Many of you will recall that the standard for school cafeteria back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s was dramatically different than now. Sure, we complained mercilessly about Salisbury steak and lima beans, but try eating at a school cafeteria now.
I first realized how good I had it as a child when I began working for an elementary school in Moore. It was the food I remembered from childhood. Not the nachos, chicken nuggets, pizza, and crappy shipped in food. We’re talking big, scratch cinnamon rolls with a heavy dose of buttery icing drizzled on top. The kind where the center is so soft and moist that you just want to start in the middle and work your way out.
I was very skinny at that time, and the cafeteria ladies were determined to fatten me up, so they would make a special cinnamon roll for me that was about 30% larger than the ones the kids were eating. Their yeast rolls were equally good. It reminded me of my childhood cafeteria. Green beans stewed with bacon. Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Steak fingers. Chimichangas. Apple sauce jello.
You may not remember apple sauce jello fondly. First, let me remind you of what it is. It was that Jello that wasn’t clear. It was grainy and opaque because instead of being just water and gelatin and sugar, it was made with applesauce to give it some nutritional value.
I was a cafeteria survivalist. I learned how to like the foods that the other kids did not like. Applesauce Jello was one of those foods. I looked forward to applesauce Jello days because I was the kid who would call across the table to you and say “You gonna eat that?”
I found that people also didn’t care for rolls, canned fruits, fish sticks, spice cake, and a few other odds and ends. My stomach was a bottomless pit. I could always eat more than my allotted share, and I hated to see food go to waste.
My twin and I recently shared a memory of the bad weather morning donut. In elementary school, when the weather was too cold or rainy for us to stand around the schoolyard before class, we would be ushered into the cafeteria. We were not permitted to talk. Goodness knows why not. But we were each given a donut and a carton of milk.
Pretty cool, right? Wrong. This went way beyond “pretty cool”. These donuts came to us warm in a little plastic package. They were soaked with melted glaze and when washed down with cold whole milk (yes we had whole milk in those days, white, chocolate, and my favorite, strawberry), it was, to this day, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. I’ve tried to replicate this with donuts in the microwave, but it’s never the same. We only got them a few times that I remember.
The cafeteria was also a social experiment. We had to sit in the order of the line that we marched to the cafeteria in. The best you could do to sit by your best buddy or the cute girl, was to jockey for a position in line next to them, and it would only be your best buddy in the scope of your home class. So this meant that you would be sitting by people who you wouldn’t normal be sitting by. People with cooties, people who’s head was shaven due to lice, kids who nobody played with on the playground. Turns out that “cooties” originates as another word for head lice, but in those days it simply meant the make believe germs that boys could give to girls and girls could give to boys making them persona non grata.
One particular day, I got to sit across from one of the cute girls in my class. She was very crushworthy. I often had fantasies around a particular song with a particular girl, and every time I hear this song I think of her. “I Keep Forgetting'” by Michael McDonald. I liked the idea that we’d already had our passionate romance and she’d thrown me away. I wasn’t in love with her. Maybe I just liked the song a lot, and she happened to be in front of me when I was thinking of her.
Another female friend taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. It’s not really rocket science, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we did this. I noticed one day that she was dipping her fat, perfect yeast roll into her whipped potatoes and gravy. I asked her if it was good, and she suggested I try it. Once you’ve done this, there’s no going back!
I couldn’t say if the food we ate was healthier than the food kids are eating today, but it was made scratch by the hands of women with large moles on their cheeks and hairnets over their tightly bunned hair. Kids today are so picky, I’m not sure they would even eat the food I ate as a kid, but we didn’t have a choice other than bringing bologna, American cheese, and mustard on Wonder Bread with Cheetos, an apple (which was meant to be thrown away), a Ding Dong wrapped in foil, and a Coca Cola in a Star Wars lunchbox.
To be fair, if given the choice between Salisbury steak and Pizza Hut, which would you pick?