Sunday, 16 September 2012

You're eating what now?

Toad in the hole. Try explaining that one to a foreigner. My Norwegian brother-in-law was suitably confused, not helped by the fact that we all resolutely refused to explain the term. I went to the great length of consulting the etymological wiseman, The Word Detective (a site which, on its own, justifies the existence of the internet) to see if he had ever had to explain this curious phrase, but even he seems perplexed.

Here I offer my own definition:
 "toad in the hole", noun. 1. A traditional English dish of sausages cooked in batter. 2. Utter loveliness, with a slight tendency to place consumers in a food coma. 3. Utter repulsiveness, crap served up by misanthropic dinner ladies at schools across the land.

All three definitions hold water, showing once again the importance of what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as "cultural specificity" - the idea that the meaning of a word is a function not only of the object (in the case of a noun) that it refers to, but also of the cultural background and experiences of the one experiencing (uttering, hearing or reading) that word. In the same way, the term "cheesy", when applied to music, to me means "unutterably bad, shallow, worthy of contempt and apt for immediate disposal", whereas to Mrs Jay it means "glossy, fun, undemanding entertainment, apt for dancing".

Both definitions are true, based on our own opinions. (Bakhtin should not always be trusted - according to legend, much of his writing was lost because of a shortage of cigarette papers in WWII Russia. He smoked it all.)

Back to the toads though. I concocted this little delight with some of my Baylham House sausages, and I must say, it was delightful, although after eating only two of the "toads", I did need to have a little nap.

Isn't she lovely?
However nice it was, it did set me to thinking about school dinners. I went to the sort of school where we were men enough at the age of 11 not to have to run home to Mummy every night, which meant that not only did I have to endure the school canteen (or "refectory", more properly) at lunchtime, but  all the time. Three meals a day of the sort of thing that Ronald McDonald or the Colonel would reject as both too processed and too - well, crap, really.

We boys weren't bothered by that though. Indeed, not only did we eat three meals a day there, but we also found ways to play the system so that we could have 4. It was a simple ruse really, which relied on the kindliness of those who served the slop out: at lunchtime we would push in to the front of the queue in one "ref", gobble down whatever delights were being served there, and hot foot it round to the other end of the hall where a separate serving was taking place. There, with a well-placed compliment, and a sad smile that we hadn't seen our parents in a fortnight, we could cajole the kitchen staff to serve us "poor boarders" another helping.

However bad it may have tasted, it certainly didn't do us any harm though. Vast amounts of fat,  sugar and salt must have been consumed, and our teenaged bodies, by and large, did not balloon out of control. That's probably because we were outdoors most of the time, running around and playing sport - contrary to popular myths about boarding schools, such was the way we passed our time in the absence of television and internet.

It also taught me one of the most important life lessons a boy can learn: always be on good terms with those who cook and serve your food.

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