Tales from the Cafeteria

August 25, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

You may recall the name of your second-grade teacher, the year you learned to multiply or that nasty scrape from falling off the monkey bars.

But chances are, your memories of the school cafeteria are even more acute. Sticky buns baking in the oven, the gossip and pranks, the cafeteria ladies themselves: Together, they've left an indelible impression on former students who decades later can describe the fear or thrill of buying a school lunch for the first time and rhapsodize over the peanut-butter fudge served for dessert.

As another school year begins, Baltimore Sun readers share their own school-cafeteria experiences. Some tales are comforting, some are amusing and some touching. All capture the school cafeteria's singular role in defining American childhood.

As a graduate of the class of 1946 of Western High School, I have fond memories of our cafeteria. Most of my girlfriends were Jewish. When their Passover and my Easter holidays were nigh, I traded my bologna sandwiches and cookies for their hardboiled eggs and matzo. Our mothers hadn't a clue."

-- Jenette Blake Ports, Owings Mills

As a very picky eater at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in the early 1960s, I would never venture into the cafeteria. On the first day of second grade I forgot my lunch, and was given money to buy a cafeteria lunch. Going through the line, I was delighted to see a surprise -- scoops of white creaminess on every tray! As an ice cream lover, I was happy that I would like something that was being served. I sat down with my lunch and spooned some of the creamy stuff into my mouth. No, it wasn't ice cream -- it was gluey mashed potatoes. Four more years of peanut-butter sandwiches!"

--Bonnie Bricker, Columbia

We loved the cafeteria; we loved getting to eat meals that our mothers did not make; we loved standing in line and paying 35 cents for lunch, (in Manchester, Ga., in the mid-1950s), and we especially loved the chocolate pudding. Great brown globs of it almost every day. Life was good."

-- Beth Edelstein, Timonium

Buying dessert [at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Philadelphia] at lunch was a huge treat, and my favorite was an ice cream sandwich: a slice of Neapolitan ice cream between two very crisp, sharp-edged waffle cookies. The price of an ice cream sandwich was 11 cents.

In 1943, the U.S. mint had produced pennies made of aluminum, to save copper for the war effort. To someone in a hurry, these unfamiliar coins looked enough like dimes that the tough kids made a practice of buying ice cream sandwiches for two cents -- one penny made of copper and one of aluminum. "

-- Deborah London, Baltimore

I do recall that one time, on boxed-lunch day [at Violetville Elementary School in the 1960s], the contents of our feast contained green, seedless grapes. A few of my girlfriends and I had the misfortune of standing outdoors in front of the school cafeteria's windows where the teachers and principal were indoors eating their noontime meal. My friends and I were tossing the grapes into the air in an attempt to catch them in our wide-open mouths. Oops! Somehow we had violated a restriction on grape-tossing / mouth-catching protocol. Notes from the principal's office were sent home with us. I thought my life was over; punishment was imminent! Surprisingly, my mom signed the note and told me not to repeat the incident."

-- Marty Tuxford, Baltimore

I graduated from the Catholic High School of Baltimore in 1961. Every year for four years, when the girls gathered in the cafeteria for lunch, a nun blew a whistle for us to stop in our tracks, blew the whistle again for us to take our seats, blew the whistle after we ate to stop in our tracks, and blew the whistle again for us to take our seats. We put up with this for four years. On the last day of school, one of the seniors stole the whistle from the nun who, of course, was very angry. The seniors found it very enjoyable. The guilty senior confessed at the first reunion of the class of 1961."

-- Jacqueline Aquilla Dryden, Forest Hill

My most memorable memories at the school cafeteria were at Calverton Junior High School in West Baltimore. ... This is back in the day [early 1970s] when the food was actually cooked in the cafeteria. These hot, sticky, gooey cinnamon buns with the white icing melting over them were delicious. You would eat them by peeling away the flaky layers from the crusty outside layer to the soft, sweet, sticky inside core. They were so big that two sticky buns with a carton of milk was the complete lunch order for many a kid back then.

The cafeteria was a place to both eat and socialize. A place to be with the group of people you chose to identify with and who accepted you. And the one major thing you had to worry about was if you were going to be one of the lucky persons who would get a sticky bun that day for lunch."

-- Lareda V. Kellam, Baltimore

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