Scarsdale, New York

The Lunch Menu For Today

By Sharon G. Forman

Back in the 1970s when I was a sixth grader at Little Creek Elementary School, in Norfolk, Virginia, the principal anointed me with the honor of reading the daily announcements over the school’s public-address system. Geographic transplants to the South, my parents had moved to Norfolk, Virginia when I was 3 years old. My mother’s Midwestern vowels were passed down to me like her freckles, making the differences among pens, pans and pins a bit easier to detect than in my peers, with their charming Southern lilts and relaxed vowels.

I was also a serious kid, who fastidiously laid out clothes the night before school and made her own lunch, which needed to include a protein and fruit if I were to eat the chocolate and cream Little Debbie snack cake that my mom made sure to have on hand for me.   

Standing in front of the tremendous window in the school’s carpeted front office, the sun bathing the secretaries in morning light, I spoke deliberately into the microphone. I would summon my most grown up and solemn “Today Show,” Jane Pauley voice and offer morning salutations to the principal, teachers and students, and invite them to stand and face the flag. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I would get to select the “Today in History” fact from a book brimming with shards of information.

“On this day in 1959, Alaska was admitted as the 49th state,” or, “On this day in 1908, the first Model T car was produced,” I would remind the sleepy teachers and students, as my voice reverberated in the spotless hallways, their green paint in two tones like a medicine capsule. After the history lesson came brief public service messages handwritten in legible teacher script.

“The safety patrol will have a mandatory meeting ten minutes before school tomorrow in the library,” or “the eagle flies today” (which meant that the teachers would be receiving their paychecks). And then, finally, the best part of morning announcements would arrive: the recitation of the school lunch menu.

I was raised in a house in which the Jewish dietary laws held sway. Milk and meat products kept a respectful distance from each other; pork and shellfish were shunned; and few suspicious grasses or seeds were ever sprinkled in proximity to soup pots or baking pans. Avoiding the lengthy lines in the school cafeteria, I preferred to bring my own brown bag filled with familiar foods: tuna sandwiches on toast; kosher salami on rye bread; even leftover kugel (noodle pudding made with eggs, cottage cheese and sour cream, and sugar). My unsophisticated mouth had never tasted the foods I spoke about each day on the school PA system.  When would I ever have a reason to utter the foreign words chicken-fried steak, green beans with ham, smoked hickory sausage and succotash? I felt like a Quaker who did not wear buttons reading aloud a fashion magazine for Las Vegas showgirls.

Almost 40 years have passed since I completed elementary school. I don’t always remember the things I learned at Little Creek, such as how many cups are in a gallon, or whether certain patterns are continuous or continual, or that Springfield and not Chicago is the capital of Illinois. Yet, I still can summon up minute details about Little Creek lunches — from the rectangular shaped pieces of pizza sprinkled with hamburger meat, to the pink flecks of ham that infiltrated innocent vegetarian options, such as green beans and macaroni and cheese. The peculiar and somewhat nauseating smoky smell of the tiny little sausages filled the cafeteria and would linger for hours on the clothes of my classmates. The white bread rolls were baked right in the kitchen, and their variation in size was almost comical, with a family-sized portion given to one student and a puny crust of bread to another. When I bought chocolate milk or an ice cream treat, the lunch ladies wore hairnets and called me “honey child.”

As I finish sharing these memories, I realize that it’s time for me to eat lunch now, too. Last week I made a batch of mild turkey chili, and there is still some left in the fridge, as my own picky children won’t touch any food that looks light pink unless it is frosting. I wonder what they’re eating at Little Creek Elementary School right now, and if the menu has more vegetarian options than it used to and does not harbor stray pieces of ham infiltrating all of the troughs in the tri-compartment lunch plates.

Today in history, I offered morning announcements at my public school and ate a homemade lunch surrounded by my classmates, Kim, Karen and Gail with the glasses, who moved after sixth grade. Today in history, I was probably called “sugar darling” by a lunch lady wearing white shoes. Today in history, my school probably smelled like foods that I have never tasted, not even now when I could eat anything I choose, even Little Debbies for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen in my school was about as un-kosher as possible, but it managed to give me nourishment. On a few Fridays during the month, the eagle still flies over Little Creek, detecting the bleach-scented hallways and the faint whiff of Sloppy Joes.