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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cafeteria Food

My last post got me thinking about the evolution of school lunches. 

When Farmer Boy went to school, his older sister, Eliza Jane, carried a lunch pail for the four Wilder children to share. After trudging several miles through the snow (there were always three feet of snow and subzero temperatures when the Wilder children walked to school)  and then sitting in dead silence all morning in a one-room school heated only by a woodstove, I am sure Almanzo and his siblings were starving by lunch time--particularly since--Mother's epic breakfasts notwithstanding!-- they had all been up since 4:30 a.m chasing cows around to keep them from freezing to death. 

Eliza Jane opened the dinner pail on her desk. It held bread-and-butter and sausage, doughnuts and apples, and four delicious apple turnovers, their plump crusts filled with melting slices of apple and spicy brown juice. After Almanzo had eaten every crumb of his turnover and licked his fingers, he took a drink of water from the pail, and went out to play. 

Almanzo's mom not only baked the bread and made the apple turnovers and the sausage, the family grew the apples and the wheat, raised the cows, chickens, and pigs, churned the butter, and harvested their own sugar from sugar maples. Almanzo's mom was not worried about the sugar, gluten, fat, or carbs--she was worried about the kids not falling down in the snow and freezing solid on the way home--and then getting through an hour or so of chores before supper.

My elementary school was an old brown building (called, for obvious reasons, "The Brown Building") with beautiful, high-ceilinged classrooms, grand creaky staircases with bowling-ball sized newel posts, and a cafeteria in the basement. This cafeteria was low-ceilinged and gloomy, with concrete floors and lumpy stone walls that were whitewashed and painted cheerily with large pieces of fruit--possibly aimed to distract us from the fact that we were eating lunch in a damp, cold, dark, 19th century basement. ("We are eating in a damp, gloomy--oh look, there's four foot high pear!") Every once in a while, a dodgeball would fly into one of the deep window wells, and someone on the playground would have to hop down and ferret it out--reminding us that we, too, would soon be back out in the fresh air!

Every day before lunch, our teacher would herd us into a windowless little room at the bottom of the stairs and leave us there, closing the massive steel door behind her. The room was lit only by one sad little Soviet-prison style light bulb covered with cobwebs. We would peer at each other in the gloom, some of us wondering--is this the day they forget about us and leave us down here to die?

Worst of all, this dark, creepy little holding pen was adjacent to the kitchen's industrial dishwasher, and every day,  the room would slowly fill up with the scent of hot, garbage-laden bilgewater.  (Just writing about it makes me nauseous, forty years later!) After what seemed like an hour (it was probably not more than ten minutes, but that is a very long time when a) you think you have been abandoned in a basement to die, or b) you are trying really hard not to throw up), the lunch teacher would finally open the other door and let us in the cafeteria.

For this reason, in 12 years of school, I never bought anything hot from the cafeteria. (By senior in high school I could manage a bag of pretzels, if I got through the line quickly. Any scent of bilgewater and I would have to ditch the pretzels and run.) ) Ironically, in those days, the lunch ladies still actually cooked. They started with actual meat and flour and vegetables and made Turkey Tettrazini or American Chopsuey from scratch. It was probably a lot closer to Farmer Boy's lunch than what must have been the all-time low  of school lunches, the 1990's (when as I have already mentioned, many districts farmed their lunch service out to fast food chains).

Today, thankfully, we have gone full circle with "Farm to Table" and school gardening programs. How Farmer Boy's mom would have laughed--or maybe cried-- that we have to teach kids where food actually comes from.


  1. Yet another brilliant piece. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I spit out my chips laughing every time you mentioned bilge water. Thought the melted cheese day incident was coming next!

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  4. A great piece as always, I'm counting the days until your book filled with short stories. Here an article about "Farm to table"