There is probably nothing that I won’t eat – human flesh included, since, after all, I’ve been gnawing my fingers for over fifty years – but when I hear myself saying, as I often do, that I am easy to please when it comes to scoffing, I always feel a little bit uneasy. Take broad beans, for instance, my father’s favourite. There is something bitter about them which offends me. Any other beans, no problem: runner, aduki, kidney, you name it. And already, I tell a lie: there’s a creature called a butter bean, isn’t there, something I haven’t seen anywhere for years, but which can’t just have vanished from the planet. I don’t like butter beans (butter-beans, do they need a hyphen?) either.
I think my unfavourite foods are almost always (another lie, what about licorice or liquorice, why can’t the English language choose one spelling and stick to it?) traceable to school food, the thought of which still makes me shiver. Right up at the top of that list is porridge, which was a staple of the boarding-school to which I was consigned at the age of eight. My wife eats it every day. It is good for you. It would be good for me, too. But I just can’t stick it (although it has a sticky quality itself which attacks the pans in which it is made). And this is 100% to do with the very lumpy, loam-grey, slightly pimply and very claggy material which was dropped on to my outstretched plate when I was eight.
There was a tradition, or more a law, really, then, that you weren’t allowed to leave anything on the side of your plate. It showed disrespect to the cook. It showed disrespect to the school. It showed disrespect to the headmaster’s wife. It showed disrespect to the British Empire, for which most of the teachers had recently been fighting (the History teacher in particular, who wore his RAF flying jacket at all times, could easily be diverted into tales of his exploits – not all survivors of World War II refused to speak about it, and in his case, he could go on about it at some length, in fact, 75 minutes, the length of a lesson). So you had to eat your porridge, your semolina, your rice pudding, your prunes, and – a genuine shudder from me as I even type it – your treacle tart. Everything had to go, or you were by implication being unfair to the starving millions, often mentioned by adults then, but not in receipt of much in the way of sustenance by the authority vested in those self-same grown-ups.
The headmaster of my particular school (if it sounds like something out of Molesworth, then you need to know that, at that age, I did not appreciate the level of satire in the Molesworth books, since the teachers really did look like the Searle cartoons, and use the phrases and punchlines and old saws, as in ‘Caesar had some jam for tea’ being a translation of Caesar adsum jam forte, ho ho) took the rule about the eating of all food to particular lengths. It was not unknown for a salad (in those days ‘a salad’ meant some a flabby leaf or two of lettuce) to come complete with caterpillars. If you had the bad luck to be ‘on his table’ when insect life appeared with your greenery, you were obliged to eat it. The same if you dropped your food on the floor – you had to eat it. ‘The floor has been polished,’ he would say. Yes, that was the problem – polish. School food was infected with the odour of polish, which was ladled on to the floorboards very thickly. If you dropped a morsel, it came back with sticky residue. You still had to eat it. (He did all this partly, I think, to twit his battleaxe of a wife, a South African harridan who was never known to smile, or even to unpurse her lips.)
So yes, about some edible things, I am still particular. (No space to list them all, since I have rambled my way out of it again, may try again tomorrow.) But this cuts both ways. At the very same school, boys (who will be what they are, although I expect girls will also be girls, and also that, had I ever been to a co-ed school, boys would have been girls and vice versa) would regularly try out unusual combinations. One of them was sausages dipped in marmalade. They were fantastic. No-one ever offers them, but that’s something I would definitely eat.