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James Puz: Fond memories of school cafeteria lunches

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My first encounter with the school cafeteria was in the fourth grade at the newly completed Magnolia Elementary School. However, I was still totin’ my Roy Rogers lunchbox which had been my lunch companion since the first grade.

For a time lunches alternated between the cafeteria and home-packed meals, usually PB & J, baloney or tuna fish (if it wasn’t too warm), potato chips or Fritos, maybe a piece of fruit or a Hostess snack cake and a thermos of milk. If my dad fixed my lunch it was sometimes a Spam sandwich spread with strawberry jam. It wasn’t bad! Alas, Roy was retired and brown-bagging took his place.

Arriving each morning, you could smell the aroma of “home cooking” coming from the kitchen and it smelled delicious; even brown-baggers had their appetites whetted for the noon-time repast.

The kitchen provided a weekly menu and each day the teachers took a “head count” for the next day’s offering so the cooks had some idea as to how many hungry students needed to be fed. However, some kids changed their minds or were absent but the tally was fairly accurate.

Upon arriving at the cafeteria we lined up, paid the woman at the cash register our 25 cents (teachers paid 50 cents), then proceeded along the serving line (you had no choices; everyone got the same meal) obtaining our trays with a carton of milk at the end of the line. (Seventh-grade students helped in the kitchen but that’s another story.

The auditorium served as the dining room and was divided in two parts, the right side for brown-baggers. Tables and benches, folded up into the walls, were brought down for hungry boys and girls.

Under the watchful eyes of patrolling teachers we eagerly wolfed down the food on our trays. Not only did the food smell good, it tasted good. And the school made sure there was sufficient variation so growing youngsters didn’t get bored through nine months of lunches.

The tray was made of institutional plastic. It had four sections like that of a Hungry Man TV dinner.

A large section was for the main entree which could be pigs in the blanket, franks and beans, chili (with a cornbread square), various kinds of casseroles, a tremendous cold tuna salad which was placed on your tray with an ice cream scoop, a hamburger (with a pickle chip), sloppy Joes, chili mac and at Thanksgiving turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Like I said, there was a was a wide variety offered to us.

One corner section was for the veggie of the day, the other for dessert which could be peach, cherry or apple cobbler, mandarin orange or grapefruit sections, canned peaches, fruit cocktail or anything else the staff thought we might like.

Rarely was food wasted; the staff and parents wouldn’t have tolerated it! However, there was one exception to that rule and that was when canned spinach was served...virtually nobody liked it! But Alfred was one who not only liked it he loved it! He and Popeye would’ve made great pals!

Alfred would walk down both sides of the table filling his tray with uneaten spinach, then heartily consumed it. We all looked at him in amazement!

Once lunch was finished (we had an hour!), it was out to the playground where we usually had at least 30 minutes remaining before classed resumed at 1:00; it was like an extra recess!

Without question Magnolia’s cafeteria offers many fond memories, a combination of good smells, good food and joyful, exuberant camaraderie with my classmates; I just truly hope Alfred, Doug, Mary Ann, Jennifer, Michelle, Gordon, Bruce, John, Beth and so many others have the same fond memories of the cafeteria at Magnolia Elementary School in Azusa, California.

And yes, I still have my Roy Rogers lunch box.

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