Public School Magazine, August 1901
I SHOULD like to say a few words on the subject of food at the Public Schools. I am reminded of the subject by an anonymous correspondent at an ancient and religious foundation, whose name I will not mention. This gentleman complains of the unwarranted conduct of his House Master, who, he says, is trying to poison him. He encloses a sample of some porridge, which, he avers, was served to him on the twenty-fourth ult., and wishes me to have it analysed, and publish the result in the agony column of the Times. I should be very willing to oblige him, but owing to the fact that he encloses his sample in the letter without any wrapper, it is a little difficult at first sight to tell where the porridge leaves off and the letter begins. However, I will do my best.
Though I no longer revel in “House food” I can still, when I have a touch of fever on me, recall the exact taste of a rather special line in boiled beef, with which we expected to stay the pang that gnawed. It was always supposed that the House Master was given a shilling by the butcher to take it away and ask no questions, and I cannot believe that this idea was groundless. Moralists would doubtless have pointed out the fact that to many people this very meat would have seemed a banquet. How strange it is that the right people never get the right things. There were those unfortunate people presumably pining away on account of that boiled beef, and turning with loathing from their clear soup and their wings of chicken, while we in our turn were equally unsuited. One would have thought that even a House Master could have seen that there was something rotten (exceedingly so) in the state of Denmark, when each member of the House refused a second helping with every appearance of intense disgust. But, no. That shilling of the butcher’s carried the day, and every Thursday saw a new joint appear. It was always a mystery to us what they did with what was left over (generally about eighty-nine ninetieths of the whole). Probably it entered a few minutes later thinly disguised as jam pudding or apple tart, or came up to the scratch again like some tough old veteran of a hundred fights on the following Thursday. I remember one day, a prominent Prefect asked permission to leave the table before the end of the meal, and on being asked by the House Master the reason of this, replied blandly that he wished to go to the School shop and get some lunch. A subtle thrust, i’ faith, but ill-received by the House Master.
But, oh, to brew! That is another matter. What coffee is so perfect as that made in our own private coffee-pot in the study, and what professional egg can come near the amateur one boiled over the study gas? How we wrestle with the Nestle on the well-appointed trestle. That is life with the initials of the maker on the capsule, a crowded hour of glorious life.
Brewing is one of those functions which man cannot perform alone. Some help-meet is needed. I use the word advisedly, for the meat portion of the banquet is exactly the part to which your companion should contribute his aid. To boil an egg by holding the saucepan over the gas is a pleasant operation to watch, but very tiring to the arm. Say, therefore, to your friend, “You might boil those eggs, old chap, while I look after this toast.” Looking after the toast involves little physical fatigue. You spear a slice of bread on the fork, and rest the fork on two dictionaries, with its precious freight exposed to the heat of the stove. You then lie back in a chair and watch it. When you observe your friend growing restless—he may even intimate that he is not going to do all the work while you slack in an arm-chair—it will be as well to begin making the tea. This in itself constitutes an answer to his objections.
Brewing should, of course, be limited to the Winter and Easter Terms. Not that I would suspect you, gentle reader, of even wishing to brew in the Summer Term. You are far too experienced a hand for that. Imagine what brewing would be like with both door and window open and the brewer with his coat and collar off, fanning himself with the lid of a biscuit-tin!! Why, it would descend to the level of a mere meal. All the poetry and romance of it would sag out with a swish, as it were. No, to be really comfortable you must have the knowledge that other people are uncomfortable, and this can only be obtained in the winter or on a cold and rainy day. When you hear a pedestrian pass your window with a genuinely moist and unpleasant squelch in his tread, you can be sure that he is feeling miserable and laying up a bad cold within him, and you can turn to the person in charge of the biscuits and ask him to heave you a few with a light heart. Or after a hard-fought football match you leave the field covered with mud, and wend your way to the House. Outside, the world is rapidly freezing under a copper-coloured sun. But you are in the very centre of a boiling bath and at peace with all things. Anon you go to your study and find that a select company of your friends has got everything ready in your absence. There is still a chair vacant. You fling yourself into it, and a great calm envelops your soul (if you have one) and a feeling of perfect rest your body. Some genius has provided muffins. I need say no more.
“What earthly food can ever beat
Your really well-cooked muffin?
Is anything so purely sweet?
I freely answer ‘nuffin.’ ”