Every year around this time, the schools near Atlanta where I live invite parents to join their children and germ-covered classmates in the cafeteria to enjoy a wondrous Thanksgiving repast. It might not look like much, but boy does it not look like much.
I am one of those weird people that really enjoys institutional food service fare. I do not like to visit hospitals, but being surrounded by relentless reminders of my mortality and relative fragility somehow seems better over a plate of really bland baked chicken. I’ve enjoyed a meal or two municipal cafeterias while reporting for jury duty that almost made me wish I’d been picked.
Part of me appreciates how unpretentious food served at these places is. Eat at a fancy restaurant, and there’s bound to be a chef in the back who is proud of the way they painstakingly developed the flavor profile of your dish, or how they are treating you to a magical food adventure. No one is proud of this:
Or maybe my love for these kinds of institutional meals is because I can get a full tray of brown food with red accents for only $3.50. That’s a price worthy of braving a cafeteria of a public elementary school and sitting among hundreds of coughing, sneezing and just generally oozing children.
Without further ado, my grand public school Thanksgiving feast!
I assure you, this is turkey.
It doesn’t look good, I will give you that. It looks like an aborted attempt at making turkey Jell-o. I imagine it slides out of a giant can in a thick, solid cylinder, much like canned “cranberry sauce.” That’s fine. School lunch isn’t here to look good.
What’s important is the texture and the taste. As horrible as this elementary-grade turkey looks, once it passed the eyes and entered the mouth, it tasted like turkey with gravy. For some reason it was shredded to the point it resembled under-cooked barbecue pork, but it was nice and savory, if a bit stringy.
Seriously though, good luck getting past the eyes.
Sometimes it’s nice to get back to the basics. Over the years the stuffing served at Fahey family Thanksgivings has gotten more and more complex. What started as Stove Top when I was a wee lad has evolved into a casserole of tastefully soggy seasoned bread, bits of sausage and apricots. There might be walnuts in there. I think my mother just keeps adding things to see how far she can push us.
The public school stuffing was a ball of moist bread, flavored with some sort of poultry stock and mixed with small bits of I want to say celery and carrots. There wa no sausage. There were no walnuts. It was moisture and salt and the barest hint of flavor. It wasn’t horrible, but it did have me missing Stove Top.
Mashed potatoes usually aren’t a flashy food. Some chefs like to mix things up, adding in sour cream or exotic flavored butters. School lunch keeps it simple. Potatoes, margarine, milk, salt, pepper, scoop and serve.
They were fine, but there was something missing. Back in my day, mashed potatoes at school were served with gravy. Here they were just sitting in a muted lump in the middle of my tray. If I had more time I could have strained some of the gravy gel off the turkey ... remember the turkey?
But if I did that, what would I have sopped up with my wheat roll? Certainly not the juice from ...
I was hoping from cranberry sauce. This was not cranberry sauce.
What it turned out to be was blueberries soaking in strawberries that were beaten to death. Again, school lunches aren’t big on presentation. The taste wasn’t bad: not too sweet, not too tart. At least it wasn’t another starch.
This roll looked like it’d been through hell, but I can safely say that on this, the day after I ate it, it went through worse. Pleasingly chewy, yet unpleasantly yeasty, it served as the perfect means to clean up the remaining evidence that the turkey I’d eaten ever existed (but it couldn’t erase the photos).
What our public school Thanksgiving feast lacked in looks, it made up for in being food that I ate. It was mostly bland and harmless. The germs also served in the cafeteria were not. I have a sore throat and a cough now.
This was a good meal. It was worth it and it was even better (?) than hospital food. Plus I got to hang out with one of my children. Beats the hell out of eating a TV dinner in a dark room.