Updated: Aug 28, 2018
Growing up I went to many different schools. When I think about school lunches when I was a child, my memory goes straight to the Our Lady of Victory cafeteria circa 1975. It was a rather small room by cafeteria standards. We had assigned tables and being a very small catholic elementary we sat with our classmates. Even still, we managed to form those nasty little groups we all know as "cliches". Mine was a foursome; Kim Kloc, aka the rich kid, as my dad would say, Janey Skipper, who was boy crazy, and Carolyn Harding, who was nice enough, but when she got the lead role on the play and struggled with her lines, I was so annoyed that the teacher didn't just fire her and hand the role over to me!
To level the playing field, we wore uniforms. Boys wore the standard white button down collared shirt with a clip on tie, and blue slacks. (They never called them pants) and for the girls, red and black plaid jumper that came to the knee. The shoulder straps were adjustable, like overalls, so at any time one of the nuns could lengthen your dress if it was looking too short. Our uniform was not like any other I had ever seen. The red tartan pattern was telling of some Scottish priest who may have thought he was clever by posting his colors on a pack of school children. I digress.
My lunchbox, oddly, matched my uniform. I vaguely remember picking it out at Woolworth’s Department store. It was the only one like it. Looking back it was most likely because it was boring and not very child like. Not at all something that an 8 year old would choose. It also occurs to me that this was perhaps an early phase of OCD. I have always found comfort in matching things. It was a metal container with a matching thermos that clipped neatly inside. Here is where things begin to go badly.
The school sold milk cartons. Both chocolate and white milk were available. However, I was never allowed to purchase either because after all, I had a perfectly good thermos in which to bring my beverage from home. I never opened the thermos at the lunch table though. Every day I would sneak it with me into the bathroom to empty the contents. It was always the same, milk that had curdled or turned outright into yogurt. And back then, yogurt was not really a thing people consumed. It was in the pre-homogenized days, and milk poured into a thermos in the evening and left on the counter overnight was not going to fair well by noon the next day. My father believed differently. It was In thermos after all. Those things are made to keep it cold! And then he would launch into "back in the auld country we didn't get a thermos, much less milk and we were darn lucky when we did get a bit of milk or cream. It 'twas a special treat...." And on he would go with a story of his childhood in Ireland. The truth is, I never cared for milk to begin with.
So there I sat with my 3 friends at the lunch table. One thing I don't remember so much is what food I brought. I think it was mostly a bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And maybe a piece of fruit. I was not allowed to buy lunch and one thing was certain, I was not allowed to buy candy, or ice cream like "the rich kid"!
Every day Kim Kloc had money to buy lunch with chocolate milk, a fistful of candy, and on Fridays , ice cream. Yes, the Catholic lunch ladies needed baldly to increase revenue and the best solution was to sell an assortment of Swedish fish (the big ones), Now & Laters, M&Ms, and lollipops , (we called them suckers). To her credit, Kim was very generous with her daily haul. Although looking back, perhaps it was her way of maintaining her most popular girl status. Towards the middle of the lunch period, a bell would ring signaling that the candy counter was open and those with the funds were welcome to come up. Everyday She would return to the table and dole out a piece of candy to us less fortunate souls. I'm not sure what she did with the rest of it because she didn't have a lunch box. She never brought lunch.
When lunch was over we could go to recess, with a pit stop to the bathroom in between. That is when I dumped out the sour contents of my thermos, and then a stop at the water fountain to gulp large amounts of what was certainly lead infused water. Perhaps I would have been better off drinking sour milk!
It's a wonder any of us survived the elementary lunchroom. I suppose for different reasons. For me the take away was that despite the beverage issues, that little memory of time was a good one. What stands out for me was not the contents so much as how I felt about my matching uniform and lunch box. I felt well put together, in a word classy. Although at that time I had no understanding of just what that was.