The Evolution of Lunch

I'm hungry. It's time for lunch, and I can't decide what to eat. I've been standing here in the kitchen for the last 10 minutes, waffling between the freezer, the pantry, and the refrigerator. (Soup? Nah. Lean Cuisine? Eh. Panini? Had one yesterday. Salad? The lettuce looks iffy). Back and forth, over and over, as if something new and delicious will magically pop out of the crisper drawer if I just look hard enough.

Today's culinary indecisiveness reminds me of school lunches growing up. It wasn't always good (or even edible if you considered the occasional enigma that was the disturbingly vague "Casserole Surprise") but at least the decision was made for you. Walk in, grab your tray, and get a scoop of whatever the head lunch lady felt like dishing out to you that day. You had no choice. You ate it or you went hungry. (Unless, of course, your mother loved you enough to send a packed lunch to school with you...then at least you had brand name food with which you could trade and barter).

Some years I was allowed to take my lunch, some years I wasn't. Mom insisted that school lunches were hot and delicious (snort!) and nutritionally balanced...unlike the chemically injected, high fat, high sodium, imitation-meat-and-cheese-on-a-cracker Lunchable that I longed to tote to school. (Back in my day, Lunchables were the Holy Grail of lunch food...the prison cigarettes of trade at May Howard Elementary, and something that my mother flat out refused to buy). My loss, because a Lunchable could get you anything. Double if it was one that included a tiny candy bar desert. (Oh Lunchables! How triumphantly you reigned over the cafeteria with the sweet seductive power of marketing and processed turkey medallions!)

By comparison, hot lunch cafeteria food had no trade power whatsoever. It was worthless. Even the "chocolate pudding" was too suspect to be useful. Luckily, I was best friends with a girl who not only had a mother who bought Lunchables with blessed regularity, but also a kind and sharing spirit. To her I give credit for me not starving during those formative years.

By high school, popularity was judged on more ambiguous and enigmatic criteria than lunch food, and I returned to purchasing what the school offered. Finally acknowledging that not everyone liked tuna and turnip casserole (or, at least getting tired of hearing us complain about it), the school superintendent expanded the daily lunch menu offerings, even if nothing was actually done to improve the taste. (Honestly, I think my high school discovered that they could sell more food if they offered pizza and french fries in addition to whatever was on the daily menu).

We would parade in, eyeball the mystery blob swimming in a pool of lumpy congealed gravy that was the daily offering and reach for the pizza and fries. (Not that it was "real" pizza, mind you. It was that famous school rectangle pizza with microscopic "pepperoni" bits, a chemical-ly tasting sauce and no edge crust. It wasn't good compared to anything else bearing the name pizza, but at least it was identifiable, so we flocked to it). There were many a week where I had pizza and fries EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. We got to where we loathed it. But we ate it anyway, because as predictable as it was, it still beat liver and onions.

Not that the daily offerings were all bad. The tacos were okay, and if you could somehow dislodge the film that had formed like a crust over the cheese sauce, nacho day wasn't bad either. (As a matter of fact, my friends and I composed a little jingle about exactly what was edible in the cafeteria. It went "pizza and fries, pizza and fries, hamburger, NA-chos, pizza and fries. Pizza and fries, pizza and fries, salad bar, TA-cos, pizza and fries". We would sing it while we waited in the line to get our food).

I'm curious now if the food was really as bad as I remember it, or if the grumblings of a finicky teenaged eater has colored it somewhat. (Is it better or worse than those microwavable healthy choices I sometimes get? Does it beat a hot pocket? Why do I still eat this junk?) And what did the lunch ladies think when they spent hours coming up with nutritionally balanced lunches, only to watch us swarm the pizza? Did they care, or did they refuse to eat cabbage stew also?

Kinda wish I had someone to make my lunch now.