Despite the looming threat of climate catastrophe and economic meltdown, the average person still eats out at least twice a week. Where our ancestors would react to danger by hiding in a cave or sharpening a claymore, we head to Nando’s and make a mental note to try that new Thai place before the apocalypse.
Our fondness for eating out of home is a relatively new phenomenon. A generation ago it was still an occasional treat, something for high days and holidays. That made one part of the experience all the more memorable.
As a child, we always went to the same restaurant, whatever the celebration. At some point someone had decided it was the smart place to eat in town and regardless of the fading wallpaper and wine stained menus, so it remained.
I don’t remember ever ordering a starter. That would have been an obstacle to what happened later. Main course was either steak or chicken but again that was of no consequence. What really mattered was the end of the meal. Everything led up to that point.
The waiter with his brylcreemed hair and white polyester jacket approached the table. He was a walking fire hazard and I worried too close a brush with one of the red candles would lead to a giant conflagration.
“Room for dessert?” he would ask with the air of a man who already knew the answer. As a family we would look at each other as if contemplating a solution for the Irish backstop before my father would confirm we might just have space.
A few moments later it appeared from a special parking spot near the kitchen. The sweet trolley was a firm fixture of eating out in Britain in the seventies and eighties but is now all too rare a sight.
I suspect it developed as a reaction to the rationing that continued until 1954. With restrictions lifted, eggs and sugar were again in abundant supply and where better to showcase them in abundance than on the restaurant sweet trolley.
A poor trolley would have a cake, some jellies and the ubiquitous profiteroles. But a great trolley would groan under the weight of munifence.
I remember going to visit posh relatives in London and being taken for dinner to a hotel famed for its desserts. Only one waiter could handle the sweet trolley. He was a burly man who manouevered it in the way a father of quadruplets would push their buggy through a chinaware shop.
Alongside the Black Forest Gateaux there was cheesecake and rum babas and trifle and brandy snaps and meringues. There might even have been fruit salad but I had no use for that. What to choose ? The real afficianados knew the answer to that. “Just a little of everything please” was the correct response.
In these times of obesity and sugar phobia, I suspect the sweet trolley has had its day. But hang on a minute, we’re also being told to cut food waste and save the planet. While modern desserts may go uneaten in the restaurant fridge, no sweet trolley ever ended the night intact. In fact it was often a battle to get to pudding while some remained. So bring back the sweet trolley, our future might just depend on it.