Saturday, June 01, 2024

Oxford Life - 04 Food

Oxford in the early '70s was very different from what I imagine it is now. This is the tale of my time in this august institution. 

Table of Contents:

Episode 04 - Food. 

Years one and two.

As part of the accommodation we were required to dine in hall for a set number of meals. You bought a book of buttery tickets, somewhat like a book of cloakroom tickets, which could be exchanged for meals. The dining hall looked like a small version of Hogwarts with dark oak panels and oil paintings of previous Principals of the college but without the floating candles.

There were long refectory tables with bench seating along both walls and down the centre of the hall. Across the top of the room on a dias was, literally, high table where the dons dined. 

There were no gaps so if you wanted to sit on the wall side you had to walk over the table with your tray of food: you’d say “excuse me” which would cause people to budge up and move their food and condiments out of the way, you’d then step onto the outer bench, up onto the table and across to the other side avoiding treading on people’s dinners and step down to the wall side bench. After a short while you got used to people walking across where you were eating.

Weekdays there were two sittings, the second sitting was more formal and you had to wear your academic gown, bow tie optional. On Sunday there was only a formal sitting where there was a curious custom called sconcing. 

“A person would be ‘sconced’ at a formal dinner if they broke table etiquette – for example by talking about women, religion, politics or work; by referring to the portraits hung in the hall; or by pronouncing the Latin grace wrong. All very serious stuff. The tradition then evolved from being a monetary fine to the penalty of having to drink a tankard of ale which the sconced student could share with his fellows, thus making amends to those who suffered his breach of etiquette. Only the master or senior scholar at the table was able to impose a ‘sconce’: if other people at the table felt that a sconce was necessary, they had to make their request to their senior in Latin or Ancient Greek.” [The Art of Sconcing :: Cherwell].

I only remember witnessing it a couple of times. The guilty party had to pay for a beer to fill the sconcing cup which held about three pints. They would drink as much as they could, then the cup would be passed to the person on their left. Obviously the accuser would typically be on the offender’s right thus getting a free drink before passing it along the table.

The other nights when not dining in college we had to dine out. Having no kitchen facilities in our accommodations, our usual repast was pasty and beans in the The Chequers or a Chinese takeaway: sweet and sour pork balls in fluorescent wallpaper paste with chips that had been cooked too quickly - crisp on the outside, almost raw in the middle.

Breakfast was included in our fees and consisted of bread rolls and marmalade. It is amazing how much marmalade you can squeeze into a modest sized sized roll. 

Years three and four.

Moving into Stratford Street with a kitchen opened up new options. Instead of pasty and beans I could cook at home starting off with Vesta Chow Mein ready meal. I read that they used to subtly tweak the formulation periodically so that people’s palate would not get bored and then not buy as frequently. 

The first Christmas in Stratford street I was given a cookbook by my sister’s then German boyfriend. It was full of traditional English recipes and was my first foray into real cooking at the age of 22, see My Life In … Recipes

We held a party where drinks included a container of scrumpy that Vince had brought up from Somerset. Not all was drunk and it started to grow cloudy in the weeks following. The cookbook included a recipe for rabbit in cider so we thought we’d give it a go. Off the the covered market where the butcher sold us a rabbit in its entirety. We did get him to gut, skin and behead it but we still had to joint it for the pot. Never having done such a thing we resorted to Pete’s scalpel set to dissect the beast. The resulting stew was delicious.

My first ever dinner party came out of the same cookbook. I decided to invite my tutor to dinner along with the rest of the usual suspects. I cannot remember what we served for starter, but the main course was Coq au Vin. I had also discovered a recipe for Hertford pudding - an appropriately named dessert. It basically consisted of whipped cream into which was stirred sweetened chestnut purée. It seemed to go down well.

After college my culinary skills continued to develop thanks to the Reader's Digest classic cookbook “The Cookery Year”.

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