September 6, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we expected some horror stories about cafeteria culture. Instead, writers have shared largely positive memories: learning social customs in the United States, creating an open-air lunch spot in Kolkata and today, a civilized taste of socialized shrimp in Luxembourg. Helene Paquin lives in Toronto and blogs about books at the CrackSpineDrinkWine book club. Her twitter handle is @CrackSpineBkClb
Cafeteria Culture? It’s Not All Bad
By Helene Paquin
Business travel can be taxing. The time spent at airports instead of at home with family. The challenges of inventory control as you’re living out of a carry-on for a week. The unfair reality that the Earth rotates around the sun and therefore you will be jet lagged. It’s not all negative, however. Business travel does provide an opportunity to visit places that you wouldn’t likely visit on your own. In my case it was Luxembourg, not exactly on my bucket list of must-see. I’d been asked to attend a week of meetings, and having no real choice in the matter, my answer was, “Oui, I shall go.”
After managing five hours of sleep on the flight, I take a taxi to Luxembourg’s second largest town, Esch. As the taxi pulls up in front of the headquarters I’m struck by the architecture of the building. A giant stack of red plastic building blocks in the shape of a V greets me. In contrast, next door is what appears to be a dilapidated steel plant facing foreclosure. I hand over 75 euros and in my best French I manage to squeak, “Merçi, au revoir” to my driver. I’m determined to use my native language while I’m here despite my Quebecois accent.
The morning meeting goes well and I’m invited to have lunch in the cafeteria. Flashes of high school flood my memory bank: long lines, steel trays steaming with the bland daily special, the refrigerated cases with slide windows to reach a chocolate pudding. Frankly I’m a bit horrified and do not have the best poker face. My peers immediately start explaining: The district is being developed and has no restaurants in the immediate area for dining. The office has planned for this and a subsidized cafeteria has been built for the employees. Apparently it’s the law for companies to do this. I fake a smile and we head to the second floor.
The elevator opens and I’m greeted with a display table featuring the season’s offerings. Giant white asparagus tied with string on a silver platter lie below vases filled with spectacular flower arrangements. A rectangular blackboard lists today’s menu choices written in white chalk. Employees pour in and say hello to each other as they swipe their employee cards. I ask about the cards thinking I may need one to order my lunch. I’m informed that employees swipe their card to prove that they have taken a lunch break. If an employee doesn’t swipe, his or her manager receives an email indicating the staff might be overworked. Again this is the law. The labor codes want to ensure health and wellness by encouraging breaks, eating meals and socializing. In my office we eat lunch at our desks while answering phones and typing emails.
There are five lines divided by meal types: grill, pasta, pizza, daily special and salad. I head to the shortest and quickly the chef asks what I would like. On my first day of travel I keep it simple: pasta with tomato sauce. “Voulez-vous des langoustines?” I grin widely. Why, yes, I would like subsidized shrimp on my pasta. He makes the sauce from scratch in a saucepan right in front of me. No bastions of steel trays filled with food that’s been sitting there for 3 hours. Everything is fresh. I look over at the others and it’s the same everywhere. The pizzas are made to order, so are the salads. This is unlike any cafeteria I’ve ever seen. Everyone looks happy, standing in line, talking to each other.
I’m handed my dish and head over to the fridges. There’s wine and beer! How civilized! I’d love to grab a red wine but my North American employment policy says not to. I make a mental note that I need to see about getting a transfer when I get back. The desserts are works of art. The shelves reveal crème caramels with slivers of chocolate on top, chocolate éclairs with fresh custard and what looks like a lemon cake. Want a coffee with that? Enter some coins in the espresso maker and a freshly brewed cup magically appears. I see my colleagues and join them at the cashier. She tallies my order: three euros. This is the best cafeteria ever! I sit at a table and stare at the trays filled with treasures from the kitchen. I’m overwhelmed and realize how grateful I am to be here among people who care so much about food and quality of life. I raise my water glass, “Bon appétit everyone!”
August 29, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. This week’s entry takes us a long way from American middle schools. Somali Roy, a freelance writer living in Singapore who last wrote for Food & Think about her mother-in-law’s kitchen, takes us to lunch in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
A Wildlife Cafeteria
By Somali Roy
As I squint to proofread the fine lines of advertising copy on my computer screen, a message box pops up: “Lunch?” I look through the glass wall at Jatish, who gives me the perfunctory nod and ambles towards the cafeteria with his stainless steel lunchbox. I scoot off to catch up.
On our way, we grab Seema, our third lunch-mate, and settle down at our standard spot. When the lunch boxes open and the captive smells of mixed spices and herbs waft through the air, bellies grumble and roar here and there. People waiting to buy lunch shift their gaze sheepishly.
The food in our lunch boxes differentiated us, in a way nothing else did. Jatish, being Gujrati, mostly brought thepla, a spicy, whole wheat flatbread accompanied by some chutney. Seema, a Punjabi, had split peas or kidney beans in red curry sauce with paratha. And I, a Bengali plus a sloth, did not bring any regional specialties to the table except some drab looking sandwiches. When Anoop Nair, a strict vegetarian Brahmin from Kerala, cared to join us, we formed a mini India around the table.
This was the routine for the two years I worked in a newly built four-story multiplex in Kolkata. Designed by one of the most prominent architects of the country, this swanky building with its transparent glass façade, English speaking service staff, plush movie theaters and other modern trappings, was surely bulldozing a good number of old and rusty single-screens but was seen as a welcome change by the city’s young, educated, bourgeois crowd that represented the modern and developing Kolkata, a crowded metropolis in east India.
All was good except that the building lacked a cafeteria for its employees. While moviegoers happily stuffed their faces with popcorn, soft drinks and other goodies, we employees had to fend for ourselves. Much to my dislike, I began carrying lunch to office, which was packed by our maid, who was not exactly known for her cooking skills. I joined the petition for a cafeteria soon after examining my lunch box one day: a burned sandwich that had gone soggy from mushy fruits on the side.
Our plea was sanctioned, but until the cafeteria was built in line with the design and decor of the rest of the building, a makeshift arrangement took shape on the terrace. Four poles were lodged at the four corners, and a musty, threadbare cloth was mounted as a cover. A much-needed coffee machine appeared, a dozen white plastic chairs and tables hop-scotched across the floor and a temporary cooking area was set up at the far end with necessary accoutrements.
As most employees were local, the lunch menu was typically Bengali, with little or no variation to the permanent rice, lentils and spicy fish curry, much to the disappointment of others. Though a purebred Bengali, I too denounced the menu—rice makes me soporific, especially in the afternoons, and fish isn’t a favorite. Looking at the bright side, I am glad I escaped being mocked as “Fishy Bong,” as the fish-eating Bengalis were dubbed.
If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as “lunching amid nature and wildlife.” Crows, sparrows and cats that pecked at leftovers or begged for food often greeted us with their cawing and purring. When the cloth ceiling leaked at places during monsoons, we huddled together around dry spots. On scorching summer afternoons we gobbled everything in seconds and rushed into air-conditioning, and dust storms made us take shelter behind a semi-constructed brick wall.
Yet we came, every single day, climbing two flights of stairs, crossing over half a dozen pipes and passing by loud and trembling generators to have our lunch, talk about our day, complain about the system, lament over the workload, gossip about the latest love affairs. This transient, tent-like cafeteria was tacky, morbid, far from the real deal but we went there because it added color to our plain vanilla workdays.
August 22, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.
August 15, 2011
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 FoodandThink@gmail.com 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.
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.
August 8, 2011
Leslie Waugh is a copy editor at the Washington Post and a yoga teacher. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia, she writes, “with my husband, who is a big fan of food TV shows, and two cats, who, like me, are more fond of eating than cooking.”
A Letter to the Kitchen
By Leslie Waugh
I’m sorry we haven’t been getting along lately. We’ve grown apart, I know. But it’s me, really, not you. I’ve become too busy for you, too distracted with other things that are feeding me in different ways. I’ve been cheating on you with easy catches like the Whole Foods buffet. You might think that would be healthy, but I have brought home some unsavory characters. And so many things in the pantry have grown stale, stuffing up the space way past their sell-by dates. My guilt is bottomless, and I am heavy with shame. I know you require more than I have been able to give, so I wouldn’t blame you for abandoning me. Yet you are still there. Unchanging. Stoic. Practically goading me.
To say that I miss you would be a bit of a lie, because our relationship has always been fraught and one-sided. You’ve kept me at a distance, like a chemistry lab whose experiments I will never understand. You haven’t made it easy to understand you, and I feel as if I’ve had to do all the work. I have forced my ineptitude on you, humiliating myself (hello, 4-H contests) in trying to create magic with tools whose power I do not understand. You have not responded to my pleas to cooperate; you won’t yield the secrets of baking or help me figure out when to dig in and redouble my efforts or back off and save a dish from ruination. Perhaps I ask too much. Perhaps it is I who must change.
My impatience has not helped, I admit. And I am fickle. Once I extract a certain dish from you, I’m instantly bored with it. I’m even bored by the time it’s ready to eat, because it’s no longer a surprise. I know what it’s going to taste like, because I’ve smelled and seen its innards the whole way along. But instead of looking for a new thrill, I give in to my laziness and inertia. And, let’s face it, here’s the rub: You are the keeper of a very double-edged substance, food. You are the storehouse of life-sustaining staples but also of those that have become diet-demonized—anything white, for example—and you yourself are fickle about holding on to anything healthy. The clock is always ticking on fresh produce, meat and anything from a cow. The pressure to use these items on deadline becomes too much. But in deserting you, I’ve hurt myself more than you.
Can we make up? Will you take me back? I can change, but it will take time. And I might stray now and then in attempts to find longer-lasting footing with you. Let’s face it, you hardly notice my absence anyway, but for the lonely utensils, pots and pans, and the dust in the countertop corners. A hearth unstoked cannot survive, I know. And a death from neglect, even benign neglect, is still a death.
Can we look at each other with fresh eyes? I’ll try not to ask too much. I’ll try to respect your boundaries if you honor my limitations. After all, relationships thrive on compromise.