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The virtues (and limitations) of the Soggy School Lunch Square
Just about every issue I have with authority can be traced back to the teacher’s aides at Perry Elementary School. Being an aide is a difficult, thankless job, but the aides at PES made no effort to conceal their naked hatred of children. The interview process, as far as I know, consisted of rounding up all the thin-lipped women in town and asking them to torture a vole.
One of many punishments the aides used to keep us in line was the “Naughty Table”—a long banquet table at the front of the cafeteria where misbehaving kids were banished to sit in silence with their backs to the rest of the lunchroom. Exactly which behaviors warranted isolation were unclear; there were seemingly infinite ways to be Naughty, and the aides were always inventing new ones to keep us in a state of fear.
An incomplete list of actual reasons I was sent to the Naughty Table as a child:
Dipping my breadstick into my spaghetti sauce
Mixing a bunch of food inside a milk carton and daring a boy to eat it
Smuggling saltine crackers out to the playground in the sleeves of my Orlando Magic Starter jacket
Asking Patrice Montgomery what a condom was.
Any one of these incidents is enough to summon in me a fury of righteous indignation. But one in particular still haunts me:
Putting M&Ms on a slice of soggy school lunch pizza.
I will acknowledge at the outset that this is gross. I’d gotten the idea from Anthony, a kid who spent the lion’s share of each school day squirting Elmer’s glue onto his hands and peeling it off. Each pizza day, Anthony would pull out a Fun Size bag of M&Ms from one of his bottomless Boy Pockets and poke the candies onto his slice. He was unhurried; purposeful; surgical. I figured he had to be onto something.
In the end, I was too chicken to eat my doctored pizza—I do have limits, then and now—so I scraped the M&Ms off with a fork. My reticence was rewarded with Art: the candy coating of each M&M had melted into the cheese, pockmarking the pizza with rainbow colors.
Everyone at my table got a bit too excited about this, which drew the wrong kind of attention. I was immediately reprimanded and carted off to the Naughty Table by a short-haired woman who wasn’t, but might have been named, Mrs. Dongo.
“Anthony did it first,” I said, all loyalty forgotten.
“He was eating it,” hissed Mrs. Dongo. “You were playing with your food.”
She had me there. Playing with one’s food was the cardinal cafeteria sin. Food wasn’t supposed to be playful; food was supposed to be a grim vehicle for federally mandated nutrients. Mrs. Dongo needed to keep me alive, but she didn’t have to like it.
The one upside of the Naughty Table was that I had plenty of time to contemplate the pizza on my plate.
If you attended public school in the United States, odds are you ate something similar, with or without the M&Ms. Most people remember school lunch pizza not for its taste but for its shape—always rectangular, and always sized to fit the largest compartment of a melamine lunch tray.
To call it pizza was generous—it was a culinary commodity crop with the taste and texture of a cereal box left in the rain. Even if it belonged to the same genus, school lunch pizza was its own species—pizzus floppus to Little Caesar’s pizzus pizzus.
School lunch pizza was not delicious, but it seems to have a chokehold on our collective nostalgia anyway. I suspect some of that lies in its stalwart, fast-food-like constancy. It didn’t matter whether your school sourced its pizza from Sodexo or Schwan’s—or whether the cafeteria made it from scratch, as many did—the end result was nigh indistinguishable.
It had to be.
The USDA has set nutritional standards for school lunches since 1946, when Missouri’s own Harry Sawhorse Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. The goals of the act were simple: “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.”
As you might suspect, that second goal was the more important one. At the time, the USDA was looking for a way to prop up farm prices and unwind the massive surpluses of farm products that persisted long after the Great Recession.Feeding kids was just a positive externality.
Still, the Act codified a federal school lunch program, and in doing so, kicked off a decades-long battle over the Minimum Viable Lunch. The nutritional standards in particular have been a political flashpoint over the years, from the permissiveness of the Ronald Reagan era (“ketchup is a vegetable!”) to the literal belt-tightening of the Obama years (“chocolate milk might as well be candy!”).
To help make it easier to comply with those standards, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service has put out dozens of recipe booklets for school lunch program administrators to use. Including—you guessed it—the pizza.
The crust has always been the defining characteristic, so that’s what I focused on in trying to make the pizza at home. The ingredients list had a few surprises: the USDA demands that half of the flour be whole wheat, for Nutrition Reasons, and that the crust be made with nonfat dry milk powder, for Punishment Ones.
The title of the official recipe was “Pourable Pizza Crust,” which is unfortunately exactly what it sounds like. Some recipe developers refer to this as a “high-hydration dough,” which I suppose is true inasmuch as a pond is a high-hydration yard. But “dough” is an insulting understatement. This is a non-Newtonian bread fluid, destined to be splurted lewdly into a sheet pan.
A minor snag: this is a school-grade recipe, which means it makes a minimum of 25 servings. If you are a lunch-lady/lord/lizard, you can of course follow the instructions as-is. But I have neither an industrial mixer nor a desire to eat two-dozen deconstituted pizza shingles, so I have adapted the recipe for home use:
The finished crust was just as soft, just as weak, just as pliant as I had remembered. It was exactly what the aides at PES had always wanted us to be. It was barely cooked; practically pourable. If Anthony were here—and if his hands weren’t stuck together—he would have applauded.
Why bother making this at all? In the first draft of this piece, I wrote the sentence “I’ve been thinking about nostalgia lately,” but this isn’t really true. I think about nostalgia all the time. I can’t avoid it. I grew up in a tiny former railroad town trapped in an endless performance of flatlined Americana. We had an annual festival called “Sentimental Journey” and a soda fountain that was only open once a year.
I’m hyperaware of how nostalgia can be suffocating, and how people use it to airbrush the past. But I don’t think we only feel nostalgia for the past. I think we also feel nostalgia for the future we imagined—for a time in our lives when more of the doors still hung open, when the future seemed infinite and open and bright. I’d eat a lot of shitty pizza to get in touch with that feeling again.
There’s a case for nostalgia, just like there’s a case for most goofy-ass pursuits. Haterade has been an extended exercise in sending myself to the Naughty Table and thinking about what I’ve done. But these days, I feel like I’m trying to carve out an increasingly difficult position between all the reflexive sneering at pop-culture corniness and the wet retorts to “let people enjoy things,” neither of which seems like an intellectually robust response to the world.
It’s true that limp-dick school lunch pizza is bad and worth criticizing. It’s also true that eating it can be playful and pleasurable—that it’s possible to make a good version of a bad thing.
It’s true that nostalgia can be a corrupting force, but it can also be hopeful and benign.
The trick, as always, is in knowing what you’re choosing.
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On the subject of Little Caesar’s: has there even been a better tagline than “HOT-N-READY”? It’s appealing but scrupulous; it only promises what can be credibly delivered. It also sounds vaguely slutty, as all good ad copy does.
In hindsight, this might explain why school lunch pizza was almost always accompanied by a scoop of canned corn. You know, as the Italians do.