Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Memories of School Lunches Past

Walk with me down memory lane for just a bit:

I started my formal education back in 1968, just when some schools were beginning to allow girls to wear pants. No one was allowed to wear shorts or sleeveless tops and flip flops (or thongs as we naively called them back then) were not considered appropriate attire for school. Some water fountains were still segregated for ‘girls’ and ‘boys’, as apparently bad things could happen if a girl drank from the boys’ fountain, or vice versa.

My family moved quite a lot when I was younger, and almost always during the middle of the school year (thanks parents for that little social status-killer). We finally ended up in a small farming community in West Central Ohio. Now, this was a town where nearly everyone was related to one another in some way, so we were immediately considered outsiders. No way to really overcome that.

The school system had a total of about 1,000 students from K to 12. The kindergarten class was taught in the local Grange Hall across the street from the school. Then, 1st through 6th graders would be sent to one of the three elementary schools in three different villages, including one Catholic school. The 7th graders would return to the main school building in my town, where a new social pecking order had to be established. The main school building housed 1st through 12th graders and had been built after the 1937 earthquakes rendered the previous school unusable. Just in case you are thinking that the students back then were lucky that an earthquake interrupted their studies, the enterprising teachers and parents quickly rigged up temporary class rooms in various homes around town complete with wired bells that signaled the end of class periods before the government brought in Civilian Conservation Corps barracks to house the classes until the damaged school could be torn down and a new one built.

Enough of ancient history. Now on to my history. I entered this school system in the middle of my second grade year, where I was immediately looked upon with much distrust and disdain. Have I remembered to thank my parents for that one? The one perk that I could immediately see with this school was the choice *gasp* of either white or chocolate milk. Talk about your progressive school system.

The school cafeteria was quite different in those days than it is now. The only choices were to either eat the food that was presented on the divided, rectangular melamine trays or to bring in your own lunch from home. But, at about the same time that it suddenly became uncool to wear sunglasses or carry an umbrella (yeah, we were wet and hurting our eyes, but we were cool!), it was also a blow to our social status to pack a lunch from home. Apparently that signified that you were poor, which was very much looked down upon in this community. So that left the often questionable fare provided by our intrepid Lunch Ladies, who were an average age of 110. Hands down, the absolute favorite was pizza day. Certainly it wasn’t great pizza, but sprinkled with salt, it beat out the chili or the beef stroganoff that would be ever so lovingly plopped down on our trays. Another favorite was the baked ravioli with cheese sprinkled over top. The cheese burned on top and that was the part we all wanted on our trays. As fully half the student body was Catholic, Fridays meant no meat was served. If we were lucky, we would have cheese pizza, but more than likely we would be treated to that most curious of creatures, the breaded rectangular fish. This was also the age when teachers actually required students to clean their plates. You don’t like stewed tomatoes? Too bad. Clean your plate. Grey canned peas not your favorite? Eat it all anyway. Don’t you know there are children starving in Africa?

Unfortunately for me, my family once again moved when I was in the fifth grade (in December – now I’m really going to need therapy) to a nearby large town. Here I was surrounded by tough inner city kids and I hated it. To add insult to injury, this uptight school system only offered white milk with lunches. One unexpected benefit was the program that mandated that all 5th graders (the highest grade level in this elementary school) were to spend a week helping out in the cafeteria. Two boys and two girls would be selected from each class and the girls would have specific jobs while the boys performed others. On one notable day both boys were out sick and the Lunch Ladies were fretting over who would scrape off the trays and dump the leftover milk into buckets. Well, the solution seemed simple enough to me, but it took some convincing on my part to be allowed to do this boys-only chore. Yes, I was a young feminist in the mid 70’s. Then fortune struck and my family was able to purchase a home back in our former town. And please note that this was the only time my family moved in the summer – to a place we’d already been.
Change came to the school cafeteria in my Junior High years. The mother of a friend took over as the Head Cook and the quality of our food improved dramatically. This was a woman who knew how to cook. I am sure that the quality of the ingredients had not changed, but she knew how to take those ingredients and make good food. No longer would we be consigned to sloppy joes that could only be eaten with a fork. Suddenly we jaded teenagers looked forward to lunch. Extras of certain dishes could also be purchased when you went through line. Now, this is progress! For the first time in our collective memory we Junior High and Senior High School students also had a choice available in our meals. Now we had the option of having a salad instead of the set menu. The only caveat was that you had to order your salad in the morning when you bought your lunch token. For some unknown reason, our school required the Jr. High and Sr. High School students to purchase lunch tokens each and every morning from the school office. You can imagine the rush this was every day.

It was also about this time that I began to feel very self-conscious about the fact that our family qualified for reduced-price lunches. Instead of the usual $1.00 for lunch and milk, I only had to pay 20 cents. Now, understand that this was extremely humiliating for a young teenage girl. This was a small school in a small community and the other kids were always on the lookout for a new target to embarrass. I solved this problem by going to work in the school cafeteria. The Head Cook’s daughter, who was the only person in our year shorter than me and who was always tiny, was diagnosed with anorexia. She was forced to remain in a hospital for a year while her illness was treated. And while I felt bad for my friend, it did mean that I got to work with her mother in the cafeteria. I will tell you that my friend came back to school the next year, and though still thin, was able to overcome her anorexia and completed her schooling at the top of the class.

Back to the lunch room: most of the other kids who worked there were Special Ed. Students, but this was a ‘job’, and a free lunch was better than a reduced lunch in this teenage girl’s mind.
While the Special Ed. Kids handled jobs like cleaning off the trays and working the dishwasher, I was given the task of handling the milk and the money for extra milk and extra food (or extras). The first part of the job was simple enough, if not tiresome. I would have to bend over into a chest cooler, slide the heavy crates of milk across and lift them up so that the teachers and students could easily reach the milk. By the way, you remember those crates, don’t you? They typically had writing on the side to the effect of “Property of Brand X Dairy”. You probably even have one or two sitting around somewhere in your house today.

The second part of the job took a bit more brain than brawn. I was charged with the task of collecting money for extras and milk and making correct change. Our state-of-the-art system consisted of four cardboard boxes: one each for Student Milk, Student Extras, Teacher Milk and Teacher Extras. Once given the money, I had to quickly determine the amount owed, the correct change (I swear, no one ever gave me exact change) and which box got what amount of money. Believe me when I say I had to do this quickly, because my fellow students, and even some of the teachers, were quite eager to give me grief if I hesitated over the amount of change due back. I must admit that fear of public humiliation made me quite good at that job.

Then, depending on how long it took for the line to move through, we finally got some time to eat. That usually meant that we had just 10 or 15 minutes for our own lunches, but we always managed to wolf down our food in time to head off to our next class.

How different are things today. My children’s schools allow parents to write a check to send in with the child, and an entire year’s worth of lunches could be purchased at one time if desired. Hopefully, those who qualify for free or reduced lunches would be spared some of the embarrassment of having to announce their financial status every morning. Menu choices are available for older students, and some outside vendors have carts available in the school cafeteria. Juices and water now sit beside the milk and soda machines can be found in many schools. And while I don’t appreciate the last addition, I know many people who refuse to drink anything but soda. Just don’t mind me while I drink my water.

Looking back now, I would have to say that our Head Lunch Lady was one of my early culinary heroes. She took the limited ingredients available to her and made some tasty food for mostly ungrateful children. She taught me how to cut a sheet cake into equal-sized squares and how to re-imagine food. I remember wanting to be able to cook like her and I still recall being awed by the industrial equipment in the kitchen, especially the huge Hobart mixers that sat on the floor.

As evidence I present a recipe I have made time and again. This dish was not on the lunch menu as the school board likely would not have approved of one of the ingredients. The Head Cook sometimes made this dish as a special reward for the kitchen help. In looking over my original recipe, I noted that my teenaged-self named this dish Drunken Hot Dogs. I mean, cook with wine? That was absolutely unheard of in my then limited culinary world.

Drunken Hot Dogs

1 c. ketchup
1 c. barbecue sauce
1/2 c. dry red wine
pinch garlic powder (or chopped garlic)
pinch celery salt
1 tsp. diced onion
1/4 to 1/2 c. brown sugar
2 lbs. cut- up hot dogs

Simmer everything but the wine and hot dogs. Watch! Add wine and the hot dogs and let simmer until the hot dogs are cooked. This recipe can also be done in the microwave.

Note: the hot dogs used can make or break this recipe. I do not recommend Oscar Mayer hot dogs as they tend to be salty. My favorite brand to use is Kahn’s, but I believe that it is a regional brand, so may be difficult for you to find. Do use a good quality hot dog for this recipe.

Another treat that she made for the school menu was Peanut Butter Candy. Rich and decadent, this was the antithesis of school cafeteria food. After much begging, she finally relinquished the recipe to me. I am ashamed to admit that it has taken me 30 years to get around to making this treat.

My daughter looked at this recipe card and asked who wrote it. I peered at it and answered that it must be my handwriting, but I would have written this when I was a teenager. She laughed and remarked that it looks nothing like my handwriting today.

The original recipe makes an entire sheet pan and calls for 2 quarts peanut butter, 1 pint honey, 2-1/4 cups powdered sugar, 1/8 cup vanilla and enough dry milk to make the mix the consistency of putty. I quartered the recipe, so the measurements used were 4 cups smooth peanut butter, ½ cup honey, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, ½ cup + 1 tablespoon powdered sugar and non-dairy creamer since I didn’t want to buy an entire box of powdered milk for just this recipe. I also used 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate morsels for the topping.

Mix all but the chocolate together. Use those muscles.

Stiff enough to hold the spoonula upright.

Spread in a baking dish. This recipe required a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.

I then melt the chocolate in the microwave on the appropriately enough "melt chocolate" setting.

Spread the chocolate over the peanut butter base. Cover and place in the refrigerator (or a cold garage) to set up.

Good and very rich, but gooey. Perhaps more non-dairy creamer?

I do want it noted that my muse has absolutely no compassion for sick people. I had just gone to bed as my head was aching and I was in misery from a sinus infection when my muse began whispering this account to me. By the time the narrative would have filled a page, I decided I had better get up and begin writing down the record. Three 6” X 9” pages later, my muse was satisfied for the moment. At last I could then get some much needed sleep while the antibiotics began to kick in.

1 comment:

Rosie Hawthorne said...

Loved this post. Ahhhh, the cafeterias. And your muse calling.
I remember after having my surgery last year, I had muses calling me all over the place. But then that could have been the drugs.