Whenever I visit a local school — especially the elementary school — the event provides me a touchstone, a Proustian moment, and I am transported back, fifty or more years, to South Denver — to the streets, the people, the schools.
A recent visit to the elementary school found me in the hallways in the late morning, and I was reminded of my favorite subject when I was a kid — lunch.
The smells from our local school lunchroom mimicked the smells wafting down the first-floor hallway in the north wing of Lincoln Elementary School, just before the lunch hour: a sensual siren’s song luring an excited, chubby and myopic Karl toward the gym/lunchroom, toward whatever concoction was on the menu.
It’s not that they starved us in those days. In the middle of the morning, one of the building custodians ( a bunch of ill-kempt guys in bib overalls who hung out in the boiler room in the basement of the building) arrived at the classroom door, pushing a large metal cart carrying wire baskets full of cartons of milk, and boxes of graham crackers.
But, by noon, at least one chubby member of the horde was ready to chow down again.
When I say “horde,” I refer to the mass of post-war young uns working their way through the education system like a puppy passing through a python. A lot of dads were real happy to be home after World War II and a lot of moms were equally thrilled to see them back. Thus, the first dose of Baby Boomers
— packed 35-40 into schoolrooms, like sardines in a tin.
Lincoln Elementary was a three-story red brick building, L-shaped, with east and north wings, a large auditorium and a big gym at the end of the north wing. When it was time for lunch, the bell rang and students on one floor of the building made their way to the gym/lunchroom. The teeny dorks in classrooms on the first floor went first. That was great if you were in kindergarten, first or second grades. The little bozos shuffled down the hallways and got the initial shot at the eats.
Then, another bell rang and the third- and fourth-graders in the second-floor classrooms made their way down the stairs for chow.
Waiting for that third bell was agonizing. The smells from the lunchroom had made their way throughout the building and the fifth- and sixth-graders sat in their classrooms on the third floor of the building salivating, fidgeting, finding it difficult to deal with long division.
Since I suffered a massive case of ADD, I had trouble dealing with long division even when I was at the top of my game. When the prospect of lunch loomed, I was a wreck.
Finally, the third bell rang. Everyone stood, then filed out in a prescribed order. Each classroom file moved into place in the hallway and, again in a rigidly-enforced order, the students marched down the stairs and down the hallway to the lunchroom.
I was unfortunate in both fifth and sixth grades to be in one of two classrooms at the end of the line.
Oh, the irony.
I toddled along, in place right behind the entrancing Judy Brandsmaa, my mind consumed by two thoughts: how happy my Dutch Reform beauty and I would be when I was old enough to own a sports car and spirit her away to a snappy studio apartment in New York City, and whether or not we would be lucky enough to have a spectacular mélange of macaroni, ground beef and tomato sauce for lunch.
We had it once every two weeks. Manna from heaven. By today’s standards, the dish was anything but impressive: overcooked elbow macaroni, crumbly, dry and barely seasoned ground beef, plain tomato sauce.
I loved it. It was exotic compared to the other fare we endured at school.
Once we made our way into the lunchroom, we went through the cafeteria line, sliding our simulated wood trays down the stainless steel shelf at the front of the counter. Behind the counter, a team of hefty, old gals wearing hairnets slopped the delight du jour onto compartmentalized plates and handed the plates to us. Pick up a carton of milk at the end of line, proceed to the assigned table, and it was time to dig in.
Every once in a while, the only benefit of being the last kids to eat lunch reared its gorgeous head — seconds!
And when that gift included seconds of the macaroni, ground beef and tomato sauce manna, life was oh-so-good. A second helping of my fave lunch item and the ethereally beautiful Judy Brandsmaa sitting across the table, daintily separating the macaroni and ground beef on her plate … ah, I knew bliss at an early age.
From lunch, it was off to the playground to burn off the carbs. This was accomplished by a) fighting, b) playing “bombardment” or c) fighting.
The fights broke out everywhere on the vast playground (nearly half a city block in size) and they kept the gym teacher Mr. McIntosh busy, rushing place to place to defuse the more-often-than-not sectarian brawls.
Bombardment allowed those same religious and ethnic hostilities to be played out in a somewhat structured manner. The game was simple: A gaggle of young bucks would gather on the asphalt, in front of the wall of the building. Another gaggle of young bucks would form in front of them, approximately 20 feet away. A soccer ball would be hurled at the first gaggle by members of group two. If the ball hit you, you left the court. If it beaned you, you were dragged from the court. If it bloodied you, you were on the way to the nurse’s office. The last guy standing was the winner, and the gaggles changed position.
And pretty painful.
We fat guys were, of course, the first to go. We didn’t move all that quickly in optimum conditions. After a lunch of macaroni, ground beef and tomato sauce (with seconds) we didn’t move at all. As a result, the force of the blow was direct.
The bruises were enormous and if you got clocked in the head, well, forget doing well on the spelling test.
It is unimaginable that kids would play bombardment at school today. The precious little dears are protected from any such violence and especially from any hint of humiliation or subservience. Too bad: it never hurts to know there is a food chain, and that you are rarely at the top of that chain.
And it only hurts a little when you get blasted at the start of the game and have the chance to go off and ogle a Dutch Reform beauty over at the monkey bars.
My recent visit to the local school and my memory of the cafeteria delight of years gone by, prompted me to develop a take on the macaroni-based miracle of my youth.
I decide simple is best. I buy a boneless chicken breast, a head of garlic, a can of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes, some parsley, a tub of shaved parmesan cheese, a couple cartons of organic chicken broth, a box of cavatappi — a small, corkscrew-shaped pasta.
I decide to follow a tip provided by Mark Bittman in one of his recent columns: namely, to cook the pasta in the same manner as I would cook risotto.
I heat some olive oil in a pan and toss in half a box of cavatappi, cooking the pasta for a moment in the oil. I add a ladle’s worth of chicken broth and allow it to be absorbed, then add another ladle, allow it to be absorbed, and so on, ladle after ladle. The entire process takes nearly 30 minutes. The broth gives the pasta a particularly rich flavor.
At the same time, I cut the chicken into bite-size pieces season the pieces and brown them in olive oil.
I mince four cloves of garlic and mash them with a bit of salt. When the chicken is browned, in goes the garlic to cook for 30 seconds or so (not so long that it browns — brown is bad with garlic), then I add a hefty amount of oregano and half a can of the tomatoes, with their juices. I reduce the liquid over medium high heat and when the mix gets jammy, in goes a mess of chopped parsley. I season with Kosher salt as needed, add some ground black pepper, a bit more oregano to freshen the taste and turn the heat to low.
The cavatappi is cooked and creamy and I pop it into the chicken mix and stir. I add a fistful of the shaved parmesan (never go light on the parmesan) and several tablespoons of heavy cream. When the mix looks and tastes right, it is ready to go.
If I had a tray and a compartmentalized plate, everything would be perfect.
It’s a shame it’s winter’— I’m in the mood for a couple rounds of bombardment.