Humor: School Lunches
A new school year has begun, which means that youngsters all across this great land of ours are grappling with one of the toughest questions that they, as scholars, will ever face. The crucial question: “What’s on the menu today in the school cafeteria?”
School cafeterias have a certain reputation, and not the kind that involves being awarded a Michelin star. I haven’t dined in a school cafeteria for nearly four decades, so I cannot speak to the present state of cafeteria cuisine. But the years haven’t diminished my memories of the school lunches I ate when I was a kid.
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I attended a one-room country school during first grade. This may come as a shock, but our country school had no lunch program other than the one that consisted of each child bringing his or her own lunch to school.
We stored our lunchboxes on a long bench in the entryway of the schoolhouse. This bench became a reflection of everyone’s social status. The coolest kids had such popular characters as Roy Rogers on their lunchboxes; mine was decorated with a tartan pattern. You are definitely not cool if you have a plaid lunchbox.
Our lunches commonly consisted of a cold meat sandwich, a piece of fruit and perhaps some soup. My uncoolness was reinforced by the fact that our family wasn’t exactly well-off, which meant that almost everything in my lunchbox was homemade.
For instance, Mom would often include tomato soup with the lunches she packed for me and my siblings. Her soup began with the tomatoes we had raised in our garden and churned into jars of juice. The tomato juice was mixed with milk that came from our Holsteins, heated, and poured into a thermos. It was embarrassing to eat it in front of the kids who were slurping soup that had come from a high-class Campbell’s can.
With our large family, there was little in the budget for store-bought bread. This luxury was reserved for special occasions such as solar eclipses. We were issued homemade bread for everyday use. It was humbling to eat the stuff at lunchtime while many of our schoolmates noshed Wonder Bread, which was clearly superior. If this weren’t so, how could they legally label it Wonder?
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Even the cold meat in our sandwiches was hopelessly rustic. An example would be the traditional Scandinavian cold meat called rolla pulsa.
As I recall, rolla pulsa began with beef flanks. This flat cut of meat was sprinkled with salt and pepper and slathered with a thick layer of chopped onion. The flanks were carefully rolled up, tied with string and plunked into a brine. After brining, the beef was boiled, cooled, and stored in the fridge. Before serving, the rolla pulsa was cut into thin slices, revealing a spiral of onion and boiled beef.
Our rolla pulsa was impossibly old-fashioned. It was awkward to eat the stuff knowing that many of our schoolmates were munching modern meat products from Oscar Mayer.
Consolidation shuttered our country school, and we were sent to town school. Instead of toting lunchboxes, we were given meal tickets that allowed us to eat at the school cafeteria.
I had issues with the school’s grub from the very beginning.
The trouble started with my first sip of lunchtime milk. The white fluid they served looked like milk, but it didn’t taste like milk. The school’s milk was pasteurized and contained only 2% fat. I was accustomed to the milk that came from our farm’s tank and had butterfat levels that rivaled whale blubber.
The actual chow wasn’t much better. Hamburger has long been one of my favorite food groups, but the burger served in the cafeteria tasted strange, as if it had been furnished by the lowest bidder. At one point, I was enticed into sampling their split pea soup, which, I quickly learned, is one of the God-awfulest substances known to man.
The school always offered store-bought bread; it might have even been Wonder Bread. But after months of eating one perfectly manufactured slice of bread after another, the “wonder” part lost its appeal.
It wasn’t as if everything at the cafeteria was horrible. The ketchup was OK.
Sometimes a schoolmate would bring a sack lunch from home. I would jealously eye the delectables that emerged from the paper bag: the handcrafted sandwiches, the mathematically perfect apple wedges, the Tupperware bowl of mom-made Jell-O salad.
My wife and I recently visited a farmer’s market. As we perused the rustic breads and handmade cheeses and farm-raised meats, my wife said, “Wow! Everything here is homemade.”
“I know!” I replied. “Isn’t this great? I wonder if they have any rolla pulsa?”