(Pic courtesy of Ray Hardcastle – http://www.rayhardcastleart.com/sampic.htm)
Home Economics was not one of my strongest subjects at school and it did not take much for me to realise even at that early age that being a chef was definitely one career avenue that was closed off to me by a massive “No Entry” sign. The fact that most of my chefs-d’oeuvres (that’s masterpieces to you – see, I had the lingo, if not the ability) were either “Average” or downright “Sub-standard” meant that to avoid total humiliation at the end of the lesson when the teacher came around to give us marks out of 10, a little cunning and guile was called for. That was why I always made sure that Miss Jones would get to sample my mate Kev’s culinary catastrophe directly before mine so that, while her taste buds were still reeling and she was in a state of utter astonishment, my effort would seem like an oasis in the desert by comparison when actually, put alongside what my other classmates produced, it was in fact a heap of shite.
I’m not ashamed to say that this ploy did see me get some semi reasonable if undeserved marks as nothing I could produce could compare to the disastrous dishes served up by our Kev who gave the world bright GREEN gingerbread (achieved despite using the same ingredients as everyone else). Then there was his life-threatening Macaroni Cheese which looked normal enough when he put it into the oven but later re-emerged as a foul smelling, bubbling, malevolent mass which appeared to have taken on a life of its own. I still remember one of the girls in the class coming over to take the piss but, as soon as she leant over this stuff, it reacted like “The Blob” out of that old horror film and leapt upwards from the bowl and over her face !. While she was taken down to the First Aid Lady to be treated for Third Degree burns, asphyxia and shock by Miss Jones, my mate Kev began scraping the remains of the Macaroni Monster off the surrounding work surface and putting it back in the bowl. In answer to my enquiry as to whether he was going to bin this latest failure, his reply still haunts me to this very day, as he smiled chillingly and said; “Nah, me mum will eat it”.
This last statement demonstrates that some people are prepared to eat anything, despite the fact that it is obviously somewhat dubious. This rule tends very much to apply to the football supporter in general, who seems to regard a serious assault on the digestive system in much the same way as their team getting stuffed 6-0…..it’s all part and parcel of the game. Having followed the Dragons away from home on a regular basis over a period of many years, I and my fellow travelling companions have sampled the wares of countless catering outlets and, for the benefit of any of you out there contemplating a few trips away with Wivenhoe for the first time, here is a rough “Floodlights” guide to the different types of outlets you can encounter on the Non-League scene……….
THE DECENT CATERER
Despite what many would have you believe (including this article come to think of it) the Decent Caterer is very common on the Non-League circuit and can be found at 90 per cent of the grounds we have visited over the seasons. Prices are usually reasonable and the service is friendly and fairly quick while the food, when at its very best, can sometimes even eclipse what the Missus shoves in front of you when you get home from the match.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- The more rotund members of your party going back for “seconds” and “thirds”.
SAM & ELLA’S
Anybody who is health conscious or has a family but not adequate Life Insurance cover should give this particular culinary outlet a wide berth as this place is a bacteriologist’s paradise. It has long since widely been accepted in Medical Science that 80% of the world’s current known diseases (and a few as yet unidentified ones!) originated from a Non-League Sam & Ella snack bar. Forget all the recent “hoo-haa” over microscopic organisms from Mars, there’s far more weird and startling things to discover in one of those £2.00 Chicken Burgers when, after a couple of bites, you can never be too sure whether you are eating it or IT is eating you !.
Even staying well clear of all meat products from this type of catering outlet is no real guarantee that you will avoid having to spend the next four or five days in quarantine as the total lack of hygiene means that absolutely anything on sale is a potential time-bomb waiting to go off in your digestive system. The cheese in the rolls smells like week old underpants and is sweating more furiously than a fat bloke in a sauna, while the proprietor’s idea of cleaning lettuce and tomatoes is to gob on them and give them “a bit of a rub”, meaning it retains all that natural goodness such as insecticides, caterpillars, bird shit etc…
The fact that this geezer is usually plumbed straight into the sewers for his running water means that he doesn’t have to bother with niceties such as tea bags or coffee granules to colour your drink, and you should be more worried about that rather than the fact that the milk has long since turned to yoghurt and is floating about on the surface in rather menacing lumps.
As you have become the unwitting victim of bacteriological warfare, it will not immediately be apparent that you have been poisoned by the Sam & Ella caterer until your immune system is finally overcome by the vicious micro parasites which are running rampant about your body some hours later and you spend the rest of the night and the following two days “blowing chunks” down the great white telephone and producing an extremely potent version of liquid manure.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- A plague of blow flies buzzing around the outlet, as though the Devil himself is behind the counter.
THE SOUP KITCHEN
Not a modern appliance in sight, this type of outlet is like something out of a time warp from the Second World War, with big old stoves, huge boiling pots, massive kettles and steam and condensation everywhere. Run by old dears who bring the Blitz spirit into match day catering and call you “Ducks” and “Luv”, like the original war-time soup kitchen version, the slow moving queue appears to stretch for miles, as the under pressure grannies struggle to cope with the demand, using their 1934 cooking equipment. If you can stand the wait , the food from the Soup Kitchen is of decent quality, although some types of these outlets do seem to be under the impression that wartime rationing is still on. One word of warning though. It is a well known Non-League fact that old dear’s hands are made of heavy duty asbestos, therefore the piping hot cup of tea/coffee/molten lava she passes you with a sweet smile is guaranteed to give you Third Degree burns and leave you with blistered hands looking like “bubble-wrap” packaging for the best part of a week.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- Queues longer than those found outside a 1D concert.
SWEENEY TODD’S SNACK BAR
Frighteningly enough, we have actually encountered one of these outlets on our travels and we would not be surprised if this caterer hit the news headlines worldwide once somebody finally discovers the origin of that odd tasting meat used for filling in those strange pies he seems to specialise in. The bloke behind the counter wears an apron which seems to bear a few too many dried blood stains for sausage and chips (!!) while in a vain attempt to disguise the taste, everything is either swimming in grease or has so much salt in it that your mouth involuntarily puckers up to a quarter of its size for the next 10 minutes after taking one bite. Call me “Mister Picky” but I do not feel that burgers and pies should contain strands of hair (pubic or otherwise), small slivers of bone, ear rings etc. You are guaranteed to be sitting on the toilet with a bucket in front of you within five hours of sampling Sweeney’s wares.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- Attendance figures in the Non-League Paper mysteriously appear to dwindle with every home game, despite the fact that the team are doing well on the pitch.
The Cheapskate is all out for maximum profit for minimum outlay so, whereas you are basically assured of fairly decent food quality, you would be served bigger portions at a crash dietists convention. Chips are replaced by those appallingly skinny “fries” which look like you have purchased a bag of toothpicks, while all the roll fillings, beef burgers, bacon etc have all been cut so thinly it looks as if our man has been able to get hold of one of those lasers that are used in micro surgery to do the slicing with !.
Tea bags are used for a period of three months at a time until they go furry and resemble drowned field mice floating in the urn while only a few granules of coffee are pre-weighed into each cup so that, even when you get the watered down milk in, you can still see the bottom of the cup. The Cheapskate’s idea of chicken soup is to tip some beaks and claws into a pot of boiling water for ten minutes, then sieve it into a cup for the customers.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- All the locals tend to look under-nourished.
This type of caterer can usually be found in converted caravans or crappy old shacks that still house the groundsman’s equipment and compost. More often than not only about for a few games to pocket enough cash before scarpering to another venue, The Opportunist is to cooking what Quasimodo was to the French Beauty Pageant business, as everything is either under-cooked or resembles “burnt offerings”. Avoid specialities such as “Animal Burgers” at all costs because it is a well known fact that when The Opportunist moves in, the pet population from the neighbouring households around the ground tends to dwindle and, despite the introduction of myxomatosis to the area’s rabbit population, no corpses are ever found lying about (although one or two of the local fans who highly recommend the aforementioned burger seem to have trouble seeing to the other end of the pitch). If you pay no heed to this warning, be prepared to receive some strange looks from your fellow travelling companions as you return smiling from the snack bar with the limb of some poor unidentified creature hanging out from the corner of your mouth after taking a bite out of your “bacon” roll.
Purchasing the strange looking stodgy thing that goes under the description of “meat pie” is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with all six of the chambers loaded. If you see someone doing this then for god’s sake stand well back as the results are both immediate and spectacular. Those of a naturally cautious disposition will nibble tentatively at the edge of the crust then, within a few seconds, as the bizarre flavour assaults their taste buds, with a loud “PTOOO” sound will spray those standing about with a mixture of sputum and half chewed crumbs. Those who are too feeble of mind or have been boozing it up with the rest of the SOBS prior to the match and do not realise what a dangerous situation they are in usually plunge straight in and take a bloody great bite. It is only now, as a foul-smelling odour fills the air, that the noxious substance within the pie is revealed in all its glory (or should that be gory?) as something that can only be described as a cross between sawdust and diarrhoea. If the consumer does not go into traumatic shock at this point, then he or she will blow like a geyser, showering anything and anyone within the immediate vicinity with the returning pie filling, together with the rest of the contents of their stomach.
The drinks are equally as dangerous as the coffee tastes like hot mud (that’s because it is!) while the tea could strip paint off the walls. Those stupid/brave enough to try the “Bovril” usually end up with a repulsive concoction that tastes like engine oil mixed with piss, which leaves your teeth stained black for a week and breath that can melt someone’s face from 10 yards. If you have been unfortunate enough to become a victim of The Opportunist, expect to spend the entire journey home in a foetal position, feeling as though an alien is about to burst out of your guts.
HOW TO SPOT THEM :- Pasty-faced people staggering about the ground in gastric distress and what appears to be fresh steaming pizzas lying about on the grass and terracing.
To finish this article I’ll return to where we began and my mate Kev. As with most of the people that you are friends with in your youth, once you leave school, you tend to gradually lose touch with a lot of them and so it turned out with this geezer. I eventually bumped into him again some five years later after leaving school and we had a brief chat. It transpired that he had married a girl from our class and was living right over on the other side of town. As this was a time when Mrs Thatcher and her “Yes Men” were beginning to make unemployment fashionable again, I asked him what he was doing work wise and how he was getting on. “I’m doing great” he replied “I’m in the catering business now”. Although he never said anything, I’m sure that he must have noticed my jaw dropping to my chest. So, if the Dragons ever have cause to visit Horsham again or any Crawley-based team and it appears that I know the geezer in the catering van, for Christ sake don’t touch the Macaroni Cheese !. Now there’s food for thought !.