Wee Scoops

Measure for Measure

A Very Dab Hand With a Fork

Douglas Dunn wrote a great poem called “Extra Helpings” all about his memories of school dinners. There is no link on the internet – but the poem is in a collection called “Dante’s Drum-kit” published by Faber&Faber – mine is from 1993.  The whole thing goes to the beat of “The Owl and the Pussy-cat”, giving his memories a nursery-rhyme quality.

He starts off describing the desserts: “rice-pudding with raisins and bloated sultanas/stewed fruit and dumplings” and there is mention of a “hooray for first post-war bananas”.

Then he goes on to describe the vegetables, that no-one else likes – he says he was “a glutton for turnips and kail”, before a refrain of “Oh dear, what a pudding I am, I am/Oh dear what a pudding I am.”

He laments the fact that he has put on so much weight since school: “the sylph in me’s guilty and blue”.

I like this poem because the form suits the theme. I like how he starts with the puddings and then feels he has become one. I love the nursery rhyme refrains and the way the poem jars to a stop with a non-rhyme at the end:

It was very good scoff

So I polished it off-

Oh dear what a pudding I am , I am

Oh dear what a pudding I am

But a very dab hand with a spoon, a spoon,

And a very dab hand with a fork.

As for my own memories of school dinners: they used to shout “Empty plates! Chairs in! and Walk Round” and the grumpy dinnerlady would bang the table with a big spoon. The jelly was like rubber and tasted of nothing. The mince looked like sick and the potato was served out of an ice-cream scoop. On the days we had soup, there was no pudding, but you got a custard cream biscuit instead.

It all got a bit better at high school where they had a milk bar, caramel shortcake that should have won awards and plenty of hot-dogs.

Should schools have a say in what children eat for lunch? Only if they are providing it for nothing. I believe in some Scandanavian countries the school dinners are all extremely healthy and free to the pupils. This means that parents don’t give their children money or packed lunches and they are then ‘forced’ to eat healthily.

If the parents are paying, or providing the lunches, then it is not for the school to state what can be bought or brought.

There is a problem in Scotland, well put by Judy Murray, who lamented the “diet of chip fat” that is prevalent. And things are being tried to counter this culture.

However, once, in the school lunch queue, they were giving out free fruit at the till. The dinner lady said to the young man in front of me, “Would you like an apple?” He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then concluded, “Aye, Ah can always throw it at sumdy”.

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3 thoughts on “A Very Dab Hand With a Fork

  1. Okay. I know this was English. Why do I need a translation?!

    Mostly I can guess at the meanings of some of these delicious words, but truly need help with “dab”. We use this word as a measurement, the amount of sauce you might accidentally deposit on your chin while eating a messy sandwich, the amount of tonic a many might use in his hair. We say, “Just a dab…” meaning the amount is small, but no need to measure, just use your preference.
    So, a dab hand is a mystery to me. Could it substitute for “deft” or “adept”? I am rather word-conscious and can see those words sharing roots, if that is it. Help! 🙂
    But while we’re at it, I could use help with “scoff” and “chip fat”, as they are used in the sentences above. To me, “scoff” is a verb that indicates ridicule or something similar. And “chip fat” would be the oil left in a paper carton of potato chips or corn chips. Am I close, there?

  2. Hi there – you guessed “dab hand” right- I reckon it means a “proficient user of” whatever it is.
    “scoff” he uses oddly I think. We use scoff as a verb meaning to eat greedily and at great speed : “he scoffed the lot!” so I figure the poet had scoff as a noun here, as in food. Chip fat- well chips here are what Americans call “fries” so chip fat is what our chips are fried in which Judy Murray (mum of our best tennis player) says is what our nations kids are effectively being fed.

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