Fourth Day of Christmas: Lunch Ladies

Dec 28 2017 Published by under How to Grow a Zuska, Tales From The Coal Patch

Not ladies who lunch, but the lunch ladies, are today's topic.

Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?

In grade school, sometimes I did both. We lived down the street from the elementary school. Bus rides didn't happen for me until sixth grade, though there were plenty of kids who did ride the bus up into Bobtown for grade school. (And I do mean up - Bobtown Hill was quite a trip on a school bus, especially in winter, especially with snow chains on the tires. Do they still do that? Oh the poor bus drivers, eternally having to repair the broken chains en route to or from school. But I digress.)

Kids who rode the bus either had to carry their lunch or eat in the cafeteria. I could choose either option, but also on occasion could walk home for lunch. Sometimes I'd go to the home of my second cousin, who lived even closer to the school house, as this savings of walking time might allow for a bit of play time.

Every weekend we would study the school lunch menu as published in the local newspaper - they did that back then! they published the weekly lunch menus for all the grade schools and high schools in the county! in our local paper! we had a local paper! two of them, actually! morning and evening! delivered daily! to our front doorstep! by a local guy! who walked the route! - anyway, we would study the lunch menus to see what days were desirable eat-in-school days.

In my grade school days, the lunch ladies were women of the town who knew how to cook, and who prepared the lunches more or less from scratch. Those lunches were good, tasty food, nutritious and filling. I still have the recipe for Pizzaburgers a la Bobtown Elementary School (see below). Pizzaburgers were definitely a eat-in-school lunch.

In grade school, there was a lot of stern discipline. We were all the kids of immigrant families whose fathers worked the coal mines. The teachers at that time, for the most part, were not drawn from the ranks of the townspeople. Some of our teachers seemed to think what we needed was not so much the fundamentals of readin', ritin', and 'rithmatic as the fundamentals of discipline and punish. One teacher lined us up in alphabetical order to march from the classroom to lunchroom and back, and maintained a strict no-talking rule during the transit process. All teachers carried wooden paddles and it was common for at least one child to be paddled during the lunch hour for some transgression or other. (Keep in mind these are children from kindergarten to fifth grade.) Children who were paddled were commonly made to sign their names to the teacher's paddle. I was an extremely well-behaved child and I was hit with the paddle once each year of my grade school career - for example, once in second grade, for jumping out of my seat and running to the window in excitement at the sight of the first snow of the season.

With this as background, imagine a young child going through the lunch line with the cheerful lunch ladies - who were not so very different from our own mothers and bubbas - serving up trays of warm food along with a smile and an encouraging word or two. I have many bad and frightening memories of grade school but none of them have to do with the lunch ladies.

Even at high school, the food was real food, cooked by women you knew because your family socialized with them. Every high school lunch came with a bun, a small freshly baked yeasty mini-loaf of bread accompanied by a pat of butter. With homemade meatloaf or spaghetti with meat sauce, this was really quite filling.

I remember one particular day taking my tray up to discard my lunch leftovers at a time when I had grown oddly picky about food. The pickiness was perhaps made worse by peer pressure. It had become common to indulge in mocking the lunch offerings; as teenagers newly aware of our importance and centrality to the universe, we mocked everything. M., the lunch lady who was my brother's mother-in-law saw that I was discarding an entirely untouched bun, and she chided me, kind and stern at once. Why did I take the bun if I would not eat it? Did I not know that they made those fresh, from scratch, each morning? Did I not know how good they tasted? Did I not like bread? Did I not know that if nothing else on the menu appealed to me, I could make a meal out of the bun and butter and a carton of milk? Did I not know my mother would be ashamed of me for wasting good food?????

I could not argue with any of M.'s logic, and I definitely could not argue with that last statement. And I knew if I were ever again caught throwing an uneaten bun in the trash, my mom would hear about it, and I would hear about it from mom. I did like the buns, and M.'s chiding gave me courage to eat them in the face of my friends' lunch food mockery. Henceforth, I ate my bun and drank my milk, even if nothing else on the lunch menu appealed to me.

Later in life I watched Jamie Oliver attempt to revamp public school lunch programs in the U.S. and was dismayed to find out how little control lunch ladies have over the meals they produce for schoolchildren now. They care just as much as the women who fed and nourished (and chided) me but their hands are often tied by harmful policies designed more to help mega-food corporations than to nourish children.

What can you do to help improve school lunches for your kid, and support your local lunch ladies? The NRDC has some advice here.

And now, the recipe for Pizzaburgers!! (Obviously scaled down from production for a lunchroom of undisciplined talking youngsters who just will not stay in an alphabetized straight line, but still sizeable enough for a family of nine. Recommend serving with a side of green beans. And a carton - not plastic bottle - of chocolate milk, if you can get your hands on one.)


2 lb ground beef
3 cans tomato paste
2 cans tomato sauce
1 c. grated cheese (cheddar or Longhorn)
2 1/2 T parsley flakes
2 T brown sugar
1/2 T. garlic powder
1 T oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
Brown meat and onion with salt and pepper. Add paste, sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, oregano, grated cheese, parsley. Mix well. Spoon on open buns. Sprinkle some cheese on top. Brown under broiler till melted.

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