In the days when I cooked for a living, people often asked, “Where did you go to cooking school?” They were always disappointed to hear that instead of attending the Culinary Institute of America side-by-side with Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, I instead have a master’s degree in medieval literature, although probably not quite as disappointed as the folks who financed that education. I always say I can answer any of the brown questions on Trivial Pursuit with about 95% accuracy, so the expensive education was not a complete waste. Cooking was something I always did “on the side,” until I couldn’t stand it any longer and decided to immerse myself in food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as a full-time (and then some) cook and restaurant owner, and then as a produce buyer and co-owner of Farmhouse Delivery.
Before all that, though, I taught 8th grade English for three years, perhaps the most challenging and rewarding years of my adult life. Eighth graders are fascinating creatures—each day was a journey through uncharted territory, and connecting with fresh, creative, curious minds was a daily joy. Why did I leave teaching, then? In addition to the daily joys, there were also the long hours, the endless stack of essays, the sometimes overwhelming sense of futility, the repetitiveness, the being confined to a closed classroom all day, the beaurocracy . . . and the food sucked.
I brought my own lunch each day, but I was horrified to discover what the children were eating in the cafeteria. Packaged, processed, sugary, and worse. I always enjoyed the rousing period just after lunch when my hormone-crazed classroom had consumed copious amount of Jolt Cola (“All the Sugar & Twice the Caffeine!”) and Mountain Dew. Yes, not only was it approved for consumption, it was offered in machines in the hallway! Eighth Graders! Double Caffeine!
Somehow, five or six years later, when my own children begged to order food from the cafeteria, I forgot about the microwaved cheeseburgers assembled in some far-away factory, the orange “drink,” the high fructose corn syrup, and I agreed. When I asked that afternoon how they had liked it, Tess said, “The peaches were weird. Not like your peaches.”
“What do you mean?” I asked
She shrugged, “They were ok, I guess, but they were kind of slippery and wet.”
Oh, right—I wish I could remember my first encounter with “heavy syrup.” That was the end of school lunches for my children. I discovered that what they loved about eating in the cafeteria was the autonomy, the sense of control over their own food choices. I am ever the fan of the teachable moment, so together we sat down and made a menu of choices—healthy, but fun—and each week, they placed their “orders” with me. Homemade pimiento cheese with roasted peppers and toasted pecans is a special favorite in the fall. No more wet peaches.
I’m happy to have at least partially solved the lunch problem in my own home, but school lunches continue to be a concern for me, and should be for all of us, whether we have children in school or not. Many, if not most, of the children I taught all those years ago, ate their only real, hot meals of the day at school. Breakfast in the cafeteria was crowded, and tardiness was hardly ever an issue. The children came to school on time because they were hungry. Lunch did not wind up in the trash. Cafeteria trays were empty at the end of lunch. No school meant no breakfast and no lunch. It’s one thing to imagine junky food in the abstract, or as something that kids eat as part of an otherwise balanced, real food diet. But think of the real implications. We tell our nation’s children, “You are what you eat!” and then we feed them junk. What kind of message are we sending? What kind of nation are we creating? There’s a lot about public education that needs fixing, but let’s not forget what’s broken in the cafeteria too. Our children are not junk, and they all deserve better. Take action; send a message.
There are lots of folks right here in Austin who are working hard to make innovative changes for nutrition and real food in our schools. I never cease to be amazed what the heros in our school system can do with an almost nonexistent budget.
Pimiento Cheese with Roasted Peppers & Toasted Pecans
plate by talented & lovely Farmhouse Delivery farm member Alyson Fox–to buy visit Alyson Fox Design
1 pound cheese, grated–I like a mix of white cheddar and colby
4-6 sweet peppers, roasted, peeled and chopped
2 small hot peppers (remove seeds and membranes for less heat), minced
1/3 c pecans, toasted and chopped
1/4 c. mayo
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and serve with toasted ciabatta or crusty whole wheat sandwich bread. Life-changing with juicy, ripe tomato slices.