SEASON TO TASTE(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
Last month’s Heartland Women, the back to school edition, caught me completely off guard. I no longer have a kid at home, in school, a job in a school, or even a job outside my home, so I guess the beginning of another school year just got away from me. But seeing all those smiling back-to-school faces, and especially reading about packing snacks for little ones, made me more than a little nostalgic for those first days of school – as a student, teacher and mother.
I always loved going to school and especially the day my mother would walk with us to registration, because right after that we would go straight to Woolworth’s to pick out our school supplies. One year in particular stands out. Along with the usual #2 pencils, Big Chief tablet, ruler, scissors and the had-to-have-it big box of 48 Crayola crayons, I also got a light blue vinyl top-loading Nifty notebook AND a light blue vinyl Barbie lunchbox.
When I was in school (way back, when Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, travelled through time in the WABAC machine) lunchtime seemed so easy for everyone – kids, moms and teachers. Our principal was present in the lunchroom, one teacher had lunch duty, the other teachers ate at their own table without student interruption, and the lunch ladies served up a hot plate lunch that was simple, nutritious and hard to beat. Chicken nuggets and salad bars hadn’t been invented yet and fast food was in its infancy. So if what the lunch ladies made was not to your liking, you either went home to have mom make something for you, or she sent you packing in the morning with lunch in hand.
In the first grade, I walked home for lunch every day, probably because I cried every day when the teacher collected the lunch money and we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Every day! Mrs. Zoeckler, my veteran first-grade teacher, who sensed the bad lunchroom karma for me, probably hinted to my mother that her somewhat anxious little girl might enjoy the walk home for lunch, as well as a little down time in the middle of the day. She probably thought, and rightly so, that even our orderly, well-mannered lunchroom might have overwhelmed me, if I couldn’t even handle a group recitation of the pledge. It would have, but I always went back after my little lunch break!
By second grade, I was a girl transformed. I made some friends and I had a pretty first-year teacher, Miss Bailey, whom I adored. No more walking home for me in the middle of the day. I had a shiny quarter in my pocket to pay for lunch, or my new Barbie lunchbox in hand for bringing lunch from home. I was set. And I didn’t even cry when they collected the lunch money . . . or said the pledge. First grade had been a true year of growth for me!
I had a brother in first grade that second year too. He may have shown a little reluctance on his first day of school – something about a death grip on the doorframe – but he was fine once he got inside. He didn’t get to walk home for lunch though. There was no more of that, with two more brothers waiting in the wings! And by the way, the next brother, in a characteristic display of his fierce independence and much more social nature, eagerly presented himself at school one day on his tricycle – a good two years before he was required to attend.
So what about that neat-o Barbie lunch box? Not much to report there. I suspect, after stuffing my lunchbox a time or two, my mother saw the writing on the wall. There was no need to start something with no clear end in sight – wrapping sandwiches for four (eventually six) kids – times nine months – times twenty-five years! My mother went on record as saying the school-made hot lunch was a bargain for twenty-five cents . . . and so we ate whatever they served at school. My Barbie lunchbox finished out its useful existence as a home for used and abused crayons. I was OK with that, once I tasted the macaroni and cheese those ladies dished out at Winkler School.
The whole lunchroom experience for us was really like an episode taken right out of the 1960’s classic, Leave It To Beaver. It was planned to last for thirty minutes, included a problem or two, there was always a meal, and it ended in smiles when we finally reached the playground. Everyday we entered in a single-file line, no talking, following the boundary lines painted on the gym floor, passing in front of the stage and into the kitchen. Plate, utensils and milk carton in hand, we emerged from the other kitchen door to take the next available seat at the table. Fourteen tables of kids, eight kids each, eating and talking quietly.
The lunchbox kids stayed in line to pick up their 2-cent carton of milk and then peeled off to sit at their own assigned tables. I’m not exactly sure why. Most kids who brought their lunch from home had a sandwich, maybe some chips, the obligatory carrot sticks and a piece of fruit. My friend, Sarah, says she knows one boy who brought a peanut butter sandwich and a small red apple every single day for six years! Now that’s a safe lunch and a steadfast commitment to peanut butter that was not likely to yield to any peer-pressured swap for someone’s hot lunch that included spinach or peas!
In the collective memories of my best friend, Robin, and her sisters, Sarah and Jane, we remember a rotating menu of beef burger on bun (an unforgettable phrase to describe a maid-rite-like sandwich with pickle slices on it), hot dog on bun, beans and wieners, mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy (Robin’s favorite), chili mac, and more wieners with sauerkraut (its pungent scent causing one poor boy to “lose his lunch” while still waiting in line for his plate.) Friday, the meatless day of our childhood – Catholic or not – was fish sticks, grilled cheese or peanut butter, which Robin recalls “stuck to the roof of your mouth so that you literally had to take an index finger and scrape it off” forcing a justifiable lapse in our otherwise impeccable table manners.
And just like an episode of Leave It To Beaver, sometimes there was a problem requiring adult intervention. One particular day, dessert was an enticing piece of yellow cake with bright pink icing. We will never know what made a couple of boys at my table want to launch their cake . . . from forks . . . straight toward the ceiling, but they did just that. The cake didn’t make it all the way, of course, but . . . you guessed it . . . pieces of flying cake did catch the principal’s attention. I’d like to think those poor boys were quick enough to convince him they were secret NASA scientists working undercover on the first sub-orbital space flight of cake, but I kind of doubt it. All future cake launch missions were scrubbed, probably due to a close encounter of the paddle kind.
In retrospect, there were no bad choices for lunch when I was in grade school. I enjoyed going home to eat with my mother while I was warmed up to the idea of school. Taking my lunch didn’t work for me at the time, but it was a great option for many others. The school-made hot lunch was good food at a reasonable price. We had just enough options to make lunch a welcome and satisfying part of our day.
It wasn’t until I left college and found my way in the world of work that I became a brown bag or lunchbox girl. I have worked at many grade schools, high schools and colleges through the years, as well as a few other places, but lunch was never as good as Winkler School in the 60’s, at least in my mind.
There were some amazing cooks at one college in Louisiana making homemade rolls that were to die for, and a salad bar that was exactly what you would expect at a California college in the 80’s – a vast array of healthy options that sustained me through my pregnancy. But when I couldn’t find anything to my liking, wherever I was, I would just pack up some leftovers, my own salad fixings, or whatever struck my fancy that day and take lunch with me.
I know I don’t need to explain the ins-and-outs of packing a lunch to any of you, especially this time of year when the newspapers, TV and Internet all feature stories with ideas with the same take-along lunches and safe food storage practices. Brown bags and lunchboxes have been around forever, although there are some new ideas worthy of a second glance. But every month I’m here to talk about food, which I’ve done, and give you some recipes, which you’ll find below, along with a few ideas to consider. And I know from experience that all of these make for a nice lunch, whether packing your own is a new idea, an old habit, or a just trip down memory lane at your own kitchen table.
Leftovers can be reheated or eaten cold. Make extra to save time and money. And yes, cold pizza is a suitable leftover. Slow Cookers are handy for dinner or for a non-leftover lunch. They can cook while you sleep to make soups, stews, chili, casseroles, spaghetti sauce, meatballs, Italian beef, barbecue, sloppy joes, etc. Lunch will be hot and ready for your insulated container in the morning. Freeze the extras for another lunch, or is that considered a leftover?
SLOW COOKER BEEF STEW
1 – 1 ½ lbs. beef stew meat
2 large carrots
2 large potatoes
1 large onion
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
Oil for browning
1 large can whole tomatoes with juice
1 envelope beef gravy mix
2 cups water
Cut meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces. Season meat with Lawry’s. Add oil to large skillet and brown meat. Place meat, vegetables and remaining ingredients in large slow cooker and cook for 6-8 hours. Serve or cool and refrigerate or freeze for later.
Sandwiches can be made out of anything you put between two pieces of bread, in a pita, on a roll or croissant, or whatever. Pack the wet and dry ingredients separately and assemble at lunchtime - no more soggy sandwich.
THE BEST YEAST ROLLS
5 tsp. dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup water
1 egg, beaten
6 cups (2 pounds) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
Heat milk and water to a temperature of 110 degrees. In a small bowl, combine milk and water with yeast and a small amount of the sugar; let sit for about 10 minutes, until bubbly. Stir in butter, beaten egg and salt. Add flour to liquid mixture, one cup at a time, and stir until all is incorporated and dough is pulled away from the sides of the bowl. Knead dough and place in bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a cloth and let rise in a warm, draft free place until doubled in size. Punch down dough and knead again. Shape rolls into the size of golf balls and place on greased baking sheet about 1-inch apart. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Brush with melted butter and bake in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, or until browned on top.
Large piece of baked ham
Onion, finely chopped
Celery, finely chopped
Cut ham into chunks and pulse in food processor until finely chopped. Pour chopped ham into mixing bowl. Add onion, celery, and pickle relish with enough mayonnaise to moisten ham to a spreadable consistency. Use as a spread on sandwiches, crackers, or celery sticks.
Appearance, flavor, texture, variety and (mostly) homemade foods make lunchbox meals more appealing. Mix different flavors and textures in every lunch to avoid boredom. Take care to pack food carefully, so it looks good enough to eat when lunch time arrives.
CREAM CHEESE AND OLIVE SANDWICH
Cream cheese, regular or low-fat, softened
Mayonnaise, regular or light
Chopped green olives
Dash of Worcestershire
Dash of cayenne
Blend together first five ingredients. Spread cream cheese mixture on raisin bread. It may sound like a strange combination, but it works!
Sweet treats are always a nice surprise. Fruit is the sensible choice, but don’t forget the classics – cookies, brownies, dessert bars, cupcakes, donuts, snack size candy bars, kiddie cereal, nuts, Hershey kisses, and trail mix.
SALLY’S APRICOT SQUARES
Mix together with a fork:
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup nuts
1/4 tsp. salt
Press three-fourths of the mixture in an ungreased 9 x 13-inch pan.
Spread on top:
1 10-oz. jar apricot preserves
Spread rest of flour mixture on top of preserves and press lightly with fork, letting apricot mixture show. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until light golden brown.