The days when I got excited for sloppy joes

Nothing truly brings back childhood memories like food.

Think about it. The smells, the texture, the taste—they’re inextricably linked to some part of our childhood. There’s a reason it’s call “comfort” food.

When I think about the foods I want to eat, I usually think back to the foods I miss from home. There’s yakitori. Okonomiyaki (pancake-like dish with stuffs mixed in). Oyakodon. Katsu. Sashimi. (If you haven’t guessed by now, dear reader, I grew up in Japan.)

But a recent post from Education Week‘s Full Frame blog reminded me of the school lunches I grew up eating, and school lunches I fancied eating.

AP photographers took photos of school lunch meals from around the world, and the variety of the foods reminded me of the types of lunch I got: the bland, unappetizing American tray of the usual soggy pizza, overloaded nachos, dry chicken nuggets, delictable sloppy joe (my favorite), to the great tasting Japanese-style lunches I remember getting in pre-K, and as a visiting student at a Japanese high school.

(Although I lived in Japan, I went to a DoDDS school for U.S. military dependents. One year, I served a sort of “ambassador” to my on-base school, and got to visit a Japanese school off the base.)

As an adult, thinking back to that dingy, brown tray, I’m thinking the food was pretty awful. But as disgusting as they looked, for my childhood self, the food was mighty tasty. Sloppy Joe days were always my favorite. Of course, once I got to high school, I indulged in McDonald’s, Sbarro’s, PopEyes, and other off-campus food fare that mom’s weekly stipend could buy.

Japanese school lunches were more appetizing, from what I remember, and always exciting to eat. Curry days were no dispute. Hands down, the best. I remember, each class had two students, rotating in weekly shifts, who went down to the kitchen to bring up a cartons of milk (Japanese milk is soooooo good), and a big stove pot of whatever was on the menu that day. And rice. Always rice.

Comparing Japanese lunch and American lunch, I have to say that the Japanese lunch always wins. Hands down. There was never any doubt that I’d eat all the food on my tray. Especially curry and rice.

And that’s the thing—you look at those school meal photos by the AP photographers, and American school lunches just look terrible. Why is that?

It’s a bit insulting to be quite honest. Knowing that I was, and students are still, fed crap food. All this despite the USDA’s new school food rules (which EdWeek also covered).

Ah well.

Inevitably, when I think about childhood and food, I come to the thought of my mom. She was a school lunch lady. No, I didn’t get free meals, but yes. My mom was the lunch boss. And it was great knowing that when I had off from school, she would have off from school. Which meant no hassle during vacations, trying to wrangle days off or finding someone to cover a shift.

I remember, when going down the hot lunch line, the voices of the other kids, “Hey Gina’s mom!”

That always felt good.

I remember watching my mom go over the books, making lists of things that needed to be ordered; moving things around on the shelves; walking through the cold storage and seeing bags of frozen chicken nuggets. So much chicken nuggets. And buns. Buns for the sloppy joes.

And the manager’s office was always a good place to hide. Or to sleep in when I wasn’t “feeling very good.”

Yep. Having a parent working at the school did pay off, on occasion. And she wasn’t a teacher so that was a kind of bonus.

Today’s post brought to you by The Daily Post. And yes, the photo above isn’t that of sloppy joes, but regular ol’ burgers that were extremely delicious.