Tuesday, December 12, 2006

School Lunch

I don't know how I got the idea of school lunches in my head.
Maybe it's because, a few days ago, I wrote about casseroles. Tuna casserole, tortilla casserole, that kind of stuff. And of course, the topic of macaroni and cheese came up in comments.
In fact, Kevin of Seriously Good and I are going to co-blog about macaroni and cheese in the near future. He thinks he's going to whip the pants off me — don't worry, I'm wearing leggings underneath — but I've got a couple of tricks up my sleeve (and I'm keeping my shirt on).
One of my tricks, I may as well reveal now, is not to make a whole cafeteria-size pan of the stuff. I've done that in the past simply to have leftovers on hand, but I'm a big girl now and I'm thinking small.
That's probably when memories of queasy school food started bubbling up in my brain, complete with that stifling, indescribable aroma. (What was it? It smelled overheated, shaggy-brown and deplorable, that's all I know. A mixture of everything bad, including Jell-O.)
So, for me, school lunch recollections:
•An ice cream scooper blob of mashed potatoes, drenched with windowpane-transparent cornstarch "gravy" dotted with cooked hamburger pellets. (And that was one of the better meals of the week, even though it resembled smallpox on a spud.)

•Canned spinach. Looked and smelled like cow diarrhea. I assure you, I don't know what it tasted like.

•"Pizza." Even the cafeteria ladies knew this was utterly fake, and put quotation marks around it. It was a huge sheet pan of thick, pallid, puffy dough — slick with moisture and not fully cooked. Smeared with the bitterest of canned tomato paste and showered with (I'm just guessing) grated "government cheese."

•Fried chicken (probably breaded and baked; this was in the days when cooking was actually done on school premises, by the way). I made the rookie mistake of pointing to the plumpest piece in the pan, which was placed on my plate with a pair of tongs and — oh no, did she just laugh at me? Yeah. It was a chicken back: all deceptively bulgy and rounded, but completely hollow on the inside. Just ribs. No meat.

My best school lunch memory, though, is actually school dinner, and it was at college. I was a guest student at Dartmouth for a couple of quarters, and one night everybody in the dining room was surprised with fresh, whole trout. Rumors flew through Thayer Hall that a wealthy, outdoorsy alum had donated crates of it. Whatever. It was pretty good, nicely breaded and fried.
We were responsible for bussing our trays, but it was easy: there was a conveyor belt that ran around the perimeter of the dining hall, leading into the dishwashing area. Just place your tray and watch it bobble its way around the room, where it would eventually disappear into a hole and... holy smoke! Students had begun to spear the trout heads onto forks or knives propped up in their drinking glasses! The entire room was surrounded by a bouncing, chugging army of trout heads, lurching straight for those sweet, unsuspecting cafeteria ladies!
Ah, school memories. I remember that. But I don't remember the fundamental theorem of calculus.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

LOL's just what I needed at the end of today. It brought back lots of memories of my own school dinners. I can see the canteen as if it were yesterday
Did you ever have 'spotted dick with custard so thick the spoon would practically stand up' or is this typically English.

Kate said...

gads....the memories.....ewwwww. School lunch has come a long way as evidenced by my son's meal at middle school, but it still has mountains to move in terms of being what's good for a growing body to eat.

However, the trout story is hilarious. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when those ladies took their first look!

Anonymous said...

I was a lunchbox gal, myself. But in high school we got Little Caesar's pizza - delivered to the school daily. Amazing, I know. (Though it wasn't the best pizza in the world.)

Anonymous said...

I miss working in middle schools where they actually still cook on-site. The best day was Wednesday -- barbeque chicken, greens, and cornbread. Oh, and there might also be some peach cobbler. Now it's just microwave pizza and burritos. I bring my lunch.

cookiecrumb said...

No, ChrisB, no such thing as spotted dick in the US. Oh, the naughty jokes the boys would have made. Though we did have some ghastly butterscotch puddings in small "monkey dishes"; covered with an inedible skin.

Kate: There's an amazing organic lunch program at, I think, one school in Berkeley (I bet Dagny could fill us in a little better on that), but I hear it's been hard to get kids to like it.

Abby: My dad was in the Navy, so I ended up at a different school every couple of years. Once school started I had to make a quick decision whether bringing lunch was cool, or if it was cooler to buy. Had to fit in. Of course, some of the schools I went to didn't even have food service.

Dagny: I don't blame you for brown-bagging. But I'm surprised; I thought all school food was nuked these days.

sfmike said...

My Southern California junior high school in the 1960s was a hideous prison in many respects, but there was a crew of Midwestern ladies who freshly cooked everything on-site for the cafeteria, and their food was wonderful. I ran the dishwashing machine with one of those ladies every noontime in exchange for a 65 cent lunch, plus all the special goodies they would make for their special little helpers. I don't think I've ever eaten so well in my life.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious post Cookie! Such vivid (and unfortunately correct) descriptions! Don't forget the aluminum canned fruit cocktail (made with decomposing fruit debris drowned in a sticky, saccharine corn syrup) and the mushy raisin and carrot ambrosia slaw with the deflated, chalk-tasting marshmallow cream! Now that's school lunch in Arizona!

Anonymous said...

Gawd, reading that made me very glad we don't have a school lunch tradition in Australia - free milk (left out in the sun till morning tea) was the go but you could refuse to drink that!

Anonymous said...

Nope. All school food is not nuked. Secondary schools tend to have full kitchens -- and the staff to prepare meals daily. If I remember correctly, teachers could purchase meals for $3-$4.

kudzu said...

Arrrgh, school lunches! My first day in a new school in Ohio I was told there would be barbecue for lunch. I thought I had died and gone to heaven -- but their version was what we call sloppy Joes, made with lotsa tomato and, in Midwest vernacular, "mango" -- actually green peppers...Grade school lunchrooms had powdered milk "cocoa" in winter, with skins developed on top by the time we got it, and canned vegetables du jour: carrots were esp. awful...College was much better, particularly my stint on scholarship at Bennington, with fab New England breakfasts, steak on weekends, real food -- which should have been expected at such a $$$$ place....Did anyone else have "dress night" once a week at college, when you had to wear grown-up clothes, stockings and heels? That happened at my freshman dorm at university.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this! Maybe I'll do my own school lunch memories some time soon! We never had canned spinach, thank goodness because that stuff is NASTY! I think that school lunches are okay even though I probably would still take my own lunch as I did in high school. But elementary school lunches...that's a different story!!!

cranky said...

Jeez, Mike, that's such a nice memory, when good school memories are so often hard to find. (Mine was 65 cents too; musta been regulated.)

PE: Talk about vivid -- "decomposing fruit debris"! You were lucky... We never got ambrosia. Sounds almost... real.

DMM: Oh, no lunch program. I do recall milk being left out until the teacher deemed it icky and lukewarm enough to "enjoy."

Kudzu: Ha ha, Sloppy Joes! Actually, that's not the worst they could inflict on you, is it? (Ooh, thanks for telling us about "mango" as a regionalism... Never heard that one before.) Nope, no stockings in college. I did wear a skirt to my first class on the first day, but rushed right back to my dorm afterward to change into the ratty jeans all the other girls were wearing.

Claire: I want to hear. Tell me if you do it.
xx

cookiecrumb said...

Cranky will be horrified to have been outed as a tranny in his freshman year at school, so let me hasten to correct the record. I wrote the comment above; Cranky has been noodling around and ID's got switched. What a guy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing up the gender confusion. My world was momentarily skewed, lost as I was in the memories and horrors of school lunch. I can still smell the warm milk in my little waxed carton with the lid attached by a staple. Even in the first grade I was aware that the tray of cartons should not be left there in the sun to warm up.

cookiecrumb said...

Moonbear: It's not so bad, really. He likes to think of himself as my wife, which I suppose makes me some butt-scratchin', dinner-wantin' old buzzard. (Hey! Not far from the truth.) Ah, fluidity. It's necessary.
Speaking of fluidity, I can remember not only the smell of warm milk, but the smell of warm milk barf. They're related.

Anonymous said...

I always liked school dinners till I was about 8. I asked for seconds and was served gristle with a bit of meat on it, I ate everything except the gristle but was told by a dragon of a teacher to eat it up as I had asked for more. I put it in my mouth and gagged and retched but just couldn't swallow it. Then I remembered how Sam my sister would store all the food she didn't like (of which there was lots) in her cheek and spit it out later. So I ate my dessert with the gristle in my cheek and spat it out in the playground.

I never asked for seconds again.

cookiecrumb said...

Oh, god, Beccy. That's positively Dickensian.
On the other hand, that might explain why Sam is so cheeky!

Anonymous said...

I did the post tonight! It's interesting to see all the DIFFERENT memories people have.

Anonymous said...

I swear to this day they used to give us raw potato in ketchup, just to mess with our young fragile minds. But the rubbery orange sponge was to die for...

Anonymous said...

Ah cookie there are so many stories I could tell you about Sam and food, she's still a constant surprise when I hear about what she eats now. I think she must have gone through some kind of tastebud transplant when she moved to the US

cookiecrumb said...

Claire: That was really cute. You are clearly closer to your school-days memories than I am, although you did trigger a few more in me.

Monkey Gland: Please tell me a sponge is "food," and not something they wiped your cafeteria tables with.

Beccy: Well, I know about the raisins. As for the rest, maybe we'd better let the patient (I mean taster) come to terms publicly on her own.

KathyF said...

What horrible memories you've brought back! I'm pretty sure school lunch had something to do with my severe school phobia.

The hamburgers were the worst. I'd smell them in the hall and get nauseous. The big fluffy rolls were good, though, and I secretly loved the red beans and rice. Secretly, since I didn't want the other kids to laugh at me for liking beans.

I also think my lifelong hatred for milk began when I had to drink warm milk. The teacher on duty would shake the carton to make sure we'd drank all of it. Yuck!

cookiecrumb said...

KathyF: ohgod, the hamburgers, I'd forgotten. With the bun steam-glued onto the gray, sour "meat."
("Why don't the kids like the hamburgers? I thought kids *liked* hamburgers!") Urp.

Anonymous said...

I was always so jealous of the kids that bought lunch. Gross as it probably was, it seemed better than what was in my old milk-stinkin' lunchbox.

Guess I was pouting for no reason!

Stacie said...

eeek! what a story! gotta share my school lunch horror story... mix everything on the tray into one glob, drop a spoonful into your milk carton and dare friends to drink... ewwww!