May 21, 2021

FTV: Out to Lunch


         A toasted cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup have always been one of my favorite lunches (and don’t skimp on the oyster crackers).  The last time I sat down to this particular meal, I realized my general enjoyment of lunch goes back to elementary school.  Growing up a block away from Willard Whitman Elementary meant going home for lunch every day.  In fact, in my thirteen years of public schooling, there were only two years when I ate hot lunch at school because Graveraet JH was two miles away.  Once I matriculated to Marquette Senior High, it was only a two and a half block stroll (right past Whitman School) to get home for lunch again.  Our Norway Avenue house was located across the street from the Northern Michigan University campus so I started college within walking distance to my classes.  I ate lunch at my own kitchen table for 13 of the 15 years we lived on Norway.  We moved out to a new house on Summit St. in Trowbridge Park (located just outside the city limit) after my sophomore year in college.  It was a two mile drive, but unlike JH, driving home for lunch was now an option. 

     Kindergarten and fourth grade were slightly different, but only because of the way the school day was scheduled.  Morning Kindergarten meant once I came home for lunch, that was it.  When Whitman began running out of classroom space, they planned an addition along the Fair Avenue side of the building.  Before the new wing was completed, they had to get creative.  The library was converted into classroom space by moving the library shelves into the main hallway.  The second innovation affected my class even more:  we were split into a morning session that ran from 7 AM until 11:30 AM and an afternoon section that met from noon until 4:30 PM.  The morning section was populated by students who lived within walking distance of school and the bus riders were all in the PM section.  I got up early, walked to school in the dark, and started the day before everybody else was up for breakfast.  The walk home for lunch meant I was done for the day.  It was like being on ‘elementary swing shift’.

     My brother was in JH by the time I started first grade.  My sister was still at Whitman until I was in second grade, but she never came home for lunch.  She opted for the social aspect of brown bagging it and stayed at school.  My entire K-6 lunch experience had me trotting down the hill to find out what mom had laid out for lunch.  The aforementioned toasted cheese and tomato soup was a regular item.  Mom was a big believer in the power of soup and leftovers.  If Campbell’s canned it or it was in the fridge, I ate it.  On some days, my mother would have an appointment or another commitment so she would send me off with my own bagged lunch.  At some point I became fixated on fried egg sandwiches, perhaps because I did not develop a taste for PB&J until a bit later.  It was always weird to eat lunch at school because the bus riding kids who routinely brown bagged it were like a secret society.  It was very cliquish and I never really did crack the code of who ate with whom and when to clean up before heading out to the playground.  I was so used to having my own schedule, lunch at school always felt like some sort of gastronomical race:  shove it down and get outside!

     In Jr. High,  they managed to feed more than 800 of us efficiently in a space that would seat, at best, 200 bodies at a time. The lunch period at Graveraet was a true ‘lunch hour’ so with slightly staggered release times, it worked.  We were so anxious to get outside (fall and spring) or to the gym to play dodgeball (November to April), we inhaled our lunch as much as we chewed it.  To respect meatless religious traditions, they rotated two menu items on Fridays:  fish sticks one week, mac and cheese the next.  The fish sticks and sides were tolerable but I was not one to eat mac and cheese in those days.  My dislike for mac and cheese was so great that I turned to the only other item available on those Fridays:  peanut butter sandwiches (not PB&J, just peanut butter).  I became a peanut butter eater by bartering my serving of M&C for other kid’s peanut butter on white bread.  In nice weather, we always seemed to make a jog to the bakery a half a block away on Third Street on M&C Fridays.  That helped compensate for the lack of volume supplied by PB on WB.

     In my seventh grade year, the older kids in the special education program worked in the lunchroom.  One of these workers was a very large specimen whose normal facial expression was a scowl.  He was as meek and mild a soul as one would ever meet, but the rumor was he had punched another student so hard that he killed him.  It is a long story that turned out to be true, but was ruled a case of self-defense.  A known bully had pushed Paul into a corner and kept egging the big kid into taking a swing at him.  Against the advice of his own posse, the bully started to rough up the big, quiet kid who ended the bullying with one punch.  Paul’s work buddy Dave was just as tall, but skinny as a rail.  His facial expression was just the opposite as Dave always had a big smile on his face.  He played bass drum in the band so we got along well.  The bass drummer always said his dour looking friend was not mean, just real quiet.  With our band connection, I always greeted Dave and got in the habit of saying hello to Paul, too, not that he ever said anything in return.  

     Knowing the whole story removed any apprehension we had about Paul, but not everyone took the time to hear the other side of the tale.  When we first heard the story, we figured it was one of those legendary tales passed on to put the fear of junior high in the hearts of us lowly seventh graders.  Our math teacher popped that bubble by telling us why he felt some guilt over the whole matter.  As he told it, Paul lived in his neighborhood and usually walked home with him after school.  The day of the incident, the math teacher had an appointment that changed his routine.  Years after the fact, he still speculated if the bullying would have happened had he been walking home the way he and Paul normally did.  I suspect the bully would have eventually found a way to set up the confrontation the way that bullies tend to do, but that is speculation of the moot kind.

     In eighth grade, I got kicked out of the lunch room for a week.  For some reason, we deemed the hard, old fashioned windmill cookies they served as something to covet.  It got to be kind of a game to see if you could snatch one off someone else’s cafeteria tray.  One day, a kid to my right made a grab for my cookie and I reflexively countered to brush him away.  Unfortunately, I was holding a fork in my right hand and I managed to stab him in the webbing between his thumb and index finger.  Even though I drew blood and he laughed about it, the cafeteria monitor wrote me up.  After giving my best explanation and an apology to the school counselor, she passed judgement and banned me from the cafe for a week.  She also suggested that maybe we should stop trying to snag each other’s cookies (and of course we did…not).  As I left the office, I heard the counselor tell the office secretary, “It is a good thing we don’t give them steak knives.”  

     During the last week of school, we had to bring our own lunches.  I tried to bluff my mother into believing I had to bring my own lunch for a week in the middle of the year because they were working on the kitchen.  The second day she packed me a lunch, she said, “Okay, why did you get kicked out of the lunch room?”  She had me so I fessed up.  It never crossed my mind that perhaps the school had sent a letter home about the incident, but I never could lie to my mother to save my soul.  I certainly wasn’t going to ask what made her think I got tossed from the cafe!  My normal lunch mates had a lot of fun ribbing me about my exile, but I don’t recall anyone trying to nick any cookies off my tray after that.  I can’t even remember the last time I had a brick hard windmill cookie if indeed they still make them.

     The original location of Togo’s Sub Shop was half a block away from Graveraet JH.  One of the things kids bragged about was how often they skipped hot lunch to go to Togo’s.  I convinced my mother that a five dollar bill would be all I needed to try out the Togo’s for lunch experience.  It turned out to be such a miserable experience, once was enough for me.  It had nothing to do with the food.  Togo’s always made great subs (and they still do), but when we got there, the place was packed.  We got in line outside and slowly worked our way to the counter.  They pushed the subs out as fast as they could, but we chewed up (pun intended) most of our hour long lunch period standing in line.  When I reached into my pocket to pull out my fiver, I discovered that someone must have heard me talking about my lunch plans and liberated my cash (probably when my pants were parked on a bench in the locker room during gym).  One of my buddies loaned me another five rendering it the least enjoyable ten dollar – five dollar sub I ever ate.

     High school lunch period was divided up into three thirty five minute segments to accommodate serving hot lunch to a school with a total population of 2,000.  Students assigned to the second lunch period would go to class, have lunch, and then return to finish class.  I was always lucky enough to have the first or last lunch.  It was a five minute hike home so off I would trot, have lunch, then hoof the two blocks back to school.  Ironically, my locker was right next to the auto shop at the end of a long hall behind the girl’s locker room.  If Ken Rizzio and I had traded, my locker would have been the one the farthest away from my house instead of the second farthest away.  By my junior year, I abandoned my locker completely and began stashing my stuff in the cabinet behind the drum section in band.  The band room was never locked so a small group of us started spending the mandatory morning study hall hiding out in the band room.  I never did figure out why Mr. Miller never marked me absent, but this new location was a whole school closer to home when I headed for lunch.  I think Rizzio may have rented out my unused locker.

     Senior year turned out to be even more fun because I got all three lunch periods off during the second semester.  After watching my brother and sister struggle in the ‘college prep’ senior English class, I convinced my folks that I didn’t need the class.  A week into our senior year, it was the only class that piled on the homework every night.  Class discussions centered on the half dozen students in the front row the teacher liked.  She pretty well ignored the rest of us while she held animated conversations with her select group.  When I first pointed this out to mom and dad, they surprised me by agreeing.  Having seen the effect the same instructor had on Ron and Barb, they simply said, “Do what you think is best.”  The senior’s councilor I went to see wasn’t any help.  He said, “You have to take the class if you are going to college.”  I stepped out of his office and went straight to the next office and talked to a woman who was in her first year at the school.  She said, “Flunking a class you are not interested in wouldn’t be good but you still need one more credit.  Take ‘remedial English’ for one semester and a study hall the next semester.”  Done!  

     It felt kind of funny walking into ‘remedial English’ because it was taught by my former ninth grade English teacher.  She was elated to have someone who actually did the class work.  To be frank, some of the other students were not in the class because they couldn’t read.  A few were there due to some disciplinary infraction but I was happy to be there rather than in senior English.  If  you are now wondering how this all relates to lunch, let me explain:  Remedial English met during the second and third lunch periods.  When I mustered out at the end of the first semester, my lunch hour ballooned to a full ninety minutes because seniors did not have to attend study halls.  It was like being given the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Factory.

     Once I made my way home for lunch with all that time to kill, my mother realized I also had time to make runs to the grocery store if she was baking something and needed supplies.  It turned out that part of her lunch break included a daily date with Graham Kerr’s noon hour cooking show. I got in the habit of watching it every day, sometimes by myself if mom was off traveling with dad.  Kerr cooked a lot of classy French cuisine (butter, butter, wine, and more butter) while dishing up some of the funniest one liners ever dispensed on a cooking show.  That is not entirely true because the aim of The Galloping Gourmet was to demystify cooking.  TV viewers (and his live studio audience) learned they did not have to be Julia Childs to be a good cook.  No matter what was going on up the street at the high school, I always returned with a bounce in my step after spending my extended lunch hour with Chef Kerr doing his thing as The Galloping Gourmet.  

     The Galloping Gourmet left the air after I graduated when Kerr and his wife, Treena, were injured in a bad car accident.  Their long recovery period took the show off the air.  Kerr eventually returned by writing cookbooks and making personal appearances, now with a nod toward healthy eating.  Though his wife passed away in 2015, Kerr, still alive and cooking, lives with his daughter and her husband an hour north of Seattle, Washington.  For a bit of nostalgia, I do believe it is time to search the web for some archived shows so I can spend a few more lunches with Graham Kerr.

     One last word concerning the old standby field trip lunch, the good old PB&J.  During the summer of 1974, those of us taking the required Geography Field Studies class at NMU’s Field Station at Cusino Lake spent more than a few days in the middle of nowhere.  At least once per week, we were sent out with various tools to do some honest-to-goodness, boots-on-the-ground mapping exercises.  We knew what the day would bring when the camp cook, Lyla, would begin laying out sandwich making stuff as we ate breakfast.  Some of my classmates would make these elaborate meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomato Dagwood style sandwiches, many including generous doses of mayo, mustard and the like.  The class ran from mid-July to mid-August.  What I noticed right off the bat was most of these creations did not look so appetizing after being toted around in a backpack on a humid U.P. summer day.  

     My go to lunch was always a PBJ, chips, and fruit.  No matter how hot the day was, how many bugs we ate with our lunch, or how difficult it was to find a dry spot to sit in (we mapped our way through some impressive swampland), I always looked forward to this repast.  Even if it got a little smushed up in my pack, it still tasted like a good old PB&J.  We began taking Junior High students hiking around the wilds of Ontonagon County in the early 1980s and I bet you won’t have any trouble guessing what I took for lunch every time.  


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