Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hot for hot lunch.

Since this is back-to-school week at NTB and I’ve just had a power lunch of soft pretzel and Lean Cuisine pizza (yes, they are finally back on sale), I thought I’d share some thoughts on school lunch. This piece is not a commentary on how school lunches are the reason that so many young people are overweight. Nor is it about how ketchup supposedly counts as a vegetable for the purposes of federal or state health requirements for school lunches. If these issues interest you, watch Super Size Me, the documentary about the guy who ate nothing but McDonalds for thirty days (or maybe longer, I can’t remember). The documentary has an interesting segment on school lunch.

This post is about what I liked to eat for lunch when I was a schoolgirl. As a grade schooler, my lunch options were limited. My school only sold milk and orange drink, no hot lunch. I wish I could say that I packed my own lunch as soon as I was able, but my mom packed it for me. The standard in my house included a sandwich, a salty, a sweet, and a piece of fruit. I don’t remember much about sandwiches, except that I was into butter and jelly sandwiches for awhile. The salty would be either potato chips, pretzels, or Doritoes (often in the individual mini bags that are so cute. NTB). The sweet could be a Little Debbie (the swiss cake roll and the starcrunch were my favorites, or maybe those little white cakes with white filling, white icing and chocolate stripes). My mom is also a good baker, so the sweet was sometimes a homemade item. I don’t remember much about the fruit as it was often placed directly into the donation box for the One Way Farm. (The One Way Farm was a home for runaways and other troubled children and one of the nuns at our school had students donate food they did not eat to the box. Nothing half-eaten, of course, but unopened packages of snacks, pieces of fruit, or even untouched but still wrapped sandwiches were to be donated. You can imagine that those runaways were more inundated with fruit and sandwiches than with Fritos or fruit roll-ups). By the time my youngest brother needed a packed lunch, the health standards in our home had relaxed quite a bit. My mom was understandably tired after having packed thousands of lunches already. Do you remember the bright orange crackers filled with peanut butter in individually wrapped six-packs? This item fulfilled the sandwich requirement.

Endless days of brown-bagged lunches could get old, no matter how much love was packed with them or how cute of a note my mom left inside. There were bright, or perhaps I should say hot, spots though. It was standard practice at my school that if it was your birthday (or that of one of your siblings), your mom or dad would drop off a hot lunch for you. You’d line up with your class to enter the cafeteria, you would bypass the milk lady, and then there, on a ledge adjacent to the milk cooler, you would find a McDonald’s bag with your name on it and a fountain pop standing right next to it . . . or maybe a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza or a bag from Arby’s or Burger King. Other students would smell your fries and look at them longingly or look forlornly at your pop as they sipped their lukewarm milk. Surprisingly, I do not remember many requests to share my fries or my drink on those special days. There must have been a tacit understanding between students that if you don’t ask me to share my McDonalds, I won’t ask you. The good news is that hot lunch was not something that was only allowed to happen on one’s birthday. So, if the morning was chaotic at our house or if I “forgot” my lunch, there was a good chance it might be replaced with a cheeseburger and fries. NTB.

My high school did offer hot lunch, and after I figured out the system (race into line directly from your pre-lunch class, do not stop at locker, and do not get in the “senior cut” line), I was a loyal customer. My younger siblings all went to the same high school as I did, but they probably could count on two hands the total number of days they bought lunch in four years. I guess they were not as charmed as I was by the pork fritter sandwich. It was like a chicken patty but made of pork and kind of flat and thin and irregularly shaped along the edges, delicious with ketchup. They did not take advantage of the fact that mashed potatoes with gravy were available every day for a mere 30 or 40 cents per scoop. They did not share my passion for the institutional school pizza--the kind cut into large rectangular pieces and topped with the thinnest shreds of sausage (cheese only on Fridays in Lent). There was also a salad bar. At the salad bar you could make a salad (though there was an odd rule noting that only “two proteins” were allowed), buy a hot pretzel brushed with butter (heavenly), or a hostess pie (the perfect ending to a healthy lunch of salad). I would eat there tomorrow if I had the opportunity.

My love for the college dining hall deserves a post in its entirety. My school lunches during my years as high school teacher are memorable only because of the awesome colleagues and friends with whom I ate. So, I think that’s all I have to say about school lunches and surely it is more than you wanted to read about. Were you a buyer or a packer? Any school lunch memories to share? I’d love your comments.


Anonymous said...

Oh how I wish there had been a box for the One Way Farm when I attended school. I attended school when there were still many nuns (and not many nice ones) and all those starving people in China. It didn't matter if you bought or brought, there was always a nun standing guard at the garbage making sure every last morsel was eaten. Back to your seat you'd go with your bread crusts, the last sip of warm white milk, or the apple that was brown on the inside. Buying was such a crap shoot. You could luck out with the burger fry combo on Monday or get that Ham and cabbage stuff{ you would plead with your eyes to the cafeteria lady to just give you a tablespoon of the stuff). At any rate, nothing was wasted At St. Ann School. I think my most interesting packing was in 3rd grade when I took a lettuce and mayonaisse sandwich most days. I wouldn't touch mayo today. M

LAP said...

I always considered my lunches to be basic, yet tasty. I rocked the similar sandwich (turkey usually...on a hawaiian roll if I was lucky), salty (pretzels), and sweet (fudge round was the little debbie of choice) combo. The only fruit I recall in my lunch was the fruit roll-up. Although this might not sound that exciting, my lunches were in fact good enough to steal. During my senior year of high school, my lunch was stolen a handful of times. My astute friend Wanda overheard the idiot thief bragging that my lunches were always so good. So, in return, I purposefully complained within earshot of my history teacher/ asst. football coach about Tony the lunch thief. He reprimanded his player and my lunch was safe from then on. As a side note, Tony the thief is now working in law enforcement (a sheriff deputy or something) in Butler Co, OH...good to know the taxpayers are in safe hands.

Anonymous said...

me? i was a buyer. not by choice, i might add. a buyer due to the fact that my mom, god love her, was too lazy to pack my lunches. many days i sat jealous of meg walsh's homemade bread and archway lemon iced cookies. but lucky for me, st. pete's had quite a kitchen...i can still see the faces of the "cafeteria ladies," and i can still taste the chicken on a biscuit (though i never ate the biscuit--too soggy), tacos, and, my all-time favorite, chicken patties and buttered noodles. YUM. as for high school, my main memory is eating bbq potato chips, cottage cheese, and grape juice for lunch almost every day. i have no idea why on earth i would've done this, but i did. i think i'm still overeating to make up for that. msp

Anonymous said...

At my grade school our cafeteria lady made all of our food homemade. We were very lucky and to this day I still crave for some of her lunches...Happy Hamburgers, Brunch for Lunch and my personal faovrites Rice-A-Healey (our cafeteria lady's name is Mrs. Healey) and Noodlebake. There was a certain bit of excitement in the Fagel household when the "white envelope" would come home every two weeks with a new lunch menu inside. E.Fagel

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