Monday, February 6, 2006

Pass the Pepto

I was reading the school-lunch menus in the newspaper the other day and I couldn’t help but envy the kids of today.

Listed were such delicacies as pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, barbecued ribs and French fries. They sure sounded a heck of lot better than the stuff I had to eat back when I was in grammar school.

Back then, the cafeteria routine was much different. We kids would enter at lunchtime and immediately sit at our assigned tables, which already were set with plates, napkins and silverware. Also on the table was a stack of bread and butter “sandwiches,” each made from half a slice of white bread and half a slice of wheat bread stuck together with butter. The corners of the bread usually were curled up by the time we arrived.

Our desserts, in tiny white bowls, also were next to our plates. These desserts always consisted of either pudding (butterscotch or chocolate), Jell-O, a square of cake, or canned fruit in syrup.

As soon as we were seated, six to a table, the cafeteria workers would load a cart with casseroles and bowls of vegetables and then come around and plunk down the food on each table. Everyone ate the same thing. There were no choices to make. And we never carried food or trays anywhere. We sat and stayed sitting. There was a lot less to clean up that way, both on the floor and on ourselves.

At the head of each table sat an upperclassman, usually a seventh or eighth grader, who acted as the server. The responsibility of these servers was to dish out equal portions of food to each of us so there would be no fighting or hair pulling (not that any of us actually WANTED a larger helping of most of the food anyway). They also acted as pseudo mothers and made certain that we were nutritionally fulfilled. This usually was accomplished by yelling at us to eat our vegetables and not touch our desserts until we did.

All I can say is that my parents wasted a lot of money paying for my hot lunches because I hardly ever ate them. That’s because some of the meals the school served back then probably would constitute a criminal offense nowadays…endangering the digestive tract of a child.

One of my least favorites was what the cafeteria ladies affectionately called Welsh Rabbit. A large square of four saltine crackers sat on our plates, over which the servers poured thick, lumpy melted cheese. And next to it, as a finishing touch, they added a big plop of stewed tomatoes.

The end result was something that looked so disgusting, just the mere sight of it made me want to upchuck. Even scarier was the fact that I was convinced that the concoction really did contain “rabbit” somewhere in the depths of all that cheese, and I wasn’t about to eat the Easter Bunny.

And then there was the canned Chinese chop suey sitting on top of some kind of crunchy noodles that looked like bird’s-nest material. I didn’t even recognize half of the ingredients in the chop suey because everything was the same color...gray. It smelled even worse than it looked.

There were a couple dishes that I didn’t mind too much. The macaroni and cheese was pretty good, and the American chop suey wasn’t bad, as long as I ate around the rubbery hamburger. Ditto for the shepherd’s pie.

The boss of the cafeteria, Mrs. Ludwig, didn’t take kindly to kids who didn’t eat her gourmet fare. As we sat there eating, she would walk around carrying a huge spoon and checking everyone’s progress, or lack thereof. If she caught us picking at our food or trying to bury it in our napkins, she would bang the spoon on our table and shout, “Eat up!” in a voice that invited no argument.

I was terrified of Mrs. Ludwig. Every time I’d see her approaching my table, I’d shove a big spoonful of food into my mouth, even if I hated the stuff, and pretend to be happily chewing when she passed by. Then I’d spit everything into my napkin as soon as she turned her back.

Using what I thought were deviously clever means, I managed to escape the wrath of both Mrs. Ludwig and my server for quite a while. Then came the fateful day in fifth grade that still gives me nightmares.

All morning, I’d had a nagging stomachache, and on top of that, the orange juice I’d guzzled during morning recess had given me a bad case of heartburn. By the time I entered the cafeteria at lunchtime, food was the last thing I wanted.

There, plopped down in front of me was a big plate of canned corned-beef hash surrounded by hot beets, complete with the beet juice soaking into the hash. One whiff of it made me want to crawl underneath the table and die.

I didn’t touch my food. I didn’t even fake that I was eating it. In fact, I pushed my plate away so I wouldn’t have to look at it.

That’s when I heard Mrs. Ludwig’s voice behind me. “Eat your hash!” she said. “Your parents paid good money for that meal.”

“NO!” I blurted out, surprising everyone at my table, but most especially myself. My eyes widened and I bit at my bottom lip. I pretty much figured that my life, as I’d known it, was over.

“Well, I am going to stand here till you eat,” Mrs. Ludwig said, folding her arms and still gripping the ever-present giant spoon. “So if you want to hold up everyone else and keep them from going out for recess, then so be it.”

As dozens of beady little eyes glared at me, I knew that I had no choice. I choked down a good portion of the hash, and even a couple of the beets.

And then I went outside for recess and threw it all up. In fact, I spent the next three days throwing up. My parents told me they’d never seen a greener-looking kid.

From then on, I brought my own lunch to school and never bought another hot lunch.

And to this day, if you want to torture me into telling you some deep, dark secret, all you have to do is open a can of corned-beef hash and I’ll spill my guts (literally).