Poli filled with coconut, sesame seeds and sugar.
Poli filled with coconut, sesame seeds and sugar.
School-going children must have nutritious meals.
School-going children must have nutritious meals.

Durban - My mother and her generation who packed school lunches through the 60s and 70s must be frowning upon moms who recently faced a lunch box dilemma in the wake of the national food contamination saga.

Following the government recall of certain brands of processed meat products such as polony, ham and viennas that have been linked to the listeriosis outbreak which has so far claimed 183 lives, mothers across the country went into panic mode.

“What will my poor baby Ravi eat at school? He is going to starve without his favourite chicken polony sandwiches,” was the common refrain that echoed through many households.

Yet, not too long ago, mothers were spoilt for choice when it came to preparing sandwiches for their school-going children.

My mother must be asking: “What is the fuss all about? So, what if there is no cold meat?”

The great lunch box quandary got me to hark back to school lunches a generation or two ago.

My father would recall that in the 40s when he attended Sastri College, his lunch comprised of rice and a vegetable curry wrapped in a banana leaf. 

He would be at pains to assert that despite the long train journey from Cavendish into the city, his simple lunch would still be piping hot.

Some decades later, when bread became more readily available and affordable, sandwiches became popular.

As most of the children at the primary school I attended came from a similar economic background, there was great similarity in the lunches.

Curry as a sandwich filling was almost a staple diet, never mind that it almost always made the bread soggy. 

Often it was whatever curry was left over from the previous evening’s supper that went between the slices. Butter was rarely used.

Vegetarian fillings included herbs, cauliflower curry, cabbage curry, mild yellow potato curry, spicy amber potato curry, broad beans curry, green beans curry, or cheese and tomato.

Cheese was a luxury and foreign to families who did not have a refrigerator. 

Egg fillings would either be a plain fried egg with runny yolk, scrambled eggs with onions and green chillies, or egg chutney. Keeping chickens in the garden ensured a regular supply of fresh eggs.

Non-vegetarian fillings could be anything from tinned fish chutney, fish roe chutney, dried fish chutney, fresh fish curry, mutton mince curry, mutton curry (if you were lucky because most families then could only afford mutton curry on a Saturday), chicken curry or sheep’s liver curry which, alas, my children have never tasted.

I remember I would take pity on one exceptionally poor boy during my primary school days who would bring just plain dhall or tomato chutney on bread. I sometimes shared my lunch with him.

The bread would be sliced with a long bread knife. 

Few households could afford a manual bread slicer. 

Later some shops had an electric bread slicing machine. Greedy shopkeepers would charge one cent extra for sliced bread.

Bread was always bought the previous afternoon for the next morning’s sandwiches. 

Since there would be no delivery of bread on a Sunday, many families yes, even Tamil families would make rotis for the school lunch on a Monday. Many of my Hindi friends brought rotis to school every day.

On Mondays, my mother preferred giving me pumpkin fritters (not my favourite, but she certainly had her fans), sweet phutu with desiccated coconut or dry soji with raisins and cinnamon sticks (the pieces of bark were an irritation when I was hungry).

The lunch box was a rare sight back in the good old days, when I was a kid. 

Some pupils had a metal lunch box. Most times the sandwiches were first wrapped in waxed paper and then newspaper.

Aluminium foil had yet to make its appearance.

You were in big trouble if the wrapping came loose inside your school bag as you ran as fast as you could to beat the morning assembly bell. 

On more than a few occasions, bright orange oil from the curried green beans or egg chutney soaked the pages of my books.

It must also be noted that while many pupils brought lunch from home, the primary school also had a feeding scheme and all the pupils participated, whether indigent or not. 

Every morning, hot cocoa the taste of which I still yearn for would be served in not-too-clean plastic mugs, with slices of brown bread smeared with raspberry jam.

At lunch time, there would be steaming hot curry. Most times it was a mixture of dhall and broad beans curry. On some Fridays, there would be mutton curry.

The gravy could have been thicker but I suppose this was the plan to ensure a little went a long way. In any case, one should not complain since the school fee was only R2 per annum. 

On the last day of the school terms, sumptuous mutton breyani would be served.

A source of snacks at school would be from the vendors with nicknames such as “Sweet Uncle”, “Barrow Uncle” and “Poli Aunty” who would spread their baskets under the umdoni tree during the breaks.

For half cent, you could buy half of an orange sprinkled with salt and chilli powder.

The just-fried polis would be bulging with coconut, sesame seeds and sugar. Crispy, crunchy murkhu was also a big seller. 

There was no big variety of sweets perhaps to promote healthy nutrition. 

Hence pupils developed a liking for the sweet-sour taste of dried figs.

Immensely popular, especially on cold days, were roasted peanuts in the shell. 

These were sold in paper cones fashioned from the pages of magazines such as Scope, Personality, True Africa, Farmer’s Weekly and Drum.

If you forgot to bring a picture to school to write about it in your composition book, a lifesaver would be the paper used to wrap the peanuts in. 

But first you had to examine all the tubes before picking the one that was most colourful in the hope it had an interesting picture.

The peanut tubes were also a source of pictures of favourite football teams. 

Which boy would not want pictures of Durban City FC or Durban United FC or even the crown prince of Durban soccer in the 60s, Bobby Chalmers to display on his bedroom wall?

Coming back to listeriosis, such incidents of the mass contamination of food and their subsequent removal from supermarket shelves were not heard of when I was in school. 

And that is only because the divide between fresh foods and preserved foods was enormous in the olden days. 

There was no mass refrigerated transportation of food, and no mass production of convenience and processed foods.

Children ate wholesome, healthy foods that had been freshly prepared. 

Parents knew their children would not be able to concentrate on a growling stomach, and hence made sure they ate well.

While the school lunch did not comprise savoury snacks such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and pasties or meat products such as bacon, viennas and ham, pupils sustained themselves on four slices of bread with a tasty, nutritious filling, washed down with water.

Nowadays, when it comes to food at home, my daughter is a pukka charou she cannot go more than a day without a curried dish. 

But ask her to take curried fillings in her lunch box sandwiches, she will refuse point blank, choosing cheese spread or fish fingers instead.

I am sure my mother in her heavenly abode must be shaking her head in disbelief.

* Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator.