Boiling Point: A school cafeteria where you could learn to love food

Jim Hillibish

My mom refused to relinquish parental control of my meals. So she packed my school lunch.

Or perhaps she thought I’d probably lose my quarter and two cents (for milk), or maybe I’d use it for candy at DiPetrie’s store on the walk home.

Whatever, I missed a lot until about the fourth grade, when I convinced her I was mature enough to handle lunch money.

What I missed was one of the great cafeterias. You knew that even without eating. We always had sheriff’s deputies and mailmen in our lunchroom (they paid 35 cents).

Many of us boomers fondly remember our school cafeterias. Most of the food was cooked fresh from scratch. We had no choice on our trays, only if we wanted more entrée, which we always did.

The big part of my school’s stellar reputation was the cooks. All were women of high culinary repute, and all had to prove their kitchen skills before hiring. All were grandmotherly and coaxed us into eating foods for the first time.

We had a strong Italian influence in our kitchen, resulting in scratch meals crafted with the zeal of Old World family cooks.

This was the first time I ate real, handmade pizza, all bubbly and crisp from the oven. And baked ziti. And Johnny Marzetti. The tuna mac and cheese was fabulous, made in huge trays with large elbows and a smooth cheddar cheese sauce. Everybody wanted some brown crust, please.

A special treat was Italian meatloaf, lightly seasoned with basil and oregano tomato sauce on top. Oh my.

Our cooks followed strict Catholic guidelines — no meat on Fridays. This was not a school board rule. The cooks simply insisted on it. If meat were ordered, they would have quit.

Fridays introduced us to fried fish, not the pasty fish sticks of home but actual cod fillets dipped in a light batter and golden fried. My favorite no-meat lunch came once a month, grilled cheese sandwiches with thick tomato soup made from scratch. I’ve gone almost 60 years and never have encountered anything more satisfying.

For dessert came homemade cobblers, cream-frosted cakes or peanut-butter cookies on huge sheets.

Our lunchroom was surprisingly quiet. We were too busy eating to goof off. If you finished early, you could head back to the window for seconds, no extra charge. This totally delighted the cooking staff. They remembered your name.

Then it was out to the playground with 30 minutes to work off the big meal. If we went directly back to class after eating, I’m sure we’d have passed out.

We have a tendency to idolize our youth. In this case, the memories were earned every weekday at that magic hour, 11:15. Nothing was more tempting than standing in the lunch line as the aromas wafted from the kitchen window.

I’ve attempted to recreate the halcyon mac-and-cheese days at home. Here’s where we are so far:


8 ounces large elbow macaroni (half box)

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon flour

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

4 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 can tuna

1 cup freshly made bread crumbs

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Boil the macaroni for half the time listed on the package. Drain and place in a flat baking dish greased with olive oil.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add flour and whisk. Slowly whisk in 1 cup milk over medium heat. Whisk in remaining ingredients except for tuna, paprika and bread crumbs. Use the extra milk to thin the sauce. Add more flour to thicken.

Simmer sauce for 5 minutes. Pour over macaroni in baking dish and fold in tuna. Top with bread crumbs and paprika.

Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, then switch to broiler for about 3 minutes to brown top. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Jim Hillibish writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at