Prior to 1954, when I was at primary school, food was still rationed following the Second World War which meant that butter, milk, eggs, meat, cheese and sugar was in short supply. School dinners were memorable only for being pretty dreadful. After that things began to improve. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is the school puddings that I remember the most. At my boy’s secondary school in west London, I particularly liked the chocolate pudding and chocolate sauce, though I don’t think that much chocolate was used as both the pudding and the sauce were pale in colour. I would stay back on the ‘extra helpings’ table at the end of the school dining room for seconds, or even thirds. Another favourite was baked jam roll, iced sponge cake with hundreds and thousands on top, bread and butter pudding, and treacle sponge pudding, all served with custard. I didn’t like the semolina with rose hip syrup so much, or the pink blancmange – it was always pink – or the rice pudding which always had a thick skin on it. Even if you asked to have it without the skin, the kitchen staff would often say that you couldn’t.
Most of the kitchen staff were fairly cheerful as far as I can recall, in contrast to most of the teachers. All the food was cooked on the premises in the kitchen, though I don’t think that in all the five years I was at the school, I ever ventured into the kitchen. It just wasn’t done. I don’t recall that many boys were fat. There were lots of carbohydrates and fat in the puddings, what nutritionists would call stodge, but then you didn’t have snacks. And we drank water, not squash. The water was supplied in metal jugs, and I think we drank from plastic cups.
At home, it was shepherd’s pie, corned beef hash, macaroni cheese, or spam fritters for tea, At the weekend it could be a Fray Bentos tinned steak and kidney pie, smoked haddock, a lamb or pork chop from the local butchers, or boiled or sliced ham from David Greig, a chain of grocery shops, who were rivals to Sainsburys. I can’t recall what we had for Sunday lunch but we did sometimes have a small chicken. Rice, noodles and pasta (apart from the macaroni, and tinned spaghetti) were simply not part of the British diet, and spices and herbs were used rarely. The only take-away was fish and chips. I think we ate quite well compared to many.
In the 1960s frozen food arrived and it was seen as a great innovation. Smedley’s fish fingers and Birds Eye peas, though I can’t remember frozen chips. For dessert it was often Del Monte or Libby’s tinned fruit with Carnation evaporated milk. Bird’s instant whip in five flavours was an improvement on jelly, and Walls neapolitan ice cream brick with its three flavours, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla – sometimes replaced by a pale green pistachio – was a real treat. But my Nan would come to our house regularly and she would make proper puddings. The highlight for me was coming home to see a basin, in a pan of steaming water, covered by a piece of linen held on with string. That usually meant we were having spotted dick, with custard of course. Alternatively the pastry in the steaming saucepan was a sausage shape rolled up in linen and tied at each end. Spotted Dick was made from a flat sheet of suet pastry dough sprinkled with currants and raisins. If the pastry had been spread with jam, rather than with added dried fruit, then that would have been jam roly-poly (known in the 19th century as rowley-powley), and also called ‘dead man’s arm’ because some families apparently steamed it in an old shirt sleeve. I must have had roly-poly as a pudding at home, whether baked or steamed, but I can’t remember it. But why spotted dick?
The pudding was first described in an 1849 cookbook The Modern Housewife or Ménagère by a socially progressive French chef Alexis Benoist Soyer, who became a celebrated cook in Victorian England. The book included a recipe for ‘Plum Bolster, or Spotted Dick-Rolle’ made from paste (pastry) and raisins, ‘tie in a cloth and boil for an hour’. Suet puddings had became popular by the 17th century thanks to the invention of the pudding cloth. The Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1892 that ‘the Kilburn Sisters … daily satisfied hundreds of dockers with soup and Spotted Dick’. ‘Spotted’ is a clear reference to the dried fruit that ‘spot’ the pudding. Though ‘dick’ was widely used as a term for pudding in the 19th century, its source is more obscure. It could be a corruption of the word pudding, evolving through puddink, then puddick, then finally dick.
In 2009, Flintshire County Council reversed a decision by its catering staff to change the name of the pudding on school menus to ‘Spotted Richard’ following a complaint from a person about the use of ‘Spotted Dick’, which has long been a source of amusement and double entendres. It is difficult to believe that this is a true story, but here is the report on the BBC website.
The joy associated with a steam pudding goes back a long way. In 1843, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, wrote:
Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.
What was your favourite pudding at school?