Thursday, October 2, 2008

Elementary Food

Yesterday's food-related entry brought back a few more memories of that topic, going backwards to elementary school.

I always brought my lunch in my rectangular tin lunch pail. It was decorated in an old west theme with a cowboy or two. Inside of the box was nearly always the same thing: a sandwich on white bread, a bag of Fritos, and an apple.

The sandwich would be either ham, tuna or egg salad. I hated egg salad. I didn't like the way it looked, the way it smelled, the way it tasted or the texture; many a time I'd wind up eating just the bread. Despite my vehement protests, my mom would slip that horrid thing into my box from time to time. Normally she lightened up and made it ham or tuna, for which I was thankful. Sadly, we used to have a class moocher named Ronald who would take any unwanted food off our hands. Have something you didn't like? Just toss it to Ronald and he'd happily gobble it down. Alas, sadder still was that even he was hesitant to take those egg salad sandwiches!

Once in a while the sandwich was replaced by a piece of leftover fried chicken, sans crust. All all the other kids thought it weird to see me unwrap the wax paper to reveal a big, crustless fried chicken piece. The reason? I asked my mom to peel off the crust because she made it so crunchy it hurt my teeth. Seriously! That was some seriously crunchy outside armor on that chicken. My family has always believed in "well done" and has no diplomatic relationships with any of the other degrees of doneness.

Back in those days our classrooms had no refrigerator and no air conditioning. All the lunches were kept in the cloakroom, yet I don't recall anyone ever getting food poisoning, including me. Even with tuna sandwiches (and the yucky egg salad ones) filled with mayo as well as all sorts of other bacteria-prone ingredients, we ate and survived.

All of us were all at the mercy of the milk monitor. Each day we'd stand in line waiting for her to emerge from the cafeteria carrying her tray, walk down the main building steps and across the play yard to our lunch benches where we'd fork over our nickels in exchange for a waxed carton of milk. After the milk was gone we'd sit there scratching off the wax from the side of the carton with our fingernails while we piled up the curls of wax. Back then the cartons had a flip-top that plugged a hole in the top of the carton; you just pulled up on the stopper to open it up.

What agony when the girl was late! We'd stand in the sun getting irritated like people waiting in line at Costco, constantly checking to see if she was coming down the stairs as we groaned and whined and sweated.

Such was the lunch bench life.

But one time, I did eat in the cafeteria. I was all excited about it because it was the day before Thanksgiving and they were serving a special Thanksgiving lunch! Seeing as how I had turkey only once a year (frozen dinners don't count), I sure couldn't pass up an opportunity to make it twice a year, and two days in a row, no less.

A bunch of us lunch-benchers queued up in the long line for the cafeteria that day, eagerly waiting to feast on succulent roast turkey with all the trimmings. We waited.. and waited.. what the heck was taking so long?? That was one slow moving line we were in. Finally, we got within eyesight of the food trays and our gastric juices were driving us crazy.

And then the magic moment came as we slid our tray in front of the serving lady to get our share of the end of the rainbow. The woman handed me my plate and I stared at it. Where was the turkey? There was a scoop of mashed potatoes covered with brown gravy that had minute bits of something which I assume was turkey scattered here and there; accompanying this were some lame, limp vegetables, a piece of bread, and that was it.

Did she get my order right? I had wanted turkey. I thought that was all they were serving that day so I didn't think I needed to specify I wanted the special turkey lunch that had been announced on the flyer we took home a few days before; I thought maybe I was supposed to have told her I wanted the "special" turkey lunch, or that they left my slices off accidentally but a quick perusal of the plates around me indicated we all had gotten the shaft.

As we sat at the long table in the cafeteria I kept looking around the room trying to see if anyone had real turkey on their plate. I couldn't believe I had the right lunch. Meanwhile, my classmates just sat there and ate as though nothing was wrong. So I sat there and ate, too. Afterwards I conducted a survey to see if my experience had been typical, which apparently it was.

That was the special Thanksgiving turkey lunch?? There hadn't been enough turkey on the plate to fill up a teaspoon, much less my hungry mouth!

I guess I should have known that a school district that tried to justify a packet of ketchup and a packet of relish as two servings of vegetables wasn't going to give Claim Jumper-like portions out for lunch, especially considering whatever we paid, which I think was something like 25 cents. But still, that letdown feeling was as bad as finding out there ain't no Santa.

That was the only time I ever ate in a cafeteria during my entire grade school career. Maybe the trauma and disillusionment arising from that Thanksgiving Eve so-called lunch is what did it.

Maybe I should have given it another try in high school, though, as the below recently discovered home movie of Dorsey's cafeteria shows just how much fun I missed:

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