Friday, February 18, 2011

Taco Boats and Pizzas Shaped Like Stop Signs: Oh Whither Thou, School Lunches Of Yore?

I am having one of those days where I want to eat everything that's not tied down.

Is this just me? 'Cause sometimes it worries me. For no rhyme or reason there are just some days that from the moment my feet hit the floor I have one ever-consuming thought on my mind: What do I get to eat next?

It's a good thing this doesn't happen very much, and that I am a disciplined exerciser with a genetic predisposition to being thin. Because I have pretty much been grazing on something or other all day.

I wanted a hot lunch so I found myself on a rare lunchtime voyage to the school cafeteria checking out their choices. Hamburger and fries? No. Chicken sandwich? Not from here, thanks. Fish sandwich? Get real. Rectangle pizza? Nope, not feeling it.

I settled on the classic Friday entree here at my school: tomato soup and something that gets called grilled cheese. You remember these "sandwiches", right? The ones that can only be eaten with a generous bowl of tomato soup, which I ordinarily despise, but which serves as a softening agent for a food item that could actually be used to scrub your backyard grill.

While I was waiting for the lunch lady to set me up (we actually have a couple of hot lunch ladies who bear no resemblance to the hair-net wearing Chris Farley characters of our youth) I had a sudden, inexplicable craving for a school lunch room item I haven't seen or tasted since May of 1992:

Octagon Mexican Pizza.

Do you all remember these? We didn't start having them until my sophomore or junior year in high school, but dear Lord, they became my favorite school lunch offering ever. There was nothing to them; the crust was something between an unnaturally-shaped corn tortilla and a soft, doughy, standard pizza crust. I don't know exactly what it was made of, but it was a perfect octagon and it was Bright. Orange. There was a little "taco meat filling" on it and some yellow processed cheese and maybe a half teaspoon of something that might have once been a red pepper. Oh, heaven on a melamine tray.

It was always served with corn. I remember that. Sometimes the funky Mexican corn you buy in a can with green peppers in it. You know. For 'tude.

On those days in my high-school cafeteria, I was ruthless. If you stood between me and my Mexican Pizza, I would have become very un-valedictorian-like and called you a 'ho and maybe stab you with my spork. It meant that much to me to have something in that cafeteria I actually wanted to eat.

Had it not been for Mexican Pizzas (I have to capitalize, because it was unique and special) and taco boats (a taco in a flat, pontoon-like shell you could eat with a fork and not get all over your Hypercolor t-shirt) I might have starved in high-school. The food was just ba-ad. It had been almost good in elementary and middle school, but then someone had to go and complain about there being meal worms in the chicken noodle soup that one time, and they changed a bunch of their ingredients and suppliers for most everything and by senior year we were all begging for them to just go ahead and bring the worms back.

My mom didn't particularly support me packing a lunch every day, so unless I was ill or just really in the mood to get up a few minutes early to throw a P B & J in a brown bag, I was completely at the mercy of the school caf for midday sustenance. Plus, I spent a few years in the good graces of the federal free and reduced lunch program, and I've always been taught you don't turn your nose up at a free (or reduced) lunch.

Things reached their boiling point one day senior year. I was coming off of a stomach virus for like the 3rd time that year; I know there was a nosy junior English teacher who was convinced I was pregnant because I kept leaving the class across from hers and throwing up, but it was just my crappy immune system that got worse with the stress of college applications and my first job. Little did she know I was still pure and would remain so for one more year, thank you very much. Suck it, Mrs Jones.

Anyway, I was having a day much like today after recovering from that virus: I was starving. I needed food. And chicken noodle soup (worm free!) was on the menu. It was looking to be a good day.

But the stuff the hair-netted harpy put in our indestructible plastic bowls bore no resemblance to any chicken noodle soup I had ever seen before. If there had ever been any noodles in it, they had dissolved to nothingness after God knows how many hours of sitting in the broth. Someone had perhaps tried to make it cream of chicken at some point, perhaps after realizing its inherent awfulness, and that just turned it into a thick, pasty mess that my sister could have used to hang the blue-and-mauve paisley wallpaper in her entryway. I tried it, and the taste reminded me of the time I tried to eat the "ice-cream cone" I had made with my friend's Play-Doh McDonald's play set.

I was a senior in high-school, therefore my sense of superiority knew no bounds. I tried to stage a revolt among my friends, but no one was biting. They were all too busy copying their physics homework off of Charlie. I did the only thing I knew to do.

I walked up to the lady who took our trays, a poor dishwasher who never spoke, probably had nothing to do with the preparation of our lunches, and was just there to make minimum wage with our town's limited employment opportunities. She wasn't the right person to call to the mat, but I was young and foolish, and she was quiet and there.

"This," I said, dramatically dipping my spoon into the paste and making a big show about how it didn't easily come off the spoon, "This is NOT soup! I don't know what this is. It is INEDIBLE! How do you sleep at night knowing that this is what you're feeding children?!" And with that, I stomped off.

"How'd that go?" one of the homework copiers asked.

"I don't know. She didn't say anything." But I still was convinced I'd had an impact; for extra effect, I'd written "NOT FOOD!" on my napkin and left it there. Surely, it would get all the way to the manager and she would change her ways.

Change didn't come.

As much as I moaned about those 80s and 90s school lunches, I would have loved to have had a Mexican Pizza, a taco boat, or the "old" chicken noodle soup from the days before the meal worm incident for my lunch today.

Instead, I had canned tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich that was baked in an industrial oven roughly 5 hours before. It was almost bad enough to make me write something on my napkin.

I am all for healthier school lunches and better choices since some of our kids only get one hot meal a day. There is an obesity crisis among our children, and I see it everyday. Someone needs to step up and make these meals better.

But in the meantime, can we please bring back the stop-sign-shaped pizzas?

1 comment:

Karen said...

LOL We did not have octagonal Mexican Pizza, but we did have the tomato soup. We used to call it "the soup of no return". Seriously. Anything you put in there, whether it was crackers, jello with unnatural colored fruit or plastic wrappers disappeared into it without a trace. :)