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How Can You Have Any Pudding if You Don’t Eat Your Meat?

The following is a free excerpt from Dave Fox’s award-winning book of travel humor essays, Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad.

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Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad - Travel Humor by Dave FoxLewisham, England: 1976

…School dinner and home dinner had two things in common: They were both the biggest meal of the day, and they both lacked pizza. At home it was the same ritual as before, back in America. Food was put before me. I resisted. Negotiations ensued. At school, it was much more violent.

The Brits have contributed many great things to society: pub culture, Shakespeare, the Beatles, soccer hooligans. They are also known for their cuisine, but not in a good way. I still remember what they served for dinner on my first day of school. It was “shepherd’s pie with smashed potatoes and greens.” For dessert, there was rice pudding, which struck me as downright cruel. Rice was a vehicle for soy sauce. It didn’t belong in pudding. Furthermore, meat didn’t belong in pie, and pie for the main course made less sense than dinner at noon.

School dinner consisted of lining up, class by class, with a plate and a tray, and moving through the line as the cafeteria ladies slopped food on your plate. It was like you see in movies about prison, only this was worse because at school, they didn’t just give you the food; they made you swallow it.

I tried to find a way out. In America, when I didn’t feel like eating my banana (which was always), I’d just wait until the teachers weren’t looking and fling it into the trash. But the British school system wasn’t so liberal. Once you navigated the food line, you had to choose a table. You could sit anywhere you liked. Teachers ate with the students. I learned quickly that where I sat could have a profound impact – positive or negative – on the outcome of my starvation quest.

Whenever possible, I’d sit near Mark. I didn’t particularly like Mark, but Mark liked food. He was a human garbage disposal, and he’d scarf down whatever you offered him. You didn’t want to get caught trading plates with Mark, or the teachers would make you finish everything on your plate while they lectured you about the poor starving children in India. But if you were stealthy, you could make the switch.

The person to avoid sitting with was Mr. Bennett, but sometimes, the seat next to him was the only one left. Mr. Bennett taught a class of fourth year juniors. He was the only human being who ate faster than Mark. He expected the students to keep up with him. Mr. Bennett had a particular love for salt. The salt shakers were made of glass, with white plastic tops that funneled into a single exit point. The hole was a full millimeter across, which meant you couldn’t shake the shaker over your food or the salt would pour out too fast. Instead, the protocol was to pour a little salt into your palm, then take a pinch and sprinkle it on your food. But Mr. Bennett did things differently. He would turn the shaker upside down, letting the salt flow freely as he did two or three laps around his meat and vegetables. Then he would attack.

Mr. Bennett ate with the uniquely British skill of balancing food atop his upside-down fork and shoveling it into his mouth, or using his potatoes as edible cement to help his peas stick to the knife so he could lick them off. He ate fast and determined. It didn’t take long before all of his food had swirled together into a puke-colored school dinner stew. Flavor meant nothing to Mr. Bennett. Food was food, and it needed to go into his stomach before any of those poor starving children from India showed up and tried to wrestle it away it from him.

When you were finished eating, or thought you were, there was no place to dispose of the remainder of your meal. Instead, you had to raise your hand, sometimes keeping it up until your shoulder ached before anyone noticed you. Eventually, a teacher or one of the cafeteria ladies would come inspect the remains of your dinner and decide whether to grant you dessert authorization, or whether to torture you longer.

I learned quickly that raising my hand haphazardly was like Russian roulette. The trick was to scrutinize the teachers’ locations, and wait for one of the kind ones to look your way – someone who would let you go without a lot of negotiating. The petite female teachers were best. They didn’t mind if you left half your meal.

The cafeteria ladies were smarter than the petite teachers. It was best to avoid them when negotiating your exit. School dinner was their life, and they had been in the biz too long to be fooled by the old “hide your fish sticks under the smashed potatoes” ploy. This was a maximum security cafeteria, and if they suspected any attempts to conceal food or transfer it to Mark, they would sit down next to you and watch you eat. By the end of the school year, I had gotten to know the cafeteria ladies pretty well.

Their intentions were good. They just wanted to see their children well-nourished. When it wasn’t dinner time, and I’d pass them in the halls, I liked the cafeteria ladies and they liked me, but when it came to eating, our friendship was irrelevant.

“I’m full,” I would say.

“But David, you’ve hardly touched your lima beans.”

“Yes I have,” I would try, going with a literal interpretation.

“No David, you must eat more. Look at you. Don’t you want to grow?”

I hated that question. Of course I wanted to grow. All my life, I’d been the short kid. My peers, particularly back in America, found cruel ways to remind me of this. “Your manipulative questions are detrimental to my self-esteem,” I wanted to tell the cafeteria ladies, but at age eight, I couldn’t find the words.

So I’d say no. No, I didn’t want to grow. And if lima beans were the solution, I really meant it.

I’d sit and watch my food. The ladies would sit and watch me watching my food. Sometimes it would get unbearable. I really would try to put more food in my mouth, just to end the scrutiny, but I was a small kid being force fed two dinners a day. Good food or bad, it was tough getting it down. Occasionally, they’d notice this.

“Oh David,” they’d finally say with a touch of sympathy, “you’re struggling.”

I didn’t know what they meant by this. I wanted to know. I wanted to know how to struggle, because when I struggled, they’d take pity on me and declare a truce and set me free. But I didn’t know how to struggle. It was something I did involuntarily. Occasionally, I’d get lucky and start struggling. But usually, we got into the same negotiations I had at home.

“Just a few more bites, David. Then you can have your pudding.”

“Pudding” was British for dessert in the same way people in some southern US states refer to all soft drinks as “Coke.” Collectively, rice pudding was called “pudding,” sponge cake was called “pudding,” treacle was called “pudding,” even apples were called “pudding.” I found that last item particularly offensive. Fruit had no business being a dessert choice.

If this is sounding familiar, it’s from “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” I’m pretty certain the band hired Mr. Bennett to read those lines….

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Published on Saturday, March 1, 2008

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