At the end of my first year as an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford, I ran for the elected position of the college “food secretary.” This was a hard-fought campaign. I had the entire rugby team backing my effort. It was bitter. I ran unopposed and, possibly because of that, I won.
So, you might ask, what was the job description of “food secretary”? I found that out from the former holder of the illustrious position. I seem to recollect that his name was Woods and he was reading Geography (which translated for my American readers, means that he was studying just that subject for his bachelor’s degree). In his equally unopposed election campaign, he had promised to bring food from around the world to college. He had failed spectacularly. The food was exactly the same (and as bad) as it was the previous year.
The reason for this lack of success was that the chef (and that is a grand name for “cook”) for the undergraduates was a man called Maurice. I should also point out that the dons, or professors, had their own kitchen and a real chef. Actually, Maurice’s real name was Morris but he changed it to Maurice, with the emphasis on the last syllable, to make it sound more French. His was the style of basic English food, and in the early sixties that was not a style to be proud of. It was a dispiriting selection of chicken with gravy, nameless meat with gravy, and unknown fish without gravy. The accompanying “sides” were mashed potatoes (remember the gravy?) and peas. You might wonder how cooking could negatively affect the taste of peas. Peas, after all, are peas. In that case, you would not have tasted Maurice’s peas.
Every week, Maurice and I would meet in the college beer cellar. “I will have a pint of brown ale, thank you very much, sir” he would say, which meant that I had to pay for his drinks (and you may have noticed that I deliberately use the plural form). We met, theoretically, to discuss the next week’s menu. That was not difficult because we had to make seven dinner choices out of (drum roll, please!) seven options. I remember suggesting that the undergraduates might enjoy an occasional Italian dish such as pasta with a Bolognese sauce. “Ah, sir,” he said, “Mr. Woods suggested that.” “And?” I asked. “Sorry, sir, it takes too long from the kitchen to the Hall to serve all the young gentlemen (it was, at the time, an all-male college), and the pasta would be congealed by the time it reached them.” The idea of congealed pasta was not inspiring. I retreated from that suggestion and moved on to the possibility of having a cheese plate instead of the inevitable glue-like pudding for dessert. Here I had more success. Cheese does not require any cooking. “What a good idea, Sir!” He said. “Cheese and crackers it is.” A very small victory, not universally appreciated, but at least a change.
As the year went by, I began to look at cookbooks, eager to find simply cooked meals that would be within Maurice’s limited budget (“Can’t have lamb or veal, sir!”). Hopefully, something that would not produce gastric distress. We did introduce chicken Chow Mein, which tasted unlike anything I had ever eaten or have ever eaten since at a Chinese Restaurant. We tried a curry once and it was a disaster (I will not go into details but the toilets were popular in the following hours). So, in a moment of wild optimism, I suggested roast beef, which turned out to be burnt shoe leather masquerading as roast beef. As an experiment, I offered the dog belonging to one of the dons a choice of my sandal or the roast beef and he, intelligent animal that he was, chose the sandal to run off with.
I am now about to tell you about one of my real successes. I have to preface this by saying that the best English meal at the time was unquestionably breakfast. If you made it to Hall in time, you got a fried egg, a fried tomato, and a fried sausage. The last of these was not popular. It has famously been said that one should not observe the making of laws and sausages. I am quite sure that no upright citizen should be forced into watching the making of these sausages. There definitely was some meat there, but there were other nasty things too. They were not popular and often returned uneaten, something that Maurice was clearly upset about. So, in a flash of brilliance that I have not had since, I suggested that we put them into something else, such as a soup. Maurice, recognizing that the young gentleman before him was a real sport, loved the idea. In fact, to make his cooking easier, he suggested that we boil the sausages instead of frying them and serve them in what he optimistically called “tomato soup.” So one evening he cut the uncooked sausages into halves and boiled them and we had a new dish. It was, and you have every right to question this, a success primarily because no-one had seen it before and there were wagers around the college Hall as to what we were eating. Apparently, some real money changed hands.
On the basis of this success, I was, the following year, elected secretary of the College Junior Common Room (translated that means the “college union”), and this time I should state, with pride, that other people were running. But they did not know the ingredients of the mystery soup, and I did. Bad sausages and ersatz tomato soup! Now that is a campaign to be proud of.
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School