School Lunch Favorites Remade

Jane Wilt Whitworth

    In any discussion of childhood days and growing up in days gone by, school memories invariably come up. Amid conversations about classes, teachers and adventures, at some point someone will say, “Remember school cafeteria food?”

    That’s a phrase that always elicits a reaction and comments—both positive and negative. I think the further removed one is from their school cafeteria days, the fonder the recollection of the food becomes:  Maybe a case of ”absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

    I’m not sure anyone really has good memories of dishes like “Creamed Liver,” “Mystery Meat” (as we called it, for lack of any idea what it really was), and such, but I found there are a plethora of dishes that most people remember nostalgically from their school days.

    Although I nearly always packed lunch for school, there are a few culinary treats I recall: peanut butter cookies bigger than my hand, homemade yeast rolls, cobblers and crisps, and, my favorite from high school days, pizza burgers. When I decided I’d like to recreate and update school cafeteria favorites, that dish was first on my list!

    Finding out at some point that ground bologna was one of the ingredients “back in the day” at Coshocton High School, I knew I’d have to change things up. That’s not an ingredient I am likely to use! So, ground beef, onions, tomato paste, garlic, and other seasonings are combined with cheese and diced pepperoni, my replacement for the bologna. Spread onto hamburger buns, topped with a little (or a lot) more cheese, and baked, my version is definitely satisfying. Pizza or pizza burgers served on a tray with a side of corn and pineapple tidbits as dessert recreates the lunch served on Fridays in many of the schools in Lawrence and Scioto counties for many years. No one is sure just why that was the set menu but I’ve surveyed people from several school districts and that was de rigueur in all of them!

    Asking for input on social media resulted in several hundred comments, with a wide variety of dishes mentioned. Among the most often named foods were Salisbury steak and gravy, fruit crisp, school pizza, peanut butter bars, cookies, and yeast rolls. There were many others with large fan clubs, so I think we may revisit this topic in a future edition!

    My Salisbury steak is well seasoned and browned before being finished in a rich brown gravy enhanced with mushrooms and onion. Served with mashed potatoes made from real potatoes, butter and cream, this will definitely take you back to school!

    Yeast breads and rolls can be an all day undertaking, so school cooks learned to add extra yeast to “feed” faster rising. Adding butter and eggs makes them delicious and helps them be ready, from start to serve, in less than 90 minutes, with no kneading necessary.

    Needing a dessert to accompany the main dishes I’d updated, I decided on a fruit crisp. Since this edition of Bridges is for February, I went with Cherry Crisp in honor of our first U.S. President and the tale told about George Washington and a certain ill-fated cherry tree. Adding sliced almonds to the streusel topping seemed a natural, as almond flavor is a natural enhancement to cherry.

    I hope that you will try my versions of cafeteria dishes. Having cafeteria trays, bowls, and way-back-when glass milk bottles to serve your meals will really kick it up a notch!

    Enjoy, and if you’d like to see more “old school” dishes, let us know. I have more I could happily work on!