Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Fishstick Insurrection

Give Me Insurrection or Give Me Indigestion

By Dr. Sanscravat*

Modern students may not believe this, but there was a time when school lunches were neither as healthy nor varied nor aesthetically-pleasing as the feasts routinely served in today’s cafeterias.

For one thing, there were no choices—you got whatever was on the menu that day. And there was only one thing on the menu. Fresh food was unknown. If there was fruit, it was canned fruit cocktail; if one was especially fortunate, the little dish might include one half of a marachino cherry. Spaghetti was the most (and the only) ethnic dish—‘though it is extremely unlikely that any Italian would even recognize the overcooked pasta floating in a reddish watery “sauce.”

Water must have been the staff’s favorite ingredient, for the side salad’s dressing was a broken emulsion of water, cottonseed oil and salt—mostly water. To be fair, it was the ideal match for chopped iceberg lettuce and a single slice of pale gray tomato.

When there are no flavors, no one flavor can overwhelm any other.

Every week we would pore over the mimeographed menu for the following week, in the vain hope that something good would appear. Alas, the sweet smell of those purple-lettered pages was more appetizing than the meals they listed. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but those mimeos might have been more nutritious than the entrees as well. They were certainly more appetizing.

What I find utterly incomprehensible is that we regularly plunked down our thirty cents, and took what they gave us. We could have brought our own lunches: peanut butter and jelly; baloney and American cheese; SOMETHING.

But we didn’t.

Practically no one did.

Maybe it was the extra effort in carrying lunch to school, maybe it just seemed uncool; who knows why we did what we did? We just ate the stuff they served without complaining.

Almost without complaining.

When I was in high school—when John Kennedy was president—the cafeteria staff often inflicted fish sticks on their captive, but unwilling, customers. This was usually on Fridays, since the pope had not yet freed the Catholic children from meatless Fridays. Nonetheless, Catholics, Jews, Protestants were in complete agreement on one point of theology. Had there been any Buddhists, Jains, Mohammedans, or Taoists in the student body, I’m sure that they would have agreed with the basic tenet: fish sticks were an abomination in the sight of any self-respecting deity.

Finally, in self-defense, The Great Fish Stick Revolt was incited. This was not something we did lightly (the “cafeteria ladies”—as they were then known —were terrifying), but it was our patriotic duty to say, “no thanks” to the forces of gastronomic tyranny.

Pursuit of religious freedom was only part of the events that began to unfold. The freedom to pursue happiness (something that did not seem to be written into the official charter of the school) was a notion that was just beginning to form in our adolescent minds. A natural abhorrence for what we recognized as cruel and unusual punishment entered into the decision we were about to make as well.

When in the course of human events—specifically, on a certain fateful Friday morning in 1962—hundreds of students stepped proudly onto their school buses, carrying their lunch. Among them were students who had never before been seen with brown bag in hand. All through morning classes, a murmur of insurrection could be detected by anyone who was prepared to recognize it.

The authorities did not seem to notice.

At 11:30, the bell rang, a bell we would later identify as The Liberty Bell, the bell that sent hundreds of students scurrying to their lockers and down the hall to the cafeteria. As always, we lined up along the cinderblock wall, like cattle, and filed into the stainless steel feeding chute that led to the lunch-room.

On this day, something about the routine was changed. At first, the change was too subtle to be recognized, but as the line of plastic trays snaked past the steam tables, even the most oblivious of culinary oppressors could not fail to notice. Student after student put cartons of milk and dessert on their trays.

Nothing else.

Comprehension transformed the normally impassive faces of the cafeteria ladies. The change occurred slowly at first, but gathered intensity as the line of students flowed by. White polyester uniforms are not especially attractive, and the sudden appearance of comprehension on the faces below the hairnets did little to improve the overall aspect.

As far as I know, this was the official beginning of what would later be thought of as the decade of protest, or simply, "the sixties" (at least in our little corner of the suburbs). We had developed a taste for justice and realized, for the first time, the power strength-in-numbers—and that, as baby boomers, the numbers might be on our side. Needless to say, the hair-netted powers that be retaliated; for many days thereafter, the left-over fish sticks were served, again and again—each time becoming slightly smaller, harder, and greasier—until they were no more.

*Dr. Sanscravat is a nom de plume of Gary Allen, one of my friends from the "food, cooking and eating is the context in which everything makes the most sense" plane of existence." That's him down there on the right.



2 comments:

Charlotte said...

Oh -- the memories. My mother is *not* a morning person, so she'd buy us each a whole year's worth of hot lunches at the beginning of the year. The cool kids all brought their lunches -- with fabulous forbidden treats like Little Debbies, and there my brother and I would be, banished to the land of fish sticks and "goulash" (elbow macaroni, hamburger, red sauce).

Joan P. said...

I love fish sticks ! Just because it reminds me of my childhood. HAHA! We actually made fish sticks in school. Real, traditional French fish sticks. LOVES it !