For Better or For Worse: Most Memorable School Cafeteria Foods

Next month, I’ll return to Waverly, Iowa for the first time since my college graduation and it’s got me in a school [food] state of mind.

A Chowhound discussion about memorable school cafeteria food continues to pop-up and I never get tired of reading people’s memories. School cafeteria food is vividly burned into my memory and I can still taste and smell meals decades later.

It’s interesting to learn about the different iconic school cafeteria meals that exist even between states within the Midwest. Many of my Iowan friends fondly remember chili and cinnamon/caramel roll day and Crispitos, which I never saw in Minnesota. My college roommate grew up in a small town in Iowa and recalled the combination of “Pork shape on a bun” and butter sandwiches, which were spread with something that was definitely not butter. In fact, I don’t remember seeing pork served on lunch menus at my Minnesota schools during grade school.

These are the school cafeteria foods that are burned most clearly into my memory. Feel free to add yours in the comments section:

Elementary School (Diamond Path, Apple Valley, Minnesota)
Diamond Path became a “magnet school of international studies” in 2007. I have especially vivid memories learning about Frank Lloyd Wright in art class and making homemade pizza as part of a unit about Italy. As you can see in this photo, there’s a tiled pool in the entryway. During the year this pool was built, we all designed and painted our own clay tiles which I believe are still there.

Picnick

In 3rd grade, I was a picnic table. Where are those dunkers?

Memorable:

  • Turkey Gravy: This was the most popular lunch item. The meal was simply a clear gravy with cubes of turkey served over mashed potatoes, but even the teachers would forgo their sack lunches on Turkey Gravy Day.
  • Tony’s Pizza: Our lunch menus always specified that it was Tony’s Pizza. Of course, there were the big rectangles of cheese, sausage & pepperoni covered in pale cheese that never browned. The Mexican pizza (technically called a Fiestada) was extra special because it was octagon-shaped and covered with bright yellow cheese. Tony’s still produces Fiestadas but only sells them through distributors like Schwan’s by the case of 96! They’re listed under the “Sheeted-Pizza” category because how else do you produce pizzas shaped like octagons?
  • French Toast Sticks: I actually bought a box at the grocery store last year for giggles. Sure, I can make my own french toast now, but these still tasted good.
  • Flavored/Seasoned Rice: This is the only food that stands out as being especially unappealing. And if I remember correctly, the menu literally this “Flavored Rice” and flavored it was. With something nose-wrinkling salty and chicken-bouillonesque that also turned it bright yellow.

Middle-High School (Minnehaha Academy, Minneapolis, MN)

All of my former schools’ menus have changed to include more fresh vegetables and fruit. In fact, I am gawking at the current elementary school menu that lists fresh spinach salad and fiesta bean dip and the high school menu which offers kidney beans, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes. These foods totally weren’t on our menus a decade ago. Times have changed! Italian dunkers are here to stay, though, I see no mention of that infamous elementary school turkey gravy.

Memorable:

  • Italian Dunkers: Italian Dunker Day was as popular as Turkey Gravy Day. Our cafeteria didn’t serve pizza, so this was the closet thing. Everyone left their sack lunches at home for hoagie halves spread with margarine and garlic powder, toasted with cheese and served with pizza sauce. My mom always complained that I reeked of garlic whenever I ate dunkers for lunch. And when I posed the topic of memorable school lunches on my Facebook pages, Minnesota friends mentioned Italian dunkers most frequently with favor, while Fargo friends mentioned them with loathing.
  • Salad Dressing: At Minnehaha, the cafeteria ladies would squirt the salad dressing onto our salads from big jugs with pump dispensers. Our choices were french or ranch, but all of the cool kids got both. Every once in a while when I’m at a salad bar, I’ll drizzle a sald with both and think of those giant salad dressing jugs.
  • Squishy Bagel Breaks: The cafeteria opened in the mornings and during breaks. The most popular snack among students were these squishy $1.25 bagels in which the cafeteria ladies would melt a slice of white or yellow American cheese for exactly 90-seconds in the microwave. The trendy thing to order was to dip a bagel with white cheese into cream cheese. I’ll recreate this snack about once every two years.
  • Weird Croutons: We always noticed our salad bar croutons were different the day after grilled cheese day. They transformed from their normal crunchy selves into cubes sandwiching a terribly chewy layer. Cutting leftover grilled cheese into croutons is a good idea in theory, but the fact that they were impossible chewy and kept at room temperature made us whisper.

College (Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa)
For a small liberal arts college, Wartburg’s Mensa (a.k.a. the caf) offered many choices. It wasn’t the wonderland of food that was the St. Olaf cafeteria, but good nonetheless. Our cafeteria meals were set at a single, all-you-can-eat price.

Our cafeteria featured several stations including the main hot food option, vegetarian, make your own sandwich and salad bars, grill & “International” dishes. You could sign-up on a hardcopy paper list located at the campus coffee shop and diner to transfer meals. I see the sign-ups are now online. Have I mentioned times have changed? The school also offered special, themed lunch buffets of which students could sign-up for $.50.

Towards our graduation, the cafeteria started providing more locally grown vegetables and vegetarian options. The staff also invited students to submit their favorite recipes which they would try to recreate and serve during meals.

Memorable:

  • BLT’s: Every once in a while, the main lunch line would feature hotel pans of toast, crispy bacon, lettuce, sliced tomato and mayo of course.
  •  Goulash: I was confused to find this was not Hungarian goulash, but ground beef and macaroni noodles mixed with a bland, slightly sweet tomato sauce. It never became a favorite, but was comfort food to the students who grew up eating it.
  • Inferno Wings: The Den was our on-campus diner that was open into the evening. I was obsessed with their Inferno Wings, a frozen product that the employees deep-fried to order. The wings were coated in a spicy batter, hense the name inferno. I’d squirrel a bag of these back to my dorm where I’d enjoy them with a Michelob Golden Light or Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss, beers that seemed fancy at the time.
  • Cool Cookies: The den also offered ice cream sandwiches made with homemade chocolate chip cookies and a variety of soft-serve ice cream flavors like chocolate-mint and cherry-almond.
  • Fish Fillet & Nachos: Whenever the cafeteria served fried fish fillets in the main hot lunch line, they were always accompanied by corn chips and cheese sauce. I always wondered what kind of pairing this was!
  • Wartburger Sandwich: I think these were Warburg’s version of a loose meat sandwich, but I avoided them due to the name.

What were your most memorable school cafeteria lunches? 

10 Comments

  1. Oh my.. I remember the Fiestada Pizza’s too! They were SO good!! I totally forgot about them. Oh to go back to school for a week to get all the good foods. 🙂

    My favorite desserts were the Crunch Bars and the Peanut Butter Bars. I loved chili & cinnamon roll day too. It was always a good day when you got a big cinnamon roll. 🙂

    • I was actually wondering if any schools around here sold Fiestada’s and would let me buy one pizza. I will have to get to Starboard before they close for the winter so I can try a crunch bar.

  2. So many memories…Growing up, I was always a fan of the breakfast for lunch days (usually pancakes and sausage with applesauce).

    In college, I was a fan of their grilled cheese sandwiches. A friend worked in the cafeteria and his grilled cheese sandwiches were the BEST. Crispy, buttery and gooey. Utter perfection.

    • They did always have those breakfast foods with applesauce didn’t they. What was his grilled cheese secret? I loved our high school GC’s even thought hey were totally hard as a rock and dried out. I’ll cook mine extra long to get that effect and it never works.

      • His secret was to brush melted butter on the bread and cook the sandwich over medium to medium-low heat. They took a little longer to make but the wait was definitely worth it!

  3. Loved cool cookies! I’m obviously older than you because the union hadn’t been remodeled when I was there. The caf was down below.

  4. What a fun article!! Turkey Gravy- what a memory. Every kid LOVED that stuff! In my school in Des Moines we always had that,the rectangle pizza, deep fried burritos, beefburgers ( kinda like Maidrites but they stayed in the ice cream scoop shape) and “pie”- a scoop of cherry or apple pie filling topped with a square of baked pie crust. Chocolate milk on Friday only.

  5. Oh yes, cool cookies…I wish I could eat one now daily! Lol!! I was also partial to the sandwhiches in the Konistorei…the Denver, the Knight, etc!

    • The college is having an alumni event up here soon and is bringing cool cookies! If I lived closer to the burg, I’d totally visit for food.

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