Wednesday, April 13, 2011

School lunch memories

I have to be careful about how I say this.

Louise is, in many ways, the best cook I've ever known, and certainly the best one I've been married to. But a more accurate statement would be that Louise is one of the two best cooks I've ever known, because she has to share the top spot with my late grandma Bernice. Choosing one to hold the top spot in this mythical ranking would be impossible; I'd have to deal with either a hurt wife or a guilty conscience.

Grandma worked for years as a school cook in Fulda, but my memories - and her ranking - have everything to do with what she conjured up in her tiny kitchen, and nothing to do with the meals she helped create for the town's youth. I'm sure grandma made good food for the kids. But those offerings couldn't possibly compare to the french toast, chocolate chip cookies, and roast beef she expertly crafted at home. I bet even grandma would have admitted she did not do her best work within the school confines.

School lunches have been compared to prison food service but that's unfair - to our nation's penal system.

But now, school lunches are in the news, as a Chicago school banned kids from bringing lunch from home. They'll eat in the school, and they'll like it - or not. But they will eat it, unless they have an allergy that requires a special meal from home, and can't you just imagine a host of children being diagnosed with allergies by the start of the next school year? The principal says it's about nutrition. Kids can't be trusted to make healthy choices so the school makes them. Some people are upset because it robs parents of their ability to parent, although in some cases that seems like it'd be a good thing. Yes, mom can order a kid to eat disgusting broccoli at the dinner table, but a school has no right to do that. So goes the argument. Others say it's simply a money grab from the school trying to get kids to pay for more lunches.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that, ultimately, as is the case whenever a child eats a school lunch, it's the kids who suffer.

We had a small cafeteria in Janesville, nothing like the ones I'd see in classic '80s movies like Just One of the Guys, Better Off Dead or the outdoor facilities in Can't Buy Me Love. In those, hundreds of students wandered around a giant area, gazing out at large windows. They chose from a large variety of options, which looked like something out of an Old Country Buffet ad. They wore roller-skates or baseball uniforms. It wasn't like that in Janesville, or many small schools.

To enter one way at Janesville, students didn't even actually stand in line in the cafeteria. Instead we lined up in a hallway that doubled as our tornado shelter, then turned into a short walkway that took us to the actual food line. The setting in that hall was more like a scene from a DMV, and, depending on if it was the day we ate butter sandwiches and soup, more depressing.

You could also line up inside the cafeteria against a wall, just inches away from some of the tables where the upperclassmen sat. It felt like being up against a wall facing a firing squad, only instead of silver bullets fired from rifles, the weapons of choice were green peas fired by forks.

To me the milk always proved especially disappointing. I'm a longtime milk aficionado but even I could barely stand to drink the school-lunch milk. Those tiny blue cartons that never opened correctly in the front. Instead of peeling back cleanly and correctly, mine often ended up mangled, so any drink of milk also contained the taste of that fluffy white material that would cling to the carton, tainting the already below-average taste. On special occasions we received chocolate milk. All that did was make us aware of how much we were missing every other day of the year.

The cafeteria was divided into a pair of sections. On one side the round tables with the upperclassmen, discussing weekend party plans and the easiest girls in the school. On the other, long tables with tiny round seats that seemingly hovered only a few inches off the ground, where the elementary kids talked about birthday parties and the relative grossness of boys and girls.

We consumed our pizza burgers and mashed potatoes, dreaming of those days when we'd take field trips and everyone had a reason to pack a sack lunch.

In seventh grade I became a part of the system, working a few days a week as a dishwasher, or, more accurately, tray washer, manning my station with the other kids in a job that seemed designed as a work-release program, if not something that should have been done by a chain gang. We labored - as children - in stifling temperatures as the steam enveloped everything. Our fellow students - who enjoyed firing their trays filled with half-eaten food into the wash area - regarded us with more contempt than respect. I don't remember how much I made, although, coupled with my work as a paper boy during that same time period, I probably saved up enough money to buy a dozen packs of baseball cards or a single offering from the traveling Bookmobile.

By the time eighth grade rolled around, my days in the cafeteria were over. I started making the two-block walk home, where I could spend my lunchtime eating and watching afternoon game shows. Mom and dad were at work so I had to piece together my own meals. It wasn't hard, since I wasn't interested in variety. Every day of every school week I'd make the same thing: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some potato chips, a pickle and a couple of slices of Velveeta cheese. I topped it off with a glass of milk - real milk, from a real glass, not cardboard - and a can of pop. Chicago school administrators would surely frown upon such a diet.

Did it damage me? I grew to 6-3 in high school, have never suffered a broken bone in 35 years and now, as an adult, when those wretched meals from the past should perhaps be sneaking up on me and doing a bit of damage to my skin, locks or internal organs, I remain perfectly healthy. Good heart, good lungs, strong bones, full head of hair. Am I saying the pb&j, chips, cheese and Coke deserve all the credit for my health? No. Not all. But I wouldn't be doing any better if I'd spent all of those days trudging through line like a white collar crook at a minimum-security prison, dreading that day's offering.

Certainly some kids in school could have benefited from forced nutrition. One classmate went to lunch every day at the bowling alley. To the best of my knowledge, he ate nothing but candy for four straight years. He'd return to school with his cheeks bulging and his pockets spilling with all types of assorted sweets, from bubble gum to Skittles. Kid could have used an apple.

Today I'm not sure that, in a post-Columbine world, students at JWP schools are even allowed to leave school grounds at lunch hour. Hopefully they can still bring sack lunches.

I definitely went to school at the right time. And I was lucky that it took me about three and a half minutes to walk from school to our fridge. No one should be forced to eat a school lunch. I don't think I could have handled five more years of them. Not even if the best cook I've ever known - one of them - had been the one serving them. Sorry, grandma.


Mike said...

I, too, was a big fan of going home for lunch. Could you not find any youtube footage of Supermarket Sweep with David Ruprecht?

Shawn Fury said...

Supermarket Sweep sort of deserves its own post. The matching sweatshirts, Ruprecht's possibly drug-induced mania - no one should be that happy over groceries and the chance to give away "$5,000" - the PA guy chastising the contestants if they don't get their share of turkeys, the corny clues in the final game, all of it. Definitely a great way to spend lunch hour.

Lisa said...

Love this! I remember running down all the steps to go to lunch if it was a good meal. Otherwise I went home too with about 4 friends. Sometimes we would make a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough and eat that. We also went to bowling alley - would get a Dr Pepper (wasn't a Dew girl then) and a bag of Cheetios. Good times. It was nice living so close. We could hear the bell ring and run back to school.

Shawn Fury said...

Chocolate chip cookie dough for lunch? Maybe the school should have been telling you what to eat!

Jerry said...

Couldn't get the milk carton open? Worst shop student in school history? I am sensing a theme here. And the full head of hair has much more to do with genetics than your diet - trust me.