Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Essay Now & Then


Out to Lunch
Memories may be the best thing made at school meals

MY KIDS are usually in bed before I get home from work. And before I'm fully awake, they're on their way to school. So, in order to spend a little quality time with them, I sometimes show up in the school cafeteria for lunch.

These visits to the cafeteria are decidedly odd. For me, there is the haunting feeling of being thrust into the past. My own school days, normally kept well contained in the deep recesses of my subconscious, are suddenly brought to the fore, and I am left reeling. For the kids, there's the specter of the Dad made embarrassingly real in front of their school friends.

For the second grader, this is no big deal. He's thrilled to see me, and so for the most part are his friends. "Erich! Your Dad's here!" they squeal. They're eager to tell me about their morning, quick to recommend the fish-shaped fritters or the fresh fruit. They warn me about what to avoid (mini burgers) and what to eat first (the rapidly melting frozen yogurt bars). Erich loves this; when Dad is at school, he's a star.

For my older son, who is in seventh grade this year, having Dad in the lunchroom is more of a challenge. I think most kids, especially after they reach age 10 or so, manage to create the illusion, at least among their peers, that they are independent creatures, and the adults with whom they live are really pretty insignificant. My appearance in the lunchroom blows his cover.

If my Dad had walked into the lunchroom when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I would have known that:

a) Someone had died.

b) I was guilty of some terrible crime I had forgotten about, or

c) This guy was not really my father; he was an alien imposter.

But my kids are used to this kind of thing. I sing operatic arias when their friends come over. I take them on mushroom hunts and bake them pies. They know their Dad is weird, and they're able to cope with that.

School lunch is weird, too. It varies from district to district and from state to state, and certainly from decade to decade. But it's universally strange. On the Gulf Coast in the 1960s, it had a peculiar kind of strangeness. Mashed potatoes, which were ubiquitous, were always served from an ice cream scoop. Fruit was in the form of a "cocktail," cubes of pear and orbs of grape and cherry that had been rendered the same pale gray-green by a long confinement in No. 10 cans. Meats, usually ground, were cooked in a reddish sauce that wavered between Italian and barbecue. Still, a kid could always count on hot rolls and cold milk. I think I basically lived on hot rolls and cold milk. Lactose intolerance and wheat allergies were unheard of.

These days, there are choices. A kid can actually opt for a bean burrito or a burger. Pizza is a common option. And an honest-to-God fresh green salad is offered every day. Granted, it's just iceberg lettuce with some kind of milky dressing, but it's salad. You can get real grapes and real apples, too; no canned cocktail.

Still, I'm disturbed by some of the branding. The burritos, for instance, come in labeled wraps. And I'd rather see the kids eating food made from scratch. But all in all, school lunch seems more appetizing than it did when I was in school.

Occasionally, when we would complain about how gruesome school lunch was, or Mom would run out of change for the 35-cent lunch money, she would get creative and decide to make our lunch. This meant bologna on Sunbeam-brand white bread, or peanut butter on Roman Meal brown bread, plus a banana or an apple, a dime for milk and the lunch box.

Ah, the lunch box — that unique object with the peculiar smell. Reminiscent of mayonnaise but acquainted, too, with the yeasty aroma of bread and the ethylene perfume of over-ripe fruit, the smell is like no other. And not easily forgotten. In the category of lingering memories it's right up there with the time Mom decided all of us should carry wide-mouth insulated Thermos bottles inside our lunch boxes. The bottles were decorated, as I recall, in amber and orange plaid — the ugliest-looking things I had ever seen. As the school year began, the noble plan was that these Thermoses would be filled with something hot and nourishing like soup or spaghetti left over from the night before. Hatched perhaps over the bridge table with other moms, or pulled fully blown out of some women's magazine, this scheme quickly went awry.

In early October, Mom sent me off with a Thermos full of leftover chili. It was so utterly outré. I think I was 12 at the time, that age when one would never be caught dead eating anything like chili from a Thermos. I opened the bottle and globbed some of the stuff into the little plastic dish that came with it.

"What is that?" screamed a girl across the table.

"I think it's chili," I answered humbly.

"Gross," came the consensus.

I ate the saltine crackers that Mom had thoughtfully provided and drank my milk. I stared at the chili for a while, then poured it back into the Thermos, sealed it up and determined never to be subjected to this kind of humiliation again. For the rest of the school year, the chili remained entombed in that Thermos, lurking in my locker.

Up until the Christmas holidays, my Mom kept asking, "Where's that Thermos bottle?" I kept saying I forgot, and after a while she stopped asking. When school let out, it was still there. I seriously contemplated opening the Thermos in my health class, just to freak out the teacher. But I lacked the chutzpa, and instead, when I cleaned out my locker, I planted the dreaded chili, still buried in the Thermos, safely and quietly in the garbage.

Sometimes, when I go to eat with one of my boys at school, the food seems less than great, and I think maybe I should pack them something from home. Then I remember the chili, and I let it go.

Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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