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Articles & Essays

"School lunch made me a gourmet"

Published 09/07/14
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
    I've always said that food writing was something that I kind of fell into years ago.
    However, as I listened to the dulcet sounds of this new school year - unintelligible loudspeaker announcements echoing across my backyard from the elementary school next door and the whoosh of minivans making U-turns in my cul-de-sac - I realized that my course had an early beginning.
    On the first day of first grade, my mother led me to my assigned classroom in an old elementary school. When we finally found it, she froze at the door and declared that her firstborn was being deposited in a "firetrap."
    It was a basement with no windows and only one door, to the dusty playground, which the teacher propped open for ventilation. In the early '60s, the baby boom had forced every inch of the ancient building into use.
    The teacher told my angry mother that it was only temporary. I spent the whole year there.
    But I wouldn't have cared if I'd shared that basement with unexploded Confederate ordinance (which was entirely possible). I was looking forward to lunch. I had led such a sheltered dining life up until then that the school cafeteria sounded alluringly exotic.
    I still clearly see the abomination that plopped onto my plate as I went through the line: A slice of bologna, glistening with grease, which frying had warped into a cup shape. The center of the cup held a yellowish scoop of potato salad.
    The tepid bologna wallowed in its own oiliness as the mayonnaisey potato salad melted into the brick-colored surface.
    At that moment, a gourmet was born.
    Since that day, I've eaten chitlins, monkfish liver and things so obscure that I had to look up definitions on my smartphone. But the indelible image of that lunch is lodged in my mental dictionary, illustrating the entry for "disgusting."
    When I got off the school bus that day, I asked my mother for a lunch box. I carried my own lunch until high school graduation.
    On days when I had leftover fried chicken, I was the envy of the lunchroom. One thing my mother could do was fry some mean chicken.
    Chips were less successful. I often found nothing but crumbs. Rather than buying small bags of chips - "too expensive," she'd declare - my mother put chips from large bags at home into small, and obviously not crushproof, twist-tie bags.
    When I entered the teenage dieting years, I'd put a canned no-calorie soda in the freezer overnight. The sides would pooch out and nearly explode, but it would thaw into a chilled soda by lunch. I also used a container with a freezable lid to keep cottage cheese and canned peaches cold. Yes, it was the era of the diet plate.
    However, those homegrown lunches had some quirks.
    I was ordered to return any packing material, such as foil or plastic bags. The waste of using those only once and throwing them out was incomprehensible to my mother, child of the Depression. Reusing foil was actually quite helpful - if I ever forgot what I'd had for lunch earlier in the week, I could just look in the wrinkles.
    Then, the giant Thermos arrived.
    One fall near the end of elementary school, my mother purchased - on sale, of course - a red plaid vinyl tote bag-like lunch container. It came with a matching Thermos, which would hold what seemed to me like a gallon of soup, providing me with every mother's dream: the hot lunch.
    I was already unhappy because the bag looked like a grandma's purse and wasn't adorned with photos of whatever boy band I was screaming about. Then she would fill the boring, plaid Thermos to the top with boiling chicken noodle or tomato soup, which remained undrinkably hot by lunchtime.
    That Thermos became a clear threat to my lunchroom social life.
    The long process of slurping steaming soup prevented me from fully participating in important academic discussions with my peers, such as theorizing about Mrs. Shoaf's lofty beehive hairdo. ("Is it a WIG? How often does she WASH that thing? EWWU!")
    If I didn't do something, and quickly, I'd become "the quiet soup girl" for all eternity.
    Now, don't think for a minute that that kind of labeling doesn't happen. I still refer to a high school classmate as "the guy who mixed his mashed potatoes and coleslaw together at lunch." I have no memory of his real name.
     Before the end of the semester, the Thermos suffered an unfortunate accident. It might have been nudged to its doom by a friend's errant tray, or perhaps it slipped out of my hands when I was jostled in a hallway. But hearing glass shards rattle inside that plaid metal was worth the lecture on carelessness that my mother gave me.
    My elementary school education about food gave me rules under which I still operate:  never let food interfere with a good conversation, and be careful what you wish for, because it could end up being a plaid Thermos.

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