I've been going back and forth the past couple of weeks with my buddy Magee on what the best things we had to eat at school when we were growing up were. Each time we thought we had our Top 5 down, a few days later one of us would remember another absolute delight and we'd have to reorder the power rankings.
Well, now I think it's complete. This is the arguably (and I promise you - you will argue and probably say some really, really, really, really, really, mean things in the comment section about our existence and contribution to mankind) the top-ranked elementary school hot lunches. Now, I think these items were mostly exclusive to the northeast, but I also assume the rest of America is pretty similar. I have no idea if different parts of the country serve food more closely related to their regions. Like, does San Diego serve fish sticks for school lunch? Does Texas serve brisket? Does Florida serve meth? I don’t really know.. But probably.
Magee and I ran these through a couple of our group chats. I turned to my private school, Central Mass buddies text thread and Jeff turned to the ol’ Tewksbury High friends group chat he still has to resurrect any suppressed food-related memories from school.
I think up until high school, we all dreaded school lunch for a slew of different reasons. But when you think back, school lunch was overall a beautiful thing. You sat with your friends in your self-assigned seats, establishing your social hierarchy of popularity by getting a corner seat - or positioning yourself closest to Mr. Corner seat. Obviously, depending on your clique, this could be the Eddie Munson-type, the model dude from 10 Things I Hate About You, or the kid in band, who absolutely dominates in the high school half-time show playing “Louie Louie” from his trombone.
You surrounded yourself with people - who you probably still talk to today - downed questionable food for $1.40, avoided the one lunch attendant who smelled like cats and looked like death, and befriended the other cool lunch attendant, (who also smelled like cats and looked like death). But they were nice.
So, here we go...
Far and away, Bosco Sticks took the number one spot. Not everyone knew the name - pizza sticks, baked mozz sticks, whatever, they’re number one. It has the makings of a perfectly not-healthy lunch that was only there to set you up for complete failure over the next three hours.
Bread, cheese, dipping sauce if you’re lucky. "Now, go learn trigonometry with a stomach full of bread and cheese." Yes, trig. Not taxes, not credit card debt and basic finance, not the mortgage application process, not health insurance, not life insurance, nothing that every person ever who lives a life needs. Go learn trig you little bosco stick lover.
(Sidebar - It was always great when some weirdo kid whose mom made them eat shit like Quinoa and Kix didn’t like theirs, so you were able to score an extra two sticks at no cost by kissing ass well enough.
Just a classic. It’s one of the many reasons you had to love Friday. There are a few pizza-style options on this list. I wouldn’t be true to myself if I just did one “pizza” option on this list. There are different foods. You went with the stop-light three pepperoni (unless you lucked out with two pieces stuck together and got a 4th Roni).
Until they ran out and you just went plain cheese. That pepperoni gave it an extra kick of flavor. You would always get about a quarter of the way through it before that hardened cheese just fly off the top of your pizza with that watery tomato sauce like pulling a comforter off a bed. You'd feel like a king if you were lucky to get a nice piece with the burnt, crunchy cheese corners.
Double lunch all day. If you don’t go double lunch nachos, stop reading. This list isn’t for you. Simple, beautiful, ballpark-style circle chips that were way too salty, covered in a cheese wiz bath, topped with, what I assume to be, Newman’s own salsa that was ordered in 10-gallon Costco-style jugs. These were an absolute mess, covering your fingers, and face, but you never worried about what people around you thought of you while you looked like a troll from Ernest Scared Stupid. I know you did the finger thing on the tray to scoop up the last few streaks of cheese. Don’t act like you didn’t. Then back to learning trig.
Was it turkey? No. No, it wasn’t. It was probably a seagull the superintendent netted in the Marshalls parking lot you got your slightly-messed up Mike Vick jersey from… but it was shockingly delicious. Just blazing hot gravy mixed with seagull chunks on top of an ice-cream scoop of the ol’ mashed. That first bite always gave you that burning feeling in your throat that could only be washed down with a miniature carton of Garelick farms chocolate milk to cool the sensation.
You would continue the process of piping hot and cold until you couldn't remember who you were. The only downfall was the mashed potatoes were either not thoroughly mixed and you could taste the fakeness, or for some reason, were the best you’ve ever had. Either way, you had to Thanksgiving-dinner it and mix it all together. Let’s not forget the ice-cream scoop of stuffing that was only presented every third time that dinner came around.
Last but not least, and this one gets it’s own paragraph… the roll. Hard, buttery top, soft center… ripping the head off of it to see the bread stretch like the cheese in Secret of the Ooze. Once in a while, someone wasn’t feeling their roll, and you got two, A King’s Day indeed.
I always wondered why it was a boat and never just a plain old taco, but in my old age, I realize it wasn’t to impress me with nautical-style meals… it was convenience for the lunch ladies to scoop the food. The wonderful things about this culinary experience, was there was no one-way to eat it. You wanna go fork? Go fork. You wanna eat with your hands? Have at it. I won’t stop you. The orange shredded cheese was something else. Not really sure want made to so different. It literally might have just been sliced up land-o-lakes american cheese, but i’m good with it. The crunch of the taco (if not stale), the seasoned beef, and cheese were a nice mix. I think you could get tomatoes and onions? But i might be making that up. It was chipotle before chipotle. Also, apparently taco boats are banned in new york according to @johnBoschFF… whatever that means.
French bread pizza
(Authors Note - I (Dante) had this personally ranked much, much higher and was shocked to be in the minority. Everybody I raved about the school French bread pizzas told me I was crazy. That they were "good", but nothing to write home about. I think you're all crazy.)
Yes, a little different from rectangle pizza. Literally, a piece of cheap french bread, the same sauce, the same cheese, the bottom of the bread had a crunch that the rectangle pizza just couldn't offer. Eating this was also ensuring you would be feeling the roof of your mouth peel off six to seven times over the next four days because this thing was Mt Vesuvius lava hot. Sometimes you would squeeze it like a pair of lovely butt cheeks to get all of your bite. Easy, simple, could honestly make it at home. Just good.
(I couldn't find anything resembling a school "bacon burger" anywhere on twitter so had to use this stock image… There isn’t even a picture on Twitter of this alien food. It’s been erased from the history books, and rightfully so. There's no resemblance whatsoever to this picture)
No bacon or burger for miles. Just grey. Grey meat with a weird coating. Also featuring lettuce and tomato with a glob of mayo that’s been out a little too long. I was never a lover of the sandwich, but it did the trick. Others loved it. It’s the reason they lived. And are probably still alive today. Every time I had that fuckin’ thing, I got heartburn. As a child. Nothing has given me heartburn since. It just felt like this sandwich was giving birth to another sandwich as it entered my stomach. I would close my eyes, tilt my head down, and just pray for the pain to be over so I could have another bite. The one great thing about it, was it almost always came with tots. The golden, crispy gifts from Heaven that were either cooked to crunchy perfection, or tasted like the inside of the walk-in freezer, because they ordered a surplus last year.
Chicken patty aka the Clux Delux
The school-version of a McChicken. Tomato, lettuce, mayo.. And ketchup for you mayo-haters. It always had the crunchiest piece of lettuce you’ve ever had in your entire life. Like they skipped the top of that head of Foxy Lettuce and just went right to the core. Sometimes even had some of the root in it. It basically tasted like a more oversized chicken nugget. Had to be same exact recipe as the nuggets. Which I'm pretty sure we all know was pink slime.
They were nuggets. Like a bag of frozen nuggets, you would pull from the freezer after soccer practice for a little snack. Amazing? No. Good? Yes. Double lunch was completely acceptable not for flavor, but for portion size. No one judged. Everyone understood.
Mac n Cheese
Macaroni noodles that were yellow and coated in "cheese" that didn't quite taste like cheese. I think they even put fake clumps of fake burnt cheese in there to convince us this meal was not created in a lab by the greater power to control us. Double lunch-worthy? Absolutely not. This is more of a bag of Wachusett Sour Cream and Onion from the vending machine to fill you up and mask the terrible mac and cheese flavor. Either way, I still ate that meal with no regard for human life. Had to at that age. Just chowing down like it was the last 10 seconds of an eating contest, and I was channeling Joey Chestnut.
People went fuckin ape shit for this thing. It was like an even worse McRib. I’m not a fan of the McRib. It’s fine. Not lose-your-mind-race-to-McDonalds-good, but I respect the people who feel that way. To each their own. But this sandwich shared the same characteristics. It was a rib without the ribs. I assume it’s basically a nugget-style concoction that is ground up meat, mashed together with the scraps, veins, ligaments, and bone fragments, and it tasted closest to a rib. So they just called it a rib. Either way, like most things on this list, God knows what the fuck we were eating. if you liked it, all you. I’m sure people will tar and feather me for a strong opinion on turkey dinner.
I don’t know if this is exclusive to the northeast, but it has to make the list. I have no idea what this slab of meat is covered in gravy with just chunks of onion(?). But it existed, and I ate it. We all ate it. We had no choice. It was that or starve. I feel like it was honestly just crappy hamburger meat leftover that had no purpose. Legit plastic fork and knife to cut this gopher meat patty up. It really wasn't good at all, but it was served to us so often and is forever engrained in my taste buds.
I also want to bring up - what they told us was chicken teriyaki was in absolutely no way chicken teriyaki. Didn’t taste like it… didn’t even look like it. It was just chunks of “chicken” with a sauce that doesn’t exist with pencil carvings that were supposed to be grill marks.
There was also a broad range of pasta that existed. I actually didn't mind the spaghetti and occasional ravioli. Aside from cooked way too long and being softer than a baby's ass, The American chop suey looked like trash, but wasn't bad. Not a huge fan, but I wasn’t upset. Is what is. Sue me,. American chop sue me, actually.
Other foods that don’t need a paragraph.. Sloppy joe. You know what it is.
p.s. - what do kids in school get served today? I've seen so much shit in the news about making school lunches healthy and nutritional the last few years. But I've also never seen so many fat-ass kids walking around in my life as I do in this country, so does everybody just bring their own cold-cut hoagies and Fantas to lunch everyday now?