For us fogeys, the most unsettling news this week had nothing to do with the banking crisis or even Peter Mandelson's yachting circle. It was hearing that Tatler magazine, house journal of the shires, had conducted a good-food survey of private schools. Harrow won top prize having spent £2.5m on a "theatre kitchen" which allows pupils to watch the "chefs" at work.
Fee-paying schools as gourmet restaurants? "Theatre kitchens"? "Chefs" rather than the stroppy cooks of old who used long wooden spoons to stir laundry vats of fatty stew? This strikes at the roots of our private school culture. What happened to green-tinged liver and onions? Where are the stinking kippers, the curdled milk jellies and the schoolboy cries of "more? – you must be joking, sir, no thank you"?
There is a risk here of sounding like Private Eye's Home Counties bore, Colonel Herbert Gussett. Purple-faced old poot dribbles away about filthy school pigswill served up in his day, and how "it never did me any harm, by golly". But hang on. Is there not something weak, even faintly immoral, about spoiling rich kids by feeding them top-notch food when plainer fare would suffice? Is this new emphasis on gastronomy at public school not likely to make our middle-class young even fussier?
Our three children, aged between 11 and five, are maddeningly picky eaters. The boy is the least troublesome but that is perhaps because he is now boarding and is finally learning the time-honoured art of bolting your food before your schoolmates snaffle it. Tony Blair ate like that when he was Prime Minister. He was invariably first to finish at heads-of-government summits.
But our two little girls are appalling fusspots, ignoring the most harmless cuts of meat, demanding premium brands of pesto, dissolving into tears if you buy the wrong sort of plastic sausage from Morrisons. Up goes the wail "Nah, don't like it".
At the Herefordshire prep school I attended in the 1970s, we were made to eat things we didn't like. Once a week we were subjected to bowls of junket. Yeurrrck. As eight year-olds we would watch with horror as Mr Jacobson, who supervised our table in the creaky floorboarded dining room, spooned a small amount of this wobbling, weepy concoction into our pudding bowls. Before eating it we would hold our noses and screw up our eyes. Down the hatch!
It may sound harsh and the NUT would doubtless disapprove but that sort of thing explains how Jonathan Aitken adapted so easily to life inside.
Later I moved to public school – Haileybury, Herts – where they occasionally served dumplings that had an astonishingly sticky texture. If placed on the end of a fork these could be catapulted – prang! – high against the dining room walls. We would watch, gripped, until the dumplings eventually dropped. Bad table manners, I hear you say, but we learned a sort of pack camaraderie. A boy called Watkins used to run an informal book on how long the dumplings would stay in place. Born gambler, that lad. No doubt he ended up in the City hedge fund.
My parents ran a prep school in Gloucestershire. I was therefore reared – I was going to say "brought up" but the term seemed infelicitous – in a house which was infused with the smell of boiled mince and cabbage, macaroni cheese (served as a boot-filler every lunchtime) and fish (Fridays). Whenever I visit an old people's home, the kitchen smells take me back to my childhood. It's rather comforting.
If Tatler is to be believed, private school food is no longer about leatherised beef stew. It is not even about spaghetti rings on toast, which we all used to consider heavenly but which my children will not touch. Independent schools now offer daily menus of dishes such as lamb cooked pink, chicken satay and fresh fruit compotes. The likes of Harrow feed their pupils as well as diners at Simpson's-in-the-Strand. No wonder the fees are so high.
How can we explain Tatler's fifth columnist villainy? Did the magazine's editor, Geordie Greig, perhaps have a bad experience as a schoolboy? Indeed he did. Mr Greig informs me that at his prep school where the rice pudding was so lumpen that one of his friends, name of Wordsworth, was disinclined to try it. "Don't be so feeble, Wordsworth," said a master. "Eat!" Wordsworth took a grip of himself and worked the congealed glurp down his gullet, only for it immediately to reappear. The master, on his next sweep of the dining room, took one look at the mess and barked, "I thought I told you to eat it up, Wordsworth!" Poor Wordsworth.
But the Wordsworths of this world grew up to become stoics. They went to regional sales dinners and impressed the clients by clearing their plates. They scoffed down airline meals and ensured that nothing went to waste. They survived in prison. Above all, they never made a fuss.
Quentin Letts's '50 People Who Buggered Up Britain' is published by Constable, £12.99Reuse content