Here’s an old joke.
How do you quiet a room full of antsy, hungry, exuberant kids?
You clunk the mic.
No, of course you don’t. I made it up, which subsequently may account for the lack of pre-perceived laughter that I – you know – pre perceived.
Well, you may not get it, but the kindly cafeteria matron sure did. She was a gray haired little old lady ancient enough to have taken tutelage from Pavlov himself. You know, the guy with the bell and the dog? Every time he rang the bell, the dog knew it was mealtime.
In my earliest elementary years, I had thought that maybe she had these frail, clumsy hands that couldn’t hold tight to the mic and that’s why it bumped so loud, so often.
Whenever that thump pounded from the PA, the room turned from unruly anarchy to one of hushed expectance.
It was genius.
There was no call to quiet down, no teasing taunts of “I can wait,” while we sat there, stomachs rumbling, tongues gliding back and forth over lips soon chapped. She would click the mic on with a flick of the thumb, from the speakers above came an audible hum.
That’s about as poetic as it gets.
Thunder rumbled when that microphone clunked once and then twice over the aged wooden stage like a prop plane bouncing along the runway before reaching take-off speed. Airborne, it hovered before her mouth. The assembled grew silent.
“Table one for hot lunch,” her rasp reverberated in mirthless monotone.
Sans salute, the structured students stood.
Tables two through five looked on in awe.
With a side dish of jealousy.
Table Five, forever last to be summoned, salivated
I saw it.
I was a Table Five tenant.
“Table one,” her voice echoed. “Proceed.”
With Cub Scout cadence, the troop tromped to their spoils, simmering in silver shimmering
troughs beneath a mounting misty miasma of fragrant fog that promised quintessential cuisine reserved for only A(B-C)-list clientele.
I didn’t think the school Principal could have commanded the respect that this woman held. It was impressive, it was daunting, and I remember from the earliest days of taking my meals in the school cafeteria that it was a little scary too.
The order was given.
The order was followed.
I never stood.
I didn’t have to.
You see, while I was taking my meals in the cafeteria, I was subsequently taking my meals to the cafeteria.
I was a brown bag lunch kid.
It’s not that I was poor.
I was picky.
A childhood affliction for which no cure could be found.
Mom packed my lunch each day, and I was always okay with the butter and jelly on white bread sandwiches.
Yes, I said butter.
I have an issue with peanut butter. I don’t think it’s a peanut allergy, though it might be. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried peanut butter. The smell alone forces my throat closed. A knife with peanut butter remnants left in the sink for me to wash
(I’m always doing dishes)
could mean certain death.
A constricted airway leads to restricted oxygen flow to the brain and well… Land O’Lakes lightly salted butter and Welch’s grape jelly between two slices of Wonder white bread made a fine meal.
So did Spam.
You know, that gelatinous luncheon meat that comes from the Spig?
Mom would fry up the Spam the night before, put it between two pieces of (not so) lightly buttered white toast, wrap it, brown bag it and throw it in the fridge. The following day I would carry it around in my book bag until lunchtime.
Nothing said nutritional Nirvana like day old Spam served at room temperature.
My grandfather would beg to differ. Having served in World War II, he had had his fill of Spam, which was never in short supply. His nose would wrinkle and his eyes would narrow every time I mentioned it. It did help to further my educational studies however.
“Where I come from buddy, Spam is a four letter word,” he would tell me.
Well, it didn’t take a 5th grader to figure that out.
Even in abundance, it must have been worth something back then. You needed a key to open it! Every package of yummy Spam came complete with a small metal key affixed to the bottom of the round rectangular can. Cooking it was the easy part. It was the pre-pan procedure that took a little work.
Step 1: Locate the small metal tab on the right side of the can.
Step 2: Work the tab open using the fingernail of your choice being careful not to cut the tender skin underneath. Nothing says worse pain than paper cut than an abrasion beneath the nail.
Step 3: Insert the protruding tab through the rectangular hole in the top of the key. (It’s sort of like threading a needle, something that I would know nothing about because I don’t sew).
Step 4: Twisting in a counter-clockwise direction (south, if the can is facing north, west, if facing east), peel away the strip of metal until a full rotation of 360 degrees is completed. This refers to the journey around the can as opposed to the consistent twirling of the key in motion, which will have achieved a full 360 degrees many times before reaching its final destination.
Step 5: Remove the top portion of the can, and very unceremoniously dump the lump of greasy goodness into the pan. Don’t worry about the protective slime like jelly that oozes out behind it. It’s edible.
Yes, lunch was an education. In this lesson alone, we have breached math, spelling and physics.
“Table Five for extra’s,” the never merry matron intoned.
In the interest of time, I have skipped tables one through four to leave room for this next piece of vital grade school trivia. It was neither snacks, nor dessert. The call to arms following the main meal was a call to extras. I don’t even know what that means. Maybe the nice old lady possessed some type of crystal ball, had seen into the future (our present) and had reached the realization that the terms snacks or dessert were unacceptable. Extras had a nice ring to it. It was generic, it did not draw attention to the food class system – meat and vegetables being upper class, fruits and dairy being middle class, snacks and desserts…well, from the wrong side of the tracks. Extras was politically correct in a time when political correctness had yet been considered. Extras made us all better children. A little larger in girth maybe, but overall, we were fine, upstanding, respectful little citizens.
Lunch in elementary school was so much more than feeding, frolic and the occasional food fight. The cafeteria with its long metal tables rife with sharp edges (that would never fly in today’s super safe-conscious society) and warped wooden stage pulled so much more than double duty as an eatery at mealtimes and an auditorium at others.
It was a classroom too.
And to the matron whose name I never knew,
I take this moment to offer a heartfelt thank-you.
(Hey, check it out. The poetic part didn’t end where I thought it would).