GUEST COLUMN | The lunchroom ladies

It's time the lunchroom ladies got their due.

At Burke Street Elementary in Ashdown, Arkansas, (and later Ashdown High School) the kids in my grade were respectful of all adults. But just like at home, we sometimes complained about the food. Especially the food in the lunch room.

Now, part of that had to do with the fact that my mom is a fabulous cook. She could cook a potato 50 different ways from Sunday. It made me a connoisseur of a perfectly-fried potato. Or french fry, as the rich folks called it.

So, when you had a bunch of kids whose mom's were great cooks, we were always whining about what was plopped on our plates in the school cafeteria.

About as often as we griped about the food, we also were happy to see what was being served.

In fairness, there were some out-of-the-park dishes that came out of the school lunch room.

The one that comes to mind for me is pizza. Harold's Pizza in Texarkana wasn't on my radar yet, so getting any kind of pizza was a very big deal. And the lunchroom ladies knew how to make pizza.

It was a basic pie. Crust, hamburger meat, and cheese. But it tasted so good. Matter of fact, kids would barter away their pudding for pizza. That is, if you could find a kid willing to trade his pizza for anything, including pudding.

Also, taco day was something to look forward to. It didn't happen often, but when it did, the kids were excited. Again, there wasn't much to the tacos - shells, hamburger meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. But they were unique in flavor.

You have to remember that an Arkansas kid back then didn't get out much. So when tacos came down the lunch line, it was considered mighty fine eatin'.

Think about it. Cooking even basic fare in the quantity that these ladies in the lunchroom had to, it's a feat that's worth noting. Imagine having a few hundred kids show up at your house at the same time, hungry and ready to eat.

What was being served in the school cafeteria was such a big deal that the local radio station used to read that day's menu on the air. About 7 o'clock each morning, we'd wait to see what we were having. For the kids who had the choice of taking their lunch or eating in the lunchroom, knowing what was served that day could make for some tough decisions.

My mom let my sister and me take our lunches if we wanted. But we couldn't just spring it on her. She had to know in advance so that she could make sure to have something to put in my Banana Splits or G.I. Joe lunch box.

Usually, if I wasn't going to eat in the lunchroom, I had to make a decision for the next week. That gave her ample time to send me to Shur-Way on my bicycle to pick up a pound of baloney and a bag of Frito's.

But, more often that not, I ate in the lunchroom. The food was hot, and it was 15¢. Later it went up to a quarter.

With lunch, you sometimes got a choice of either regular milk or chocolate milk. This was before all the health nuts got into the school lunch programs and started ruining everything with what they thought we should be eating.

This was also about the same time the government decided to get a bunch of people who were allegedly educated on food to start dictating what kids should eat. These are the same folks who decided that ketchup counted as a vegetable on our plates.

Five bucks says these people never ate any of the menu plans they made us eat.

The other thing I remember about the lunch ladies was that they never turned a kid down for a meal. Whether the student had lost their lunch money, forgot it, or their family just didn't have it, they always made sure kids got fed.

The only caveat was if you couldn't pay, you washed dishes after the meal.

Can you imagine insisting that a kid actually work for his meal today?

And it seemed (at least at my school) the same lunch ladies worked there for their entire career. If you look back at the high school annuals, you'll catch a glimpse of the same ladies, year-after-year.

And cooking that much food in a hot kitchen is very hard work. I found this out later when I got a job at County Seat Fried Chicken, working in the kitchen. The boss tasked me with learning how to cook everything from scratch, and then clean the fryers, mop the floor, and do all of the dishes.

The same thing the lunch room ladies had to do. Every single day.

So, hats off to the lunch room ladies. Or, whatever it is that you call that shower cap thing that they wear.

John's latest book, "Puns for Groan People," and volumes 1 and 2 of his series "Write of Passage: A Southerner's View of Then and Now" are available on his website, TheCountryWriter.com, where you can also send him a message and hear his weekly podcast.

©2023 John Moore

photo The lunchroom ladies from columnist John Moores high school days pose for a photo between serving kids their pizza and milk. (Photo courtesy of John Moore)

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