Monday, January 28, 2008

Food For Thought

Mama J. came through her surgery this morning with flying colors. Whew! Thank goodness. Putting someone her age under anesthesia is troubling, so we were all relieved that the surgery, although long, was uneventful. The doctor says we can expect about a hospital stay of seven to ten days. You know what that means don’t you? The Hula-gen’s will be eating several evening meals in the hospital cafeteria this week. Can I get a yahoo and thumbs up for Salisbury steak? Sigh. I didn’t think so.

I will admit the hospital cafeteria has come a long way in the last few years, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. I think it’s the smell of meatloaf mingling with antiseptic floor cleaner that troubles me. It just doesn’t smell very appetizing. Also, I tend to compare it to my earliest cafeteria experience, the school cafeteria, and it falls woefully short of that benchmark. The kitchen at my grade school set the standard for me early on for cafeteria food, and none of the public cafeterias I have visited since have measured up. That’s right. You heard correctly. I had great school food (until I got to high school). Oh, occasionally there was something repulsive slapped down on my tray (kraut and wieners-blech), but usually it was pretty darn good. I did not fear the lunch ladies. I loved the lunch ladies.

I went to a grade school that housed kindergarten through eighth grades. It was tucked away in the country and filled with roughly the same children from year to year. Not much changed at Franklin Elementary. The teachers stayed the same, the building stayed the same and the menu stayed the same. Every Friday we received a mimeographed copy of the next week’s menu. After taking a long whiff of that ink, I scanned the offerings, and rarely did I find something on there that I didn’t want to eat. I can count on both hands the number of times I took a lunch during my time at Franklin. Few kids brought their lunch, except Jeff M.. He always brought a sandwich and a bag of dried cereal in his metal lunchbox. He kept the lid closed, too, so we couldn’t see what was in there and be tempted to ask him to share. Stingy butt. It always made me want to steal his cereal.

We didn’t have a cafeteria. The cooks prepared the food in the kitchen and rolled it to our classrooms on steam carts. We filed past the carts, received our food and took our beige and yellow trays back to our classrooms where we ate lunch. As the lunch hour approached it was hard to practice your fractions when you could smell that food outside your classroom door and hear the younger kids getting their trays.

It was not uncommon to have homemade yeast rolls with many of our meals. They were served with a cold square of butter that melted and oozed when shoved inside the roll. I remember a lot of chocolate and vanilla pudding. In fact, I missed a recess in second grade for stealing a bite of Richard C.’s pudding. I couldn’t help myself. I thought he was cute. And it was chocolate pudding. Need I say more? There were lots of vegetables, including homemade mashed potatoes. My favorite was the homemade pizza that was cut in rectangles and was always served on a Friday. And it was always served with corn. My other favorite item was the yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I have a soft spot in my heart now for that kind of cake, probably because I ate so much of it as a kid. I tried to eat it carefully so that I got a taste of icing with every bite of cake. I didn’t care for the meat loaf, and I hated the stewed tomatoes. I gave mine to Felicia L., but I always found plenty to eat on that tray. We were well fed, and well hydrated…with milk. Besides the milk we got with lunch, we had two milk breaks during the day, right before recess. I rarely drank mine. I’ve never been much of a milk drinker. I got a little better when chocolate milk became available around third or fourth grade, but I rarely finished my milk.

Those were the days before school breakfasts, but a kid who showed up at school with an empty stomach was sent down to the kitchen for crackers and milk. I had one such trip. I remember eating those crackers perched on a stool, watching the industrial mixer slap vanilla pudding around in a huge bowl as the cooks prepared lunch. It was way more fun than that stinkin’ math I would have been working on instead in Mrs. V.’s classroom.

To hear other people talk, I had a rare, pleasant experience with my grade school kitchen. There are often days when I wish I could step away from my desk at lunchtime for a walk down the hallway to a cafeteria with homemade rolls and yellow cake. It probably wouldn’t taste as good as my memories, though. The food at the hospital this week won’t taste as good either. And they won’t have any homemade pizza with corn. Sigh. Meatloaf and Jello anyone?


janjanmom said...

I know we did not attend the same school, but I could write the same wonderful things about my elementary school cafeteria!! The rolls were wonderful and my all-time favorite was steak and gravy with homemade mashed potatoes. I wish I could make steak and gravy like that or those rolls!!! Believe me, I have tried.

Now my high school cafeteria was the same kind of slop they pass as food now. Lots of hamburger, hot dogs and greasy fare. Fortunately, there was a salad/baked potato bar. Most kids ate from the pizza/hamburger line.

Cruise Mom said...

I still remember the smell of mimeograph paper... and that square pizza!

Jason said...

Now that I think back about it, our elementary school cafeteria was good, too! Now the kids in our area get centrally prepared, processed, and wrapped meals that get shipped to all the schools in town. Certainly not like the home cooked meals school cafeteria we used to take for granted.

Peanut butter fingers, anyone? How about a hot ham and cheese sandwich? That soft, moist chocolate cake, perhaps?

Dorky Dad said...

RARE? Your experience is like the California Condor of school experiences.

And apparently your hospital isn't one of those that have started adding fast-food joints in their cafeterias. I love that, it's like the hospital is trying to drum up business.