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The proof of this pudding was in the devouring

By Christopher Andreae / June 3, 2004

Its very name suggests quality. "Mise en Place" is a local delicatessen-cum-special-occasion caterer. If the scrumptious leftovers this shop offers for sale are anything to go by, the parties they grace with their cuisine are favored indeed. Of course you re-mortgage your home for the privilege of an occasional toothsome sampling, but it's worth every penny.

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Not long ago, Mise en Place opened an adjacent cafeteria. About twice a year, David and I meet there for a modest lunch and indulge in wild chat and flagrant gourmandizing. Then we start saving for the next visit. On the last such occasion, not wanting to end on a merely savory note, I asked what desserts were on the menu. Various degrees of death-by-chocolate and suchlike were suggested - and, oh, the young waiter added, "there is bread-and-butter pudding."

"Bread-and-butter pudding?" I asked, somewhat aghast. "Like the stuff we had at school?"

The young waiter raised an eyebrow with pretended affront. "I can assure you," he said, or so I remember it, "it bears no relation at all to the bread-and-butter pudding you had at school."

He couldn't possibly know, of course. School food was ... well, it was ... how can I put it? Politely? Perhaps I should say that I am not nostalgic about it. But on the other hand, since I have no idea how to cater for eight people around our own table, I must admit that anyone who caters for more than 60 schoolboys, breakfast, lunch, and evening meal, deserves credit for performing a task of extraordinary heroism. To ask that they should also produce good food may be to demand too much.

At this point I should warn those of a squeamish nature to skip the paragraph after this one. I am about to describe some of the school food I experienced. Others of my generation and later ones have confirmed my findings in their own schooldays. It would seem that school cooks then (today's are much improved I am sure) all studied the same dismal, how-to-murder-good-ingredients-when-feeding-the-young cookbook.

They knew uncannily how to reduce perfectly good cabbages to a strange mush of faint but malevolent flavor, and not at all faint odor; how to eke out cheap beef (warmed up with a dousing of hot brown gravy) into such thin, tough slices that wrapping-paper manufacturers sought out their secret; how to mash boiled potatoes so that they would retain a requisite number of unredeemed lumps per square inch; how to contrive a leathery skin on yellow custard; and how to boil eggs until they turn into rubber bullets, how to turn porridge into glue, toast into old parchment, bacon slices into soggy cardboard.

There! It's over now.

Amazingly, we survived and actually flourished on this down-market diet. Like Oliver Twist, we even sometimes clamored for second helpings. And we had our favorites - some things being relatively better than others. To every cloud there is some sort of lining - particularly if you are hungry for lining.

At one of the two schools I lived in, we were regularly served apple crumble. This steaming dessert is meant to be a tangy body of segmented and lightly stewed cooking apples topped with a brittle and biscuity surface made, I believe, of flour, butter, and sugar.

The cook at school never quite mastered this, with the result that between the crumble surface and the subterranean apple (or at times rhubarb) there was always a layer of sweet crumble mix that had never left its original, uncooked, creamy state. I loved it. It was like the treat at home when I was given the cake bowl to scrape out. I can't say the same for the shepherd's pie ("made of genuine shepherd" went the schoolboy joke), but sometimes a succulent stew of carrots, onions, and beef chunks, with more or less successful dumplings in it, was not bad at all. For tea we were given our fair share of bread, and some butter.