The Dinner Lady

Jeanette Orrey's practical cookbook is spoiled by the half-baked prejudices of the Soil Association.

Rob Lyons

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The Dinner Lady, by Jeanette Orrey, Bantam Press 2005

Before there was Jamie, there was Jeanette. While Jamie Oliver was still the Naked Chef cooking pukka meals for his celebrity mates, Jeanette Orrey was trying to make food fit to eat in a primary school near Nottingham.

She was appalled by the quality of food supplied to her school as the council, forced by government to reduce costs, started to provide pre-packed food for reheating rather than fresh ingredients for kitchen staff to prepare. Jeanette watched as interest in school meals waned, and staff became increasingly demoralised by shorter working hours and deskilling.

When the option to become independent of council supplies came in 2000, Jeanette decided to see if she could do better. She started to cook more of the food in the kitchen herself. And when the cost of ingredients started to become a problem, she did her own buying. This instantly doubled her food budget as she wasn’t paying for tiers of management and buyers further up the chain. By shopping around locally, finding local farmers looking for an outlet for vegetables not deemed pretty enough for the supermarket shelves, or butchers able to supply good meat pre-cut to suit the kitchen, she provided fresher and tastier food. Interest in school meals quickly increased.

What is refreshing about Jeanette is that she is a real school cook with the practical sense to produce uncomplicated food – in sharp contrast to Jamie’s initial flapping around trying to produce a poor man’s version of restaurant food without having a clue about mass catering.

As a result, her recipes are simple, containing common ingredients simply combined. Helpfully she provides quantities in each recipe to serve four people – or 96. A school cook could use this book just as easily as the average mum.

Unfortunately, Jeanette fell in with a bad crowd – the Soil Association. So alongside those simple recipes is page after page of propaganda on behalf of Britain’s premier organic food lobbyists. ‘By working with Nature rather than against it, the organic way of farming produces plants and animals that, because they are inherently healthy, are naturally disease-resistant, requiring no other assistance from the producer’, she tells us in one of a number of sections that promote the Soil Association’s messages without being too concerned with facts.

She also believes in buying from local producers. This helps to put money back into the local community, ensures that you know how the food was produced, and reduces the distance the food has to travel – which is better for the environment. Or so she says.

It is perhaps Jeanette Orrey’s politics that explains why she has attracted wider interest. She has in effect used the transformation of school meals to promote buzz issues such as social inclusion (bringing senior citizens in to eat with the children), while teaching the children all about organic food, healthy eating, and environmentalism.

‘My favourite dinner’s the roast’, says Jake aged nine. ‘I like the fact that the meat comes from nearby, so it’s better for the planet.’ Henry, aged eight, says: ‘The food here is sometimes organic, which means it’s healthier for you.’ Which only goes to show that you can get kids to say anything.

In fact, there is little evidence that organic food is better for you, and some evidence that it may be worse (1). As for the local production issue, it might be nice to be able to chat to the farmer producing your food, but global agriculture provides economies of scale and cheaper food in the long run.

As for environmental friendliness, it’s not obvious that producing food inefficiently, thus demanding more land and labour to be consumed to grow it, makes for a better environment. And it seems contradictory to encourage people to eat more fresh food, then promote a system of agriculture that makes it more expensive.

Overblown health scares, a lack of trust in big business and the modern fetish for authenticity mean that these prejudices about food, once the preserve of the middle classes, are fast becoming more widespread. But they turn reality on its head, promoting the idea that natural is best when it is the mastering of nature that has allowed humans to flourish.

Orrey is quite right to be concerned about the state of school meals, and her success is at least in part due to the fact that her concerns were shared in schools across the country. Parents, teachers and cooks want children to be able to eat and appreciate good food. Contrary to the hysterical reports in the wake of Jamie’s School Dinners, Turkey Twizzlers and other mass produced foods aimed at children won’t kill our kids, nor spoil their appetite for education, but it is entirely fair to criticise them for tasting crap.

The fact that Orrey has become influential without a TV series and previous fame only makes Jamie’s School Dinners seem even more like an exercise in self-aggrandisement. His foreword for Orrey’s book is even more buttock-clenchingly awful than his Channel 4 show.

But this book is worth buying – for the 100 or so recipes in it. If you want to produce all the best bits of school dinners that occasionally invoke misty-eyed nostalgia, this is the book for you. I can certainly recommend the Oaty Apple and Sultana Crumble, which went down a treat in our house last night – and I’m especially pleased that I now know how to make a proper custard!

Unfortunately, the straightforward pragmatism of both the food and the author will only give greater credibility to fears and prejudices about food which, unlike my crumble, are entirely half-baked.

The Dinner Lady, by Jeanette Orrey, is published by Bantam Press 2005. Buy this book from Amazon UK.

Read on:

Unearthing the truth about organic food, by Alex Avery and Dennis Avery

Organic food: why?, by Jan Bowman

‘Natural’ isn’t better, by Geoffrey Hollis

(1) See ‘Natural’ isn’t better, by Geoffrey Hollis

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