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Wednesday, October 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

School lunches bring back memories — fond and otherwise

Memories of grade-school lunch have come back to haunt me in ways I never imagined they could. As a newly minted kindergarten mom, school lunch mocks me from my fridge, where applesauce snack-packs and their Jell-O pudding equivalent usurp space normally reserved for my restaurant leftovers.

The ghost of school lunch lurks in the recesses of my basement, where a case of 8-ounce orange juice bottles gather dust, their "use-by" date drawing nigh. This exercise in excess, part of an overeager bid for "Upstanding Mom" status, waits apparently in vain for a nod from Mr. Kindergarten, who, as it turns out, has his own ideas about school lunch.

In early September the boy got off on the right foot, so to speak, shod in his new "light-up" sneakers and toting his thermal lunch kit like a red badge of honor. I'd lovingly stuffed his lunch pail, as my grandmother would have called it, with his favorite lunchtime eats: ham-and-Petco sandwiches (don't ask) and take-out sushi (hey! he's his mother's son). But the following week, after a fruitful fit of begging, junior got his first taste of the high life: They call it "hot lunch."

Once bitten he was smitten, refusing my home-packed handouts, choosing instead to tender his ticket for mass production, pledging allegiance to the woman he calls "Chef Judy" — a cheery overworked gal who readily admits that the only thing she makes from scratch is her ever-popular toasted cheese sandwiches. Other hot-lunch entrees are shipped in from School District Central.

Ask my son and he'll tell you: What's there not to love about a pint-sized salad bar where you can help yourself to baby carrots and canned peaches? At school, chocolate milk is served in collapsible plastic pouches that you stab, as hard as you can, with a skinny little straw. As for the main event, who can resist chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce, ravioli and "crisp breadsticks" or that wonder of wonders, wiener winks?

While my boy's preference for theirs over mine certainly makes life easier for this working mom, I'm already guilty enough about giving in to his junk-food jones. Though he's a hearty and adventurous eater, he gets his fair share of pizza, Dick's Deluxe, Costco hotdogs and Baskin-Robbins, and keeps a stash of after-school candy in my car's glove box. Now, armed with the knowledge that his school lunch program features, as a regular hot-entrée alternative, his thrice-weekly choice — a cardboard-like chicken burger — I'm smacking myself upside the head knowing I'm a bad, bad, bad mommy.

But how can I blame the kid for wanting hot lunch? His irresistible urge to dine out is genetic.

Dealing with the emotional issues of grade-school lunch has prompted a flood of memories, fond and otherwise, harking back to my early days at J. Hampton Moore Elementary School in Philadelphia. Back then, a barefooted Abraham Lincoln walked miles to school in the snow, and kids walked home for lunch from J. Hampton Moore because there was no lunch at school — hot, cold or otherwise.

In those halcyon days, stay-at-home moms heated Campbell's soups and whipped up PB&J soufflés, when they weren't busy watching "As the World Turns" in "living color." At least that's what the other kids' moms did. Mine worked. Which explains why, when my sister Sherry was in first grade and I was in second, you could frequently find us in a booth at Bea & Mel's, the luncheonette around the corner from our school.

Bea & Mel's bore the name of our favorite waitress (Bea) and her husband, the grill cook (Mel). If memory serves as well as she did, Bea wore auburn hair and a polyester uniform and never blinked twice at the sight of two little girls who had yet to find out that "Tipping is not a city in China."

Tip or no, we were among Bea's regulars, and she always cheerfully brought us the usual: a cream cheese and jelly sandwich for Sherry, half a cheese-steak sandwich for me, and a Coke with two straws. Careful calculation left us with enough coinage to slug the jukebox and sing along with the Supremes ("Stop, in the Name of Love!"). On a good day there was change for candy.

As my horizons broadened and my social circle grew, school lunch included the occasional sortie to a chum's home. I remember being both fascinated and, I'm embarrassed to say, somewhat frightened when I joined my friend Avi Hoffer for a home-cooked meal. Walking past stately oaks and maples, kicking our way through the autumn leaves, we were welcomed home by his father, a small, soft-spoken man with a pronounced hunchback. Mr. Hoffer's bent body scared me at first, but I would, as my friendship with his son blossomed, come to know him not for his disability but for his abilities: He was a kindly father who cooked delicious handmade hamburgers, which he served on Jewish rye with big kosher pickles on the side.

In fourth grade we moved to a new neighborhood, and I attended a terrific new school: Joseph J. Greenberg Elementary, where I could stand in line at the cafeteria and purchase such delicacies as chicken à la king over rice. And it was here where my classmates and I got our first glimpse of (Eewwwww!) yogurt. Mind you, this was eons before such hotly hyped lunch-box treats as Go-Gurt became a favorite "trade you!" staple.

Though my friends and I had never heard of yogurt, let alone tasted it, we got our introduction courtesy of Janet Plute. Janet's parents were French immigrants who sent their daughter to school each day with an embarrassment of riches — accent on embarrassment. A pretty little blonde with chubby little cheeks, young Janet became the laughingstock of the lunchroom, where she'd spoon her "yucky" yogurt in mortification. Janet got her revenge though, and it was surely sweet.

The action in the cafeteria was in full swing that fateful day when I stood up to dispose of my lunch tray, unaware that my wraparound skirt had come untied. Next thing you know my skirt was encircling my shoes. Can you say, "I see London, I see France, I see Nancy in her underpants?" You're not the only one.

Who knows what my son will remember about school lunch. But on the off chance that he needs help remembering, I joined him last week for a midday meal, heading back to elementary school to see what was cooking.

Since there's no cafeteria at the school (a common situation in these parts, I'm told) the kids eat in their classrooms. So I did as the hot-lunch crowd dutifully does. I headed to the so-called "flex-space," where Chef Judy and her crew of helpful students had set up their portable cafeteria. Then I paid my three bucks ($2 for students), grabbed a blue slotted tray and hit the salad bar.

I helped myself to canned pears, baby carrots and ranch dressing, snagged a bag of honey-roasted sunflower seeds marked "Peanut Free Product" and a pouch of chocolate milk, then hit the hot-lunch line for a toasted cheese sandwich. Back in the classroom, which smelled distinctly of peanut butter, I pulled up a dinky little chair and ate with the kids, many of whom were nibbling chicken burgers.

When the next day dawned, I felt obliged to pull out the red lunch kit, grab an O.J. from the basement, make a ham-and-Petco sandwich (layered with Vlasic bread-and-butter "Petcos"), wash a crisp Braeburn apple and pack my son's lunch.

Tomorrow he can stand in line for a chicken burger or a wiener wink, but from now on I'm putting my foot down. He can whine all he wants, but at least two days each week I'll be packing him a homemade lunch, giving me the pleasure of feeding my son — and my guilty mother's soul.

Nancy Leson: 206 464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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