By Susan Clements
Did you ever hear of a kid who liked cafeteria food? I didn’t just like it, I loved it. I went to public school in the 1960s, when the four food groups consisted of Hamburger Helper, Velveeta, Wonder Bread and canned peas. Schools were bursting at the seams with a glut of post-war progeny and aesthetics took a back seat to getting us all fed.
It was the height of the baby boom, and there were so many kids packed into our elementary school, we had to eat in 20-minute shifts. Perhaps because most of our teachers and administrators had recently been involved in the war effort, lunchtime was conducted with military precision. We marched to the cafeteria in silent formation and slid our trays along the line to the ladies in hairnets who ladled out the glop of the day — rather like boot camp for very short people.
We had 10 minutes to wolf down our rations and 10 minutes of “quiet time” to aid in digestion. “Quiet time” commenced when the lunch monitors held up the two-fingered victory sign. (The victory was getting us all of us to stop talking.)
All the fluorescent lights were turned off, and, we put our heads down on the table while the guards — er, monitors — circulated to make sure there was no whispering, giggling or burping.
No wonder everything they served us was so soft. There was no time to chew.
I think school lunch cemented my lifelong love affair with gravy. Almost every entree included mashed potatoes, and I so admired how those lunch ladies could impress a perfectly round crater into the center of a sphere of spuds. This was drenched in gravy that was either brown or gray. I loved meatloaf and beef stew, but my very favorite was chicken fricassee. Many years later, I found out that authentic, French chicken fricassee is made with identifiable pieces of poultry, unlike the glutinous mess served up at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School cafeteria.
The routine never varied: Pizza buns on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, chicken (or sometimes turkey) fricassee on Wednesday, meatloaf on Thursday, and of course on Friday, what else would we have but fish sticks? For a treat, you could buy a square of ice cream wrapped in white paper for 10 cents. It was about the size of a coaster and less than an inch thick. Talk about portion control!
Lunch was 25 cents. Milk was a nickel, and for an additional two cents you could have chocolate. Do they even allow that these days?
I brought my lunch from home most days, but will admit to sometimes forgetting it on purpose so I could eat the cafeteria food instead.
My father was a teacher in the junior high school in the same building, so I could sometimes wheedle my way into running over there to beg him for the money. That gambit didn’t work too often.
In those boom-boom post-war years, we had food every day, and it was plentiful, hot and balanced according to the current dietary philosophy.
I haven’t been in a school cafeteria in many years, but I hear there’s been a movement to reform the menu, adding fresh fruits and vegetables, which the little darlings then toss in the trash while ordering pizza from their cellphones.
There are undoubtedly more and healthier choices, and I sure hope their lunch period is longer than 20 minutes. But still, I grieve for today’s youth. There’s nary a drop of gravy in sight.
Susan Clements, of Buffalo, knows how to make really good gravy.