Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s School Cafeteria Anymore

I have few fond memories of high school. One, however, is the institution of fine learning’s cafeteria. Of course, I was a teenager back then—in the scintillating 1970s—with teenager culinary tastes and peculiar gastronomic desires. I salivated over certain foods then that might very well leave me dry today. I don’t know if I’d appreciate the school’s exceptionally gooey Friday “grandma slices” of pizza or cardboard-textured Wednesday roast beef wedges (with optional Au jus)—personal favorites—as much now as I did when Jimmy Carter was president. I wonder, too, how my adult palate would take to the “Mashed Pot” served with the aforementioned roast beef wedge. Yes, that’s what the a-little-too-small cafeteria special board read every Wednesday. Were he still among the living, Cardinal Spellman would certainly have cried foul.

Anyway, while perusing my alma mater’s website recently, I came upon a link to its “cafeteria menu,” which I thought strange. When I clicked it, a PDF file opened up with this week’s—Monday through Friday—menu. And it was a tad different from what I recall with such fondness. I remember one unique “hot” special every day of the week—like the pizza and roast beef wedge—plus the ubiquitous daily alternative: hot dogs. The hot dogs were thirty-five cents when I was a freshman, fifty cents when I was a senior, and worth every penny.

There are no hot dogs on today’s cafeteria menu. In fact, the place has been dubbed a “café” now and is run by a culinary outfit. (I won't hazard a guess as to what happened to all the cafeteria ladies.) This contemporary bill of fare features categories like “Chef’s Table,” “Jump Asian,” and “Tuscan Bistro.” Icons identify which foods are gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan. The vegetarian side dish for January 20, 2016 was “Risi e Bisi Rice, Roasted Zucchini, and Tomatoes.” The only thing resembling a vegetable—outside of potatoes—that I remember eating in the school cafeteria was sauerkraut on my hot dog. It was the first and last time I sampled that. But sauerkraut taught me a valuable lesson: Appealing aromas don’t necessarily translate into taste sensations, particularly when they turn a perfectly edible hot dog roll into a soggy mess. (The cafeteria ladies had to keep the lunch lines moving. Draining the sauerkraut before putting it atop the frankfurter just didn’t happen.)

So, a long time ago on a Wednesday afternoon in wintertime, I enjoyed a roast beef wedge—with Au jus—and a mashed pot side in my school cafeteria. Today, I could have ordered “Chicken Scallopini Scampi,” “Hunan Chicken and Hong Sue Pork,” and “Fruited Barley Lentil Soup.” I could also have a refillable debit card to pay for it—a lunchtime E-Zpass. For sure: It’s not your grandfather’s school cafeteria anymore. Trouble is: I’m the grandfather. How did that happen?

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