The Public School Cafeteria Gourmand

Eating at school was rare. I mean, I ate, but I ate lunches that my mom packed for me. These lunches were packed for some years in various tin lunch pails (My Little Pony being a personal favorite) and when I got “too cool” for it, paper bags. I’m pretty sure I was still lame enough to be using the MLP one at this point. The lunchtime staples were fairly predictable and never failed to please. I’d have a ham sandwich on Orowheat whole wheat bread cut on the diagonal, a Capri Sun or Welch’s Grape Juice (I preferred white for it’s unique and underrated complex flavor, however the standard purple variety would suffice) and one sweet treat…usually blue flavored Gushers or a strawberry Foot Long Fruit Roll Up, which, at the time, seemed like an extraordinary length for a snack but now rather tidy and modest.
I had a Hello Kitty wallet. It was pink with pink snaps closing the change pouches – one diligently labeled “cookies” and the other, “phone.” I was quite organized as a child and I am pretty sure I adhered to my strict monetary guidelines.
My elementary school cafeteria provided a different menu from the one at my old private school. There we dignified the dining experience with an altogether foreign title. We had “Hot Lunch” at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran School. God was saving us from something, something wicked. My public school cooked up sloppy joes, strange odors, and the most delicious chocolate chip cookies served wrapped in a greasy square of waxed paper. They were never cooked all the way through. In fact, these cookies were frighteningly undercooked and likely a red flag salmonella hazard. They were so tasty they merited that reserved pouch in my wallet filled with my parent’s money.
Their pizza was another story. I generally stayed away from the cafeteria which the exception of my aforementioned dirty little cookie secret. I was always under the impression that cafeteria food was for impoverished youths with negligent parents. It is quite possible this idea was on loan from my mother. The vegetables were never the right shade of green, the milk cartons never gave me the impression they were being stored at the right temperature, the meat never smelled like meat.
But one day, for whatever reason, I was drawn to the pizza covered in dried out government cheese that sat on a sickly white crust like chapped lips. It was foul, terribly foul stuff. Whatever they half-cooked these pizzas on, it had a perforated bottom to it and the underbelly of each slice displayed the pimpled evidence – Braille for your tongue, silently screaming “Don’t fucking do it!” But I was young and I didn’t hear the call.
Later that day I was sitting across from my mom and brother at my favorite dining establishment, Chili’s, when my stomach clenched and twisted in such a violent manner that I couldn’t even begin to eat my Kiddie Grilled Cheese. The rest of the evening went as follows: Mom takes me home, I get in parents’ bed, I writhe around in pain, I begin to perspire, I writhe around in pain some more, little invisible daggers poke at my innards, my parents insist they take me to the hospital, I refuse, I writhe, parents insist, writhe, daggers, refuse, daggers, daggers, daggers. I give in.
Dad drives me to the West Hills Hospital in our tan Toyota Land Cruiser. He hoists me up, my head bobbing up and down watching our journey from the parking lot to the Emergency Room lobby. The sliding doors open. The sliding doors close. Fluorescent light assaults my eyeballs. And finally, all of a sudden, before we even make it to the receptionist desk…I throw up all over the back of my dad’s gray wool coat. I am flooded with shame, relief, and the vow never to eat at school again.

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