School Lunch

Sassymonkey posted today over at BlogHer about school lunches and Amy Kalafa’s new book, Lunch Wars. Besides the fact that it made me smile to read that Sassymonkey (whom I’ve known, well, for a bit) went to an elementary school that she described as “crunchy”, it was interesting to read someone else’s memories of school lunch.


Lunch Trays

Image by PinkMoose via Flickr


I remember generally enjoying school lunch. Indeed, I was usually slightly embarrassed if my mom would pack my lunch. She certainly meant well but she didn’t ever seem to differentiate between my older step brothers and me when it came to appetite. Whenever she would pack my lunch, I would unpack a plastic grocery bag full with two or three sandwiches, a bag of chips, pickles, a soda, four or five cookies, and a piece of fruit or two. I was 9. This particular bag is memorable because there was a bit of pickle juice in the ziploc bag (to keep the pickles fresh, I guess?) and the ziploc bag leaked. So there was a bit of pickle juice all over my entire lunch. I was in fifth grade and already not allowed to sit with the cool kids. The smell of pickles didn’t help my cause.

But, it was generally rare for my mother to pack my lunch. Most days, I ate the school lunch. And, generally, I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it more than most other kids did. I recognize now that it was all mostly reheated, previously frozen, very processed food. But they were relatively balanced meals. There was always an identifiable vegetable and an identifiable fruit. The vegetable was more often than not some kind of niblet corn or diced vegetable medley and fruit was always swimming in syrup, but they were there. Thank you, USDA requirements.

Each morning in elementary school, the teacher would announce the day’s hot lunch and count how many students wanted it. If sloppy joe’s weren’t your thing, you had the option of taking the alternate lunch, which was your choice of a sandwich served with chips and carrot and celery sticks. You would have to fill out your own yellow slip selecting what kind of sandwich you wanted (PB&J, PB&Fluff, or tuna. I think ham and cheese might have been an option too). When you went through the line, there was a tray of sandwiches arranged alphabetically by name in individual waxed paper bags. In a way, choosing the alternate lunch felt more special because the lunch ladies had made that sandwich just for you.

I remember always being very interested by the shiny, stainless steel wonderland that was the school kitchen. When I was in middle school, I became a library aide (appropriately enough for the dorky bookworm), but I would have been the first to volunteer to help out making lunch if I’d had the option. I got picked on enough for volunteering in the library; I’m sure volunteering in the kitchen wouldn’t have been that much worse. Thinking back, I’m a little surprised that I never seriously pursued culinary school. (Ok. So my mother would never have let me pursue culinary school and put far too much pressure on me to get a “useful” degree. We compromised: I went to a top university but took a degree in history.)

By the time I got to high school, I was still enjoying the school lunches, though I was excited to have the option of a salad bar instead of sandwiches in case I didn’t like the hot lunch. I ate a lot of salads for lunch in high school. But they probably weren’t the healthiest salads. I was a teenage boy and had free reign over a salad bar that included bacon bits, cheddar cheese, and ranch dressing. Any modicum of healthfulness to my salads had to learn to swim in an ocean of ranch dressing.

There was also the Snack Shack. This was a separate counter in the cafeteria that only sold desserts. It was built during my time in high school. It’s the kind of thing that would make Jamie Oliver or Alice Waters shoot beet juice out of their ears. Giant, soft, sugary chocolate chip cookies. Honey buns that tasted like the plastic bags they were packaged in (not that this stopped me from consuming several a week). Nachos with neon yellow cheese. Sodas. Vitamin waters. I guess the assumption was that high schoolers had enough self-control to choose to eat healthfully.

Prior to the Snack Shack’s construction, you could only buy dessert after having gone through the lunch line once. You could go through again for a second dessert, but you had to face the guilting looks of the lunch ladies. Once the Snack Shack was built, there was no accountability. If you wanted your lunch to consist of nachos and a honey bun, there was nothing to stop you. I’m trying to remember if the Snack Shack sold fruit. I want to say yes, but it probably didn’t.

I’d grown up with enough food sense to know that I shouldn’t eat a lunch entirely from the Snack Shack. Besides, the hot lunch was always much more filling and satisfying. But I was the rare exception. Lots of kids chose to eat only from the Snack Shack and I suspect that they weren’t getting balanced meals at home either. I’d be curious to know where the funding for the Snack Shack came from and what kind of approval process it went through. Who thought it was a good idea to allow students to purchase a lunch consisting solely of desserts?

Today, more often than not, I bring leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. It’s one of the benefits of cooking for four in a house of two. My partner is more picky than I am and doesn’t like to eat the same thing too often, so I often end up with two days of lunches from every dinner. That’s just fine by me. I do most of the cooking, so I know that I’m going to like whatever I’ve made.

It might be as much as a decade before I have school-aged kids. I wonder what school lunch will be like by then. A lot can happen in ten years. I hope that there’s still some semblance of nutrition in school lunches by then. If not, I hope my kids like leftovers.


Communicating Food

(This is really long, almost 2,000 words. But I have to make up for not posting more often by posting long posts, right?)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do with my life recently, what I want to be when I “grow up”. My usual defense for not having anything remotely approaching a career at this point in my life is usually to blame my father. Last time I asked, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grows up. And yet, it seems to me that there must be something out there that would satisfy me as fully as when I was in school. It’s true, the thought of going back to school to study history doesn’t hold much appeal to me right now, but I really liked how it felt. I really liked how purposeful it was, how I was excited to wake up every day and keep digging through readings and writing papers. (Okay, no university student is every excited to wake up, but once I was awake and had dragged my ass out of bed and had gotten some coffee in me, then I was excited.)

For the past five years, I haven’t been overly excited. Coffee was cool for a while. This hotel thing is definitely not my cup of tea but it gives me a chance to interact with a rotating cast of characters and it’s certainly clear that I like interacting with people from the safe side of a counter. The one thing that I’ve enjoyed most about all of my past jobs has been communicating information to people, whether it be why a textbook isn’t on the shelf, where a particular coffee comes from, or why Balch Creek is my favorite spot in Portland and why you absolutely must take the five minute bus ride from the hotel to see it.

And then there’s this other passion of mine: food. Even before some people thought I was too young to start cooking (ahem, Mom), I wanted to. My Nana, thankfully, had a more liberal approach to involving children in cooking and I cherished every chance I had to make fresh pasta with her, or sprinkle something into a soup, or lick the cake batter off the mixer.

My first solo forays into cooking weren’t entirely successful. When I was maybe seven or eight, my Nana sent me home with a package of pudding mix. We had made some earlier that day and I figured that having done it once with a steady and experienced guiding hand that I could do it on my own. I burnt the pudding to the bottom of the pot. I’m pretty sure that my mother still has pictures of it. She was not happy. She was also not happy when I served her coffee for Mother’s Day that year or the next. I watched her make coffee every morning. How hard could it be? It turns out there’s a difference between Instant Coffee and Drip Coffee. And Instant Coffee brewed through a drip coffee maker doesn’t taste quite right.

Fast forward a decade or so.

I was getting ready to head off to McGill, where, though I would be living in a dorm, I would only have a meal plan five days a week. This was something that I never mentioned to my mother, who still wouldn’t let me into the kitchen, but it was something that I had discussed with my Grandmother (my dad’s mom; Nana was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, the Italian side). As a graduation gift, she gave me Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and told me very mater-of-factly, “If you can read, you can cook.” I was skeptical but it was either take her at her word or live off mac and cheese and pizza two days out of the week. Most university students would eat three meals a day of that and not think another thing about it. I, however, had always been really curious about this cooking thing. And now I wouldn’t have to worry about Mom shooing me from the kitchen.

I started out ever so slowly and probably didn’t really eat too much better on the weekends than mac and cheese and pizza because I don’t have any strong food memories from my first year of university. After that first year, though, I was completely on my own as far as food went because I was living off campus. I was probably still eating a lot of processed and packaged foods, but I was making use of the cookbook. I had given up on trying to keep the dust jacket on the book–a good sign that it was getting used often enough according to my Grandmother.

Initially, I was afraid to cook meat for myself. I had a brain full of imprinted fears of undercooked pork or chicken. Salmonella. E. coli. Food poisoning. Meat was scary! This isn’t to say that I was becoming a vegetarian (that came later). I just wasn’t cooking meat for myself. Eventually, though, I was starting to feel comfortable with the basics of cooking. And I kept looking through the cookbook when I probably should have been studying. And those meat recipes sounded good. Finally, I took the chance and bought some chicken and tried one of the recipes. I think it was some kind of ginger soy sauce chicken recipe. It became one of my standard go-to’s proven by how mangled and stained the page is.

It was a revelation.

The chicken was moist and flavorful and just SO GOOD.

My mother is not a bad cook. I used to think that she maybe wasn’t a great cook, particularly if you were to judge her skills at cooking chicken. It was always dry and fairly flavorless aside from whatever gravy or shake n’ bake or glaze from a pouch might be on it. As I’ve become a more accomplished cook myself and as I’ve learned more about the history of modern American food, I’ve come to realize that she is of a generation that was always scared of meat, always told to cook it till it was good and dead lest it poison you. (If it was so dangerous, why were we eating it?)

Now that meat wasn’t scary, I was anxious to start cooking more for myself. Though I have owned How to Cook Everything for a decade, I have not yet cooked every recipe in it. However, I know that I have looked at and possibly read every recipe. It wasn’t always as easy as macaroni and cheese, but the more I cooked, the easier it became. And the more fun it became, too. Cooking dinner became a study break and so it was a good excuse to find something intricate and involved that might take two or three hours to cook, eat, and clean up after. In fact, now that I think about it, dinner was probably the only thing I took as seriously every day as my classes. Going out on a Friday and drinking with my friends was always fun, but so was staying home and baking a pie.

How to Cook Everything is the most important book that anyone has ever given to me. It’s no longer the only cookbook in my library and it’s not even one that I open very often anymore (I often don’t look at a recipe anymore), but it was my first cookbook and the cookbook that taught me almost everything I needed to know to start cooking for myself. It was the cookbook that gave me the confidence to tackle things like lasagne made completely from scratch and pie crusts and, yes, even beef bourguignon (I had heard of Julia Child but she was just that strange old lady who had a show on PBS that I sometimes saw bits of).

In the decade since I started cooking for myself, mac and cheese has never left my pantry (I’ve moved on, though, from Kraft Dinner with neon yellow cheese to Annie’s Organic Shells and White Cheddar) but lots of other things have entered it: yeast, pimentón, sardines, anchovies, capers, lentils, Swiss chard. None of these were things that were in my pantry when I was growing up. My mother was busy. Both she and my step-father worked full-time. She put a hot meal on the table every night thanks to Lipton noodles or rice microwaved with powdered sauce, Shake n’ Bake, and frozen vegetables. She always tried to include a salad, too. That was usually mostly fresh but we usually drowned it with ranch or creamy Italian dressing. It’s not that they were unbalanced or blatantly unhealthy meals–they were meals based on the meals that my mother probably ate growing up: meat, grain/potato, vegetable.

But times change and my food habits have changed as I’ve grown and learned more. My meals these days are almost always vegetarian. Aside from the mac and cheese, there are virtually no processed or pre-cooked foods in my pantry. I go grocery shopping a few times a week to keep my stocks fresh. I do my best to buy local, organic and in season.

So how does this come full circle back to what I want to be when I grow up?

Every time I bake something, people tell me that I should open a bakery. But then I’d be back to working crazy hours like I was in coffee, and I hated that. Every time I cook something, people tell me I should open my own restaurant. But part of what I love about cooking is getting to sit down and enjoy it with friends around a table, and I couldn’t do that if I were running a restaurant.

But I like talking to people. I like communicating information. I like teaching people things. I like writing. And I definitely like food. There’s probably no clear path here. It’s not as if I can become a home ec teacher (are there any of those left?). The idea of becoming a nutritionist has occurred to me but I’ve yet to explore it very deeply. Plus, the idea of reducing food to its component nutrients drains all the romance from cooking. I wonder if Michael Pollan is hiring for apprenticeships.

If I could design an ideal job, it would probably be something like what I imagine a home economics class might have been like (I know not of such things because they were dropped from my middle school and high school long before I got there). I want to give people what How to Cook Everything gave to me: basic tools to be able to cook for themselves, not to be afraid of food, and to enjoy cooking.

And, sometimes, if you ask it nicely, the Universe gives you a chance to do a test run.

I’ve been bugging the Man for ages about letting me teach him how to cook. He’s finally given in. I realize that this experience will be very, very different from anything I might encounter were I to be granted my ideal job, but it’s a place to start. I’ve also convinced him that we should start a blog to document how things go. He’s just started rehearsals for a show, and so is way too busy to worry about cooking for the next six weeks or so. When we finally do get around to starting, I’ll post the link here, though.

Who knows if this really is what I want to do when I grow up but if I think about the things that make me happy and that I’m most passionate about, it seems as good an idea as any.

Christmas Road Trips

Borrowing from Ms. Monkey’s theme for today, this started out as a comment on her blog but started to get rather too long for a comment.

Christmas road trips were also a part of my life growing up. With divorced parents, I would almost always spend Christmas Eve and morning with my Mother and then my Dad would pick me up around noon and we’d drive back to my Grandparents’ house where he also lived, which was a few hours away.

Not surprisingly, something that I loved the most was two very different Christmas dinners. My mother’s family is Italian and we would generally spend Christmas Eve gathered at my Grandmother’s house. All of us, which worked out to, let’s see…two, three, six, nine…at least 20. I always felt like I didn’t quite have a place. My step-brothers were four and six years older than me and my younger cousins were younger by that much, and when my little brothers were born, there were nine and 14 year age gaps. Still, even when I was young, it wasn’t so much about the gifts that my uncle-dressed-as-Santa would dispense as it was about the food. Being Italian, there was plenty of food to go around. Lavish antipasti (the deviled eggs were always my favorite but the shrimp cocktail grew on me as I got older) were spread out in the living room while people arrived before dinner and milled about and chatted and caught up. We all lived within a 20 minute drive of each other and it seemed like my Mother was always talking with our relatives and yet there was always so much more to talk about when we saw each other in person, which always confused me. I guess I started out as a wall flower pretty young.

But I digress, we were only on the antipasti. Dinner was over the top but we didn’t do the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner. Though my Great-Grandparents (both of whom only passed away recently) were both immigrants, they had become thoroughly Americanized and so our family tradition was the best of both worlds. Dinner always started with a pasta course–perhaps substituting a variety of pastas for a variety of fishes. My Nana made fresh pasta by hand from scratch every day and though that was the only pasta we ever ate at home, being gathered around a table with my entire family made it that much more special. Fusilli, lasagne, stuffed shells or manicotti. Enough pasta to feed an army. But that was just the first course. There was salad and after that, came out the more Anglo-American style meal: baked ham, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes (yum!), carrots and peas. None of us could move after all that but there was always dessert. Again, a blend of traditions: Italian cookies like anisettes and pizzelles and more Anglo-American treats like pies. My grandmother would always make a rum cake and there’d usually be a pistachio cake too.

After all that, THEN we’d do gifts. There were already some under the tree but my uncle would dress as Santa and emerge from the basement (which I never questioned, there being a perfectly serviceable fireplace in the living room) bearing more goodies for the kids. We always knew it was my uncle, but that wasn’t the point of course. Finally, after all that, we’d bundle up and head home. I was an altar boy, but we almost never went to Midnight Mass, though I imagine my great-grandparents did.

Christmas morning at home would usually find me wide awake around 5.30 or 6, sitting quietly in my room playing video games or patiently staring at the gifts under the tree. I knew better than to try to wake anyone up before 7.

The rest of the morning was usually a blur. I was never one for ripping the wrapping paper off my gifts, despite my mother and step father’s best attempts at trying to get me to do it for the camera. Carefully and methodically, I would undo the wrapping in reverse order of how it had been taped on. After gifts, we would have breakfast and my parents would usually have to pull me away from whatever new video or computer game I had gotten and force me to eat and then get ready so my father could pick me up to head to my Grandparents’ house.

Grandma and Grandpa’s in Central Massachusetts almost always greeted me with a white Christmas, even if closer to Boston we had no snow. Things there were usually more subdued than with the Italian side of the family. My dad’s side of the family is more far-flung so there would always be less of us, but even on holidays when we would all gather together, the Hungarian-Germans just weren’t quite as rowdy. I liked the more gentle nature of celebrations there even though I now miss my rowdy extended Italian family. Dinner with my Father’s family felt much more…British. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, the usual sides. Cookies and maybe a pie for dessert, but always accompanied by a Jubilee Roll from Friendly’s.

As I got older, I was often the only grandchild at the house until dinner time and my Father and Grandparents would have to prod me into opening my gifts under the tree and in my stocking. It just wasn’t what the holiday was about for me anymore. Particularly by the time I was a teenager, I treasured the week that I would spend at my Grandparents’ beautiful old Victorian house. Until just before I graduated from high school, they were the last house on the street and they didn’t even have a street number–that’s how rural it was. It was quiet and there was no one yelling from one end of the house to the other, no pressure of chores, no pressure of school. And always the offer to go do fun things like go to Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester or go into downtown Northampton or Amherst and spend an afternoon in a bookstore. Or just spend an afternoon curled up in my favorite chair in the living room, reading. Or help my grandmother cook dinner or bake a coffee cake. Mmm…Grandma’s coffee cake. That’s a post of it’s own.

So, I guess my Christmas road trip memories always remind me of how different the two sides of my family are. These past few years are the first years that I’ve spent away from my family and I’ve yet to come up with any real traditions of my own. I don’t own any ornaments or lights. I’ve never bought my own tree. Last Christmas, we were at the tail end of Snowpocalypse here in Portland and the city had basically been shut down for a week. The Man and I had only recently started dating and had survived a week together at my apartment with breaks to trudge around town on foot. I had to work a double on Christmas day and we spent the night at the hotel I work at because I had to work again early the next morning. It was very mellow and low-key. We had grand ideas for Christmas this year because he thought he was going to have friends from back East coming to visit, but that fell through and it looks like it’s going to just be the two of us again. I’m okay with that, but I might have to make some lasagne anyway…


36/365, originally uploaded by unspeakable_grooviness.

I know, the second pasta photo in a week. But this is different pasta!

It’s Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese which is always yummy on its own but I realised after I had started making it that I didn’t have any milk so on a whim, I decided to make it carbonara style–no bacon, alas, but I used an egg in place of the milk with the cheese powder. I also added in some Hungarian paprika and some black pepper. Pretty tasty for something in a pinch.


30/365, originally uploaded by unspeakable_grooviness.

Let’s talk about how much I love Saint Cupcake. I mean, based on its name alone, how could you not love the place?

This little guy was heading to a guest’s room at the hotel where I work because someone had phoned ahead to let us know it was his birthday and asked if we couldn’t maybe have a cupcake waiting for him in his room. Of course we could…especially because we got some cupcakes for ourselves. 🙂

Turns out, cupcakes are also a great way to propose. NOT ME! CALM DOWN! One of my co-workers proposed to his girlfriend last week by nestling the ring into the top of a mini cupcake from Saint Cupcake. She said yes. It was my idea. I come up with the best ideas.

Especially when they involve cupcakes.

Food Coma

I just made fish and chips. And onion rings.

With Guinness in the batter. And roasted fingerling potatoes with whole cloves of garlic, salt, pepper and cumin as the chips.

Oh, and did I mention that I made onion rings with Walla Walla onions with the left-over batter. And they were the best onion rings I’ve ever had in my life. Ever.

I should have taken pictures but I didn’t because I’m in way too much of a food coma right now.