Robert Avrech’s post about his wife Karen’s Free Lunch at Yeshiva of Flatbush, coupled with my recent obsession with finding old elementary school mates on Facebook, just kicked up an old memory.
Halfway through first grade, my mother finally took me to an allergy specialist in Manhattan who determined, after several long hours of poking, prodding and scratching which would probably have been a violation of the Geneva Convention, that my incessant coughing, sniffling and eye rubbing was due to me being allergic to…EVERYTHING.
EVERYTHING! Cats! Dogs! Mice! Trees! Grass! Dirt! Flowers! The entire month of May! And just about every food imaginable. And so, armed with this invaluable bit of diagnostic determination, she sent me back to school one day with a note laying out to the teacher exactly what, and more importantly, what NOT, I was allowed to eat at the school lunches.
Now, for the last 13 years, my wife and my kids (and rarely, me) have packed up sandwiches, juice boxes, cut-up apples, yogurts, and snacks, and zipped them into little lunch boxes and launched our little ones off to school where they would suffer through “cold lunches,” not knowing any better. Not so where I went to school. In Yeshiva Dov Revel, EVERY day was a hot lunch day. We lined up to have our trays loaded with noodles, potatoes, veggies, fish sticks, and the occasional vegetable cutlets (I called them, in my usual charming little way, “cocklets,” for such they resembled). I’m sure there were many kids who didn’t like these lunches (and for them there was always peanut butter), but I relished them.
Until, of course, the day my mother sent that note with me. Now, the truth is, I did pretty well with most of it. I didn’t miss the peanut butter sandwiches. I lived well without the “cocklets”. I even deftly avoided chocolate in all of its forms, and my mother and my friends’ mothers were quick to accommodate me with vanilla treats instead (until the day I found out that Twinkies weren’t kosher, but that’s a tale for another time).
But once a week, my resolve was sorely challenged, and crumbled. Fried Flounder Day.
I don’t know what it was about that meal. You could smell it all the way up to the classrooms. The aroma would waft through your nostrils during the march down the stairs, and it would permeate you during the long line up at the doors to the cafeteria. And of course, when my turn at the counter came up, I would take a serving on my plate.
And then the teacher…she was a Sabra, that one…militant in her determination to carry out my mother’s orders, would remove them from my plate and send me to sit in my place down towards the middle of the table. Where I would sit and stew and stare down at what remained of the meal, usually mashed potatoes and some macaroni…and plot my next move.
Which, at the age of six, wasn’t all that sophisticated. It amounted to me shoving all of my potatoes on to my buddy Jonathan’s plate, and then him sliding his fish, which he hated, onto mine. And then, timing my move down to the nanosecond, waiting for the teacher to turn and greet a colleague, I’d duck down under the table and consume my contraband lunch on the floor.
And sniffle and cough my way through the rest of the day. But man, it was worth it.