J. It’s a yeast-based spread and the English are raised eating it. We had jam, but never PB&J – I don’t think we even had peanut butter and I didn’t know what a PB&J was until I came to live in the U.S. Lunch, the main meal, typically consisted of meat and two veg. I remember most of it was covered in gravy of varying colors. One meal was corned beef with a white sauce that I disliked. Shepherd’s Pie was OK and dessert could be yummy. We loved chocolate pie and you could hear a pin drop when everyone focused on eating as fast as possible in the hope of seconds. It was chocolate filling in a pie shell, topped with meringue. Sometimes they made a jam version, but we all preferred chocolate. Steamed treacle pudding was another favorite. I seem to recall the level of noise from 500 girls was in direct correlation to what appeared on the menu. Tea was at 4 p.m., which probably included something sweet. For break and tea, we filed in to pick up the food and ate standing in the courtyard or sitting on the grass trying not to get dive-bombed by the crows. As I’ve said before, I don’t recall it ever raining. Supper was lighter – macaroni and cheese probably. I recall we did sometimes have salad, which was also popular. We also loved baked potatoes. Before breakfast and lunch, the Head Girl said Grace, and before supper, we sang Vespers (an evening prayer) – often, Abide with Me.
We supplemented our meals from a tuck box, typically filled with candy and cookies, trying to make it last until the next one. We would bring our tuck boxes back from exeats (pronounced ex-eee-ats, meaning a day’s leave from a boarding school). Exeats took place once a month on a Sunday. Parents picked you up at 10 a.m. and you had to be back by 6 p.m. Half-term was the only weekend we were allowed to go home overnight. I think I ate non-stop during every exeat and brought back a huge tuck box to tide me over. There was a tuck shop, too, where one could buy Mars Bars and other delights, pocket money permitting. We existed from one meal to the next rather than from day to day. Meals and the dining room were definitely the focus of our lives. If you requested a dirty plate for lunch for any reason, you would have to fill up at supper, whether you liked what was offered or not. The food was so stodgy and heavy that every girl was overweight and we were always on a diet. One of my most painful memories is of a girl called Beatrice. We persuaded her to go on a diet. When we returned to school at the beginning of one term, we were told that Beatrice had died after her family’s house burned down. To this day, I regret that we didn’t let Beatrice eat dessert for the last few weeks of her life.