Inviting Writing: Cafeteria Culture

Cafeteria cuisine
Cafeteria cuisine can be forgettable—but the people you dine with can make lunchtime a savory experience. Image courtesy of Flickr user vauvau

Our last Inviting Writing prompt called readers to contemplate the relationship they have with their kitchen, which garnered stories that ranged from cooking in a dorm to trying to make good with a neglected kitchen. For this go-round, focus your thoughts on another culinary space: the cafeteria. Be it in school or at the workplace, these communal dining areas have a vibe all their own, a product of the people who eat there, the staffers who keep everything running, the food being cranked out and even the physical building itself. As we prepare to go back to school (or back to work after a summer vacation), think about the sights, smells, personalities, eating rituals, survival tactics or other experiences that solidify the cafeteria dining experience in your mind.

Send your essays to [email protected] with “Inviting Writing” in the subject line by Friday, August 19. We’ll read them all and post our favorites on subsequent Mondays. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included). I’ll get the ball rolling.

Fine Dining

By Jesse Rhodes

Lunchtime was memorialized thusly in my senior yearbook: “Lunch is the time of day every student waits for. Some favorites include Subway subs, Little Caesar’s pizza and Boardwalk Fries. Some students choose to finish off their meal with the cheesy taste of Doritos and Cheetos or the sweet taste of M&Ms brownie ice cream sandwiches or Snickers cones.” That pretty much sums up the cafeteria cuisine in a nutshell. At the time, participation in the federal lunch program was optional at the high school level, and I’d just as soon forget the culinary standards my school was setting. The sandwiches Mom made and packed for me, on the other hand, were the stuff that garnered me monetary offers from my fellow students. But really, it was the people who made lunch at Henrico High School stand out.

Although Henrico was my home school, most of my friends came from all over the county, spending ungodly amounts of time on a bus to attend one of the academic specialty centers: the Center for the Arts for those who have a knack for the visual or performing arts or the International Baccalaureate Program geared to the slightly masochistic student desiring a challenging-yet-enlightening curriculum. (I cast my lot with the latter.) Being a good 45-minute drive away from almost everyone, lunch was the closest thing to a regular hangout time that we had. Keeping an eye on the black-rimmed clock, my 25-minute turn in the lunchroom was carefully blocked out, affording 10 to a maximum of 15 minutes to stuffing my face—always in the order of fruit first, then sandwich, then whatever dessert item Mom had packed—so I could freely chatter away before the closing bell sent us all back to our midday class.

Lunch was a test of one’s mettle. Survival of the fittest, really. During the first few weeks of school, speed walking to your designated cafeteria was a must as those buildings were incredibly crowded and one had to stake out a spot and make sure that spot was continuously occupied so that everybody more or less knew it was yours. My fellow lunch-bringer friends and I had a distinct advantage. While the bulk of the student population was waiting in line for their french fries and subs, we could stake a claim at one of the brown wood-grain laminate tables and hold a few seats for the rest of our group, who would usually come to the table giggling over something that happened while they were getting food. Like the day when Crystal was dubbed “ham girl” by the lunch lady on account of the daily Subway ham sandwich that made its way onto her lunch tray and was always ritualistically deflated of its excess shredded lettuce and dressed with two to three packets of mayonnaise. She remained “ham girl” to the group through high school, to the point that someone—and I wish I could remember who—made a gift of a box of 500 mayonnaise packets for her 18th birthday. I seriously doubt it ever got opened.

Jean and Rachel were other lunch table mainstays, both of whom were in the Center for the Arts and themselves friends attached at the hip since the fourth grade. Lunch bringers, they were the ones who usually helped hold a table and (sometimes vainly) tried to ward off other students who came by to snap up one of the empty chairs. And Jean was a keeper of quotations, carrying a little spiral-bound notebook in which she chicken-scratched the non sequiturs, entendres (double or otherwise), slips of the tongue and the rare bit of crafted wit that came up during the day. Granted, I think trying to make people laugh while their mouth was stuffed with food was something of a communal sport, so absurdity (and certainly some less-than-refined humor) was certainly encouraged. Reading back over the printouts that Jean compiled at the end of every school year, many of the cafeteria sound bites bring back memories of certain days and entire conversations had around the table. However, I can’t recall the social context would have prompted Bill, the aspiring veterinarian, to remark, “That’s no pig, that’s my baby!”

On the odd occasion we had more transient members of the lunch table. The friend of a friend who decided to switch tables for the day. The romantic interests of regulars that none of us could stand. Or the girl who, audibly whispering, asked another table member my name for the sole purpose of requesting a few of my jellybeans. I will always remember her name (which I’ll omit here) solely for this.

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