A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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School lunch was something that left my mom exasperated. My younger brother loved school lunches. The cardboard squares of "french bread pizza." The gormless chicken nuggets. The "doesn't taste like beef" hamburgers. Overly salted and overcooked french fries and tater tots. He still misses those flavors, and tries to recapture them every chance he gets. Usually by buying microwavable french bread pizzas, hamburgers at AM/PM and tater tots at Sonic. Needless to say, we have very different tastes.
I wasn't a fan of school lunches. They either had no taste or tasted like crap. I preferred bringing my lunch from home. Whether it was a cold sandwich, some chips and a piece of fruit or leftovers. Leftovers were actually my favorite. My mom would get up even earlier to throw rice in the electric rice cooker ubiquitous of Asian and South Asian families throughout the Bay Area. I would then get leftover adobo, a vinegary Filipino stew which usually featured pork or chicken, or tenola, another type of chicken stew that had a thinner, clearer broth and more vegetables. My favorite was pancit. Thin, cellophane rice noodles tossed with soy sauce, fish sauce, tamarind juice, prawns, thin sliced chicken and a variety of vegetables all stir-fried together. Kids who brought a lunch that needed heating could have them reheated in the cafeteria next to the rectory by an army of parent volunteers. I once tried to bring dinuguan, a blood stew with pork and spices. But the strong smell didn't sit well with some of the melanin challenged parents. I was given a note home that it would be preferred if I didn't bring dinuguan again. One of the worst days ever.
My mom was exasperated for a few years. Luckily for her, in my 5th grade year the school instituted a punch card system for lunches. Parents could buy a block of 25 lunches. If their child wanted to buy a school hot lunch that day, they presented the card at the start of school. Sometime between Lauds and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a Catholic School, ok? And the 5th - 8th graders did their Lauds in mangled Latin. Rather than hand my brother cash each time he wanted to buy lunch he could just get the card punched. It also stopped the fighting between us. I always declined school lunch. My brother always wanted them.
The card my brother carried was about the size of a standard business card. Bright orange and on some sort of weird paper that was a cross between construction paper and card stock. There was another card, before the orange cards were introduced. They were blue. And laminated. Kids who had these had breakfast and lunch. I remember one morning playing with friends where I suddenly vomited on the playground. I was told to wash up and sit in the rectory cafeteria. In there, about a dozen kids sat eating oatmeal and diced fruit. I knew one of the girls, because she was in the classroom across the hall from mine. I remember waving at her and then putting my head down on one of the long cafeteria tables and falling asleep. One of the nuns, I think it was Sister Marie, woke me and led me to the Principal's office. One of my aunts was there to pick me up and take me home for the day.
I didn't think about the laminated blue cards again until high school. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for open campuses. School lunches were still horrible for me. Something to be reviled. If I didn't bring lunch, I preferred walking 3 blocks for a Hawaiian plate lunch or pad thai. Fare far better than cardboard pizza and gray hamburgers in microwaved buns. Junior year when most kids had cars, we'd make plans to drive a little further out for lunch. Burmese or Mexican or French. Yes. French. Don't knock it. There was an awesome brasserie type place. And our second string running back's parents owned the place. We didn't eat for free, but we ate some great stuff for cheap. One of our friends, we'll call him T, would usually decline to join us if we went off campus. Saying he needed to do more studying in the library. So we'd bounce. If we went Mexican we usually brought him back tacos al pastor or y cabeza for snacking in 4th period Government class. Kardos, our teacher, didn't mind so long as we brought him back a few. T would wolf them down during passing period.
Usually when one thinks of childhood hunger, we think of starving children in foreign countries. In Asia or Africa. Rarely are images of childhood hunger domestic. But it does exist. The National School Lunch Act tries to alleviate some of that hunger by providing kids with free or low cost meals at school. The NSLA Program reaches about 31 million kids in the US. That's a lot of kids with little to no food at home. And some kids in some areas get to bring bags of food home for the weekend, courtesy of local food banks. But the food in those packages? Not the best stuff around. Heavily processed, steeped in sugary syrup or overly salted or extremely fatty. The addition of sugar, salt and fat is a cheap and easy ploy to make mediocre and terrible foods taste better. But that's all these kids have.
The Share Our Strength program is attempting to give access to nutritious and good food to kids who are growing up hungry. Who don't have ready access to fresh produce. Who live in food deserts where a piece of fruit costs more than a candy bar and McDonald's is cheaper than cooking at home. Their goal is to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. And they have the support of many in the food community - chefs, bloggers, critics and producers. It is probably one of the organizations you'll see fast food corporate suits and Michelin starred chefs endorsing and working together.
From Sept 18-24th, is Share Our Strength's National Dine-Out. Many restaurants are offering specials, the proceeds of which will go to Share Our Strength. In fact, I'm hosting an event that actually sold out 2 hours after I announced it on campus. And all the money we took in is going to Share Our Strength. The ingredients were paid for out of our pocket, and we're excited and ready to go. So I know I can't invite any of my readers or twitter followers to the event (there's only 3 of us, man, we can't cook for any more in one night), but I hope if you do happen to dine out at any time next week, you'll check out the SOS page and look for a restaurant participating in the National Dine-Out.
It was the middle of Junior year when we realized T got a subsidized lunch. Which is why he rarely joined us. And when he did it was always with cafeteria food. I'm not sure why we missed it. Or when we realized it. But lunches shifted slightly. I'd like to say something magical happened, but it didn't. We were still teenagers. But there was a little more time on campus. I remember M organized a picnic once. Or tried to. You ever try to organize a picnic when half the guests are on the football team? Non-standard picnic fare entered the menu. I believe someone once brought a whole bologna. Not sliced bologna. The whole lobe. I do remember watching two other linemen attempt to eat as much as possible. I got sick just watching the two of them.
T doesn't need the NSLA anymore. And his daughter, my goddaughter, has never needed it. But he hasn't forgotten about it. And he spends a lot of time and effort helping out local food banks that seek to supplement the NSLA. Hunger is not something you forget. It gnaws at you. It is constant. And the fear and despair can haunt you at times. It's not something any child should grow up feeling. But the memory of it keeps T hungry. Not hungry for food, but the kind of hungry that gives you drive and purpose. The hungry that helps you meet an obstacle head on.
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