Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s meant fish on Fridays for many families, especially those who had Roman Catholic roots like my granddaddy’s. Because we grew up in my grandparent’s home, every Friday night was fish night. Every. Friday. For. Years.
Even days were covered, and Fridays were fish stick days in the school lunch world. Not that I don’t totally enjoy a tasty, crunchy, overly processed Gorton’s treat from time to time, but even good things can get boring after a while. When we were lucky, our family went out for dinner on Fridays (I assume to avoid fish sticks for two meals in a row), and we sometimes had supper at the S&S Cafeteria. It was an honest-to-God old-school affair, complete with a huge stack of brown plastic trays, still damp from someone’s efforts to wipe them down.
Just past the mountains of trays was the salad area, a primarily greyish-white wave of lettuce wedges punctuated by the occasional shiny, wobbly, Jello-like square, complete with pineapple, nuts or mystery veggies. (I notice that I can’t seem to bring myself to use the words Jello + salad in the same grouping). Then there were the popular mayonnaise-based ‘salads’ – potato and macaroni versions being the most popular. I, however, had my own favorite pseudo-salad…grated carrots with sugary raisins and mayo. I thought it much healthier than the other non-lettuce options and I could live off of the stuff. I will admit though that I was really disappointed years later when I learned that this delicacy was laughable in the salad world…a sort of embarrassing distant cousin.
Continuing down the long narrow line, you next encountered the rows of steam-tabled veggies. First were the green items (keep movin’…nothin’ to see here), followed by the extensive, oh-so-Southern representation from the carb family. Macaroni and cheese, corn, white rice with gravy, mashed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes were plentiful, and don’t forget the hush-puppies and french fries…also popular ‘veggie’ choices at the old S&S. Those were the days…we were ignorantly on the not-yet-identified diabetic path with a vengeance, and ‘all you can eat’ was the short-cut!
Then we were on to the MEAT! You could choose from the beefy (hamburger steak…really?), chicken (meh) and fishy options. We were supposed to get the fish to appease the Catholic side of the family and, luckily for me, fried shrimp qualified! Shrimp weren’t always available, but it was a happy day for me when they were. Fried flounder with a big side of tartar sauce was my second choice…if you gotta have anything healthy at least slap some breading and (slightly disguised) mayo on it, I say. Funny…I don’t remember any pork being present, but I’m pretty sure it was there in abundance.
Next came the bread, dessert and drink selections. For me, cornbread was a given, and it had enough sugar in it that it probably should have been pushed a foot over into the dessert area. For real dessert I was always torn between strawberry shortcake (featuring somewhat plasticine whipped topping) and a slice of (not too shabby) coconut cream pie, but there were also other options. You could go fruity (not technically a dessert in my world) or choose an alien-like green or blue dish (welcome back to the table, Jello old friend).
I was also pretty predictable in the beverage department. It was, after all, the heyday of good old sweet tea in that part of the world, but the S&S also offered a few others to pick from. If you were really brave, you could even wash down your feast with neon-blue generic Kool-aid. (I have personally never believed that blue foods or beverages were a real choice, but Lynnie was partial to anything that looked even remotely like Windex. She also gravitated toward oddly colored desserts and anything with Jello-like qualities.)
It was a great spread, but I’ll have to say that I was never completely comfortable with the logistics of the cafeteria world. Until I was about 10 I wasn’t even trusted to manage my own tray – I had to rely on my Grandmama’s well-honed tray-wrangling skills as she pushed my plastic platter of goodness along, in front of her own. She did allow me to choose my own food, but often prompted me to ‘hurry up’ when I dilly-dallied too long over my options (“But Grandmama, I swore I saw that carrot salad somewhere!”) She also backed me up when my extreme shyness prevented me from piping up to ask the lady behind the counter if there really were no more fried shrimp left anywhere…maybe in the back?
Sometime before puberty I gained full tray responsibilities…I had arrived! Lynnie, on the other hand, still had to take a back seat for a few more years as Mama guided her tray and, often, her food choices. Had she not, my sweets-loving sister would have ended up with an entire tray of jewel-toned, wobbly items that would, in today’s world, have probably initiated a child protective custody situation. And that doesn’t even take into account the time that some strange man came out of the S&S’s men’s room with my 5-year-old sister in tow. She had apparently wandered in on her own…I’m guessing sugar and red dye #5 were at least partially to blame.