There’s a recent documentary series being re-run on (UK) Channel 4 at the moment, one that I should have watched first time around: Jamie’s School Dinners. It follows Jamie Oliver, a “celebrity chef”, as he tries to do something about the quality of the food served in schools in England. Oh hell, where do I start?
It starts at home, with the parents too busy to prepare balanced meals for their kids or themselves. By the time they start school, they’re used to processed junk, and that’s what they get on a budget of 37p ($0.80 / €0.60) per kid per day. Imagine the worst junk food you’ve ever had, then remove the few real ingredients and nutritional value. Then imagine kids who have never known anything better, and you can imagine what made motormouth Oliver lose the power of speech every time he met one of those kids.
After a very rocky start, with some kids in the north of England not knowing what carrots or real chicken looks like, one of the tricks seems to be getting the kids involved in choosing and preparing the food. Peer pressure plays a huge role, with some kids looking at others before deciding whether they like the taste of something. Dressing up as a giant corn cob certainly helped Jamie break the ice, but while he’s been up north, the kids at the other testbed school in London are protesting against his recipes, demanding the return of “pizza”, “turkey twizzlers”, and chips. (Pizza and chips on the same plate? Are you nuts?)
I didn’t know what a “turkey twizzler” was before I saw this show; must be in a part of the supermarket I don’t get to, alongside the frozen burgers and pizza. BBC News is reporting that, since Oliver started trashing them on the show, sales have actually increased! What’s that they say about publicity?
I guess I was lucky: my mother was a “homemaker”, and we didn’t have the modern array of processed foods in South Africa, where we were living. No-one told me that corn was a “vegetable”, and since we lived across the road from a huge cornfield, you can bet we had plenty of that on the plate, and I was eating spinach long before I ever saw a Popeye cartoon. There were no prepared school dinners at any school I went to there; sandwiches and fruit were the only options. The price was more labour; how many hours of play did I lose peeling potatoes? Looking back, however, I think it was worth it.
OK, there are some vegetables I have problems with. It takes a lot to make celery palatable, it’s practically a weed like rhubarb, which needs to be boiled to mush, with a hundredweight of sugar, to make it palatable. Turnip (a.k.a. swede or rutabaga) is beyond hope, even if I drown it in butter, and raw tomato skin still makes me queasy. Now I think about it: since I like a challenge, and turnip is very cheap, I think I should buy a few and get to Wok with them. Cooking.