I was blessed with a mom that could cook. It did not matter if she was cooking her trademark biscuits, fried chicken or making Italian cream cake, that lady could cook. And, by the way, I could eat.
When I entered first grade, I loved everything about school except the lunchroom. I thought the food was atrocious. I know, I know. You will say the whacky cake and the peanut butter pie was awesome. Okay, I’ll give you that and say they were just okay. Unfortunately, my mom’s superior cooking skills raised the bar so high, it destined me to never like this lunchroom food.
Of course, adolescent activities in the lunchroom did not help matters. Once, I watched my late good friend, Mike Pennington get sick on purpose in the lunchroom. He elbowed me and said, “watch this.”
Each week, we had Vienna sausage and sauerkraut. There was never a doubt when this was being served. The hideous smell permeated the air and was recognizable the second our bus entered the school air space. Mike filled his mouth full of this awful concoction. Thinking he could get nothing else in his mouth, he proved me wrong by downing a full box of chocolate milk. Once this was mixed in his mouth to his satisfaction, Mike threw that stuff up all over the table. It was the grossest thing I’d ever witnessed. It scarred me for years and put an extreme damper on my lunchroom eating.
Mom decided she wanted to work outside of our home. Going to work at the middle school lunchroom was a natural. This allowed her to take her talents to a place that could use her skills. But not even Mom could do anything to help make those precooked products taste better.
The poor lunchroom ladies, cast in a difficult situation, were the first people immature kids blamed for the terrible tasting food. Their white uniforms and spiderweb hairnets made them easy targets for kid jokes. But mom loved working there and it helped fulfill her love of cooking.
When I went to college, all my preconceived ideas of terrible lunchroom food went out the window. The food served to the athletes in Darby Hall was over the top great! It was right up there with my mom’s cooking. In fact, sometimes it exceeded hers and that is saying a lot.
Unfortunately, the narcissistic, self-centered personalities of some of the jocks and the humble serving attributes of these fine women did not mesh. The jocks made the lunchroom ladies joke fodder to extents it was embarrassing to me.
“Aw, man. We havin steak again today? Can’t y’all make something better?” I heard more than once from the mouths of several ungracious, self-absorbed jocks who rarely if ever had steak in their lives prior to college.
“Shut up, old lady,” came from bad boy jock, when lunch-lady was explaining the cuisine of the day.
Within the first week of observing this terrible behavior, I decided I would take a different course. After most meals, I made it a point to walk to the back of the cafeteria and compliment the ladies.
“You guys outdid even your own lofty standards today. That chicken was outstanding!” I told them.
Sometimes just a flash of my thumbs up and a smile on my face sufficed.
Suspicious at first of this highly uncommon practice, I noticed something that began to happen. I noticed smiles on the faces of those wonderful women and pride in their talents began to surface. In addition, I noticed the quantity of food on my plate increased!
“Good morning, Peggy. My, aren’t you looking dapper. What fantastic food concoction did you create today?” I asked.
Peggy, full of bliss, begins describing every detail of all the upcoming offerings, giving me far more details than needed. But I patiently listened even though she sometimes offered other advice such as more attention needed to my hair or suggesting I take care of some of the wrinkles in my twice or three time worn shirt.
Smiles begin to spread on all those faces of the ladies in the back. They were becoming my friends and I loved it. Food poured over the sides of my plate as I began to learn the lesson that I can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Peggy and the girls had the audacious task of seeing these self-centered, egotistic eating machines at their worst, beginning at the sleepy time of 7 a.m. for the unfortunate ones who had 7:30 a.m. classes. Then they saw the guys land around 12:30 p.m. ready to absorb all the morsels available to endure the impending practice at 3 p.m. Lastly, they saw the ravaged appetites of the hangry warriors after practice around 6:30 p.m. It made for a long day for the ladies.
These lady gems saw wild eyed boys arrive on campus at the unenvious age of seventeen. They saw these boys grow through their various stages of immaturity eventually into young men. Many left school early for assorted reasons. They saw injuries, marriages, loss of loved ones and every joke pulled on each other known to mankind. They watched them receive their letters from home bearing both glad and sad news. They witnessed the sentiment of many “Dear John” letters. They saw the emotions of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Eventually, those who made it four or sometimes five years, left school ready to conquer the world, sometimes as old as twenty-four.
The lunch ladies viewed their mission to not only feed us physically, but for those of us who wanted to make ourselves better, help us become better people.
For me, Peggy was my mother figure and I believe she viewed me as her college son.
“Did you know we can use watercress for decorating food plus it is edible,” she informed me, with my mind nowhere in the same universe as hers.
“Peggy, I don’t care about that stuff,” I retort. “It looks like pond weed to me and tastes like something that came out of a chicken house!”
“Someday you will want to know,” she replies, as she informs me on which side of the plate my fork belongs.
Peggy and the girls had a way about knowing when a young fella was down and needed a picker upper. They manifested their servant talents by passing on a compliment or a word or two of encouragement, always with a smile.
They called upon these ladies to put together astonishing five-star dinners when VIP recruits visited campus. It was an exciting time for all of us as we were encouraged to invite dates to attend. I noticed the lunch ladies dressed for the occasion with their long dresses and extra makeup came into play. The food was out of this world outstanding. The ambiance created was surreal. They displayed ice carvings of Razorbacks throughout the room. Music permeated the air. It was a gala event. For me, the most elegant event I ever attended.
As I left the party with my date, I turned to give Peggy and the girls the thumbs up. Peggy, with a sly twinkle in her eye, pointed at me and sent me a thumbs up as well, as she signaled for me to straighten my collar. She was proud for me. Life was good.
The lunch ladies were always trying to make our food experience exciting. Once the ladies decided it would be fun if they set up grills on the balcony and allow the guys to cook their own steaks.
“Aw man, you mean I gotta cook my own steak?” were words uttered from many of the spoiled jocks.
Sensing the lunch lady’s spirits deflating, I knew something must be done.
My friend and I stepped up and said we would cook all the steaks if the ladies would join us. We cooked many steaks that day, played the music loud and line danced the afternoon away while we cooked the spoiled ones their steaks. We made a memory together. It is one I will never forget.
After I graduated, on game day, I took my wife into Darby Hall just to say hello to my lunch ladies and introduce them to my wife. As I left, I turned to give them my customary thumbs up. To my surprise, six ladies with smiles from ear to ear were standing there giving me the thumbs up of approval. My heart went “thump, thump!”
They had succeeded. One of their boys had successfully flown the coup. My how far he had come since the first time they saw this scraggly haired country boy, who did not have a clue about what the world was about to throw him or how to handle himself in the wild wild world he had just entered. He had come full circle, about to enter a new world which they helped prepare him to tackle.
“Did you notice the watercress they used?” I proudly asked my new bride.
“How do you know about watercress?” she asks impressed.
“Honey, can we name our first child Peggy?” I ask, as I check to see if my collar is straight.
I guess I just have a thing for lunchroom ladies!