Review: Hillcrest Elementary School Cafeteria

by Jay HOLLEY
 

photograph of a chicken nugget lunch, not delicious.

I have fond memories of elementary school hot lunches: floppy rectangular pizzas that were nothing like Pizza Hut’s fare but tasty in their own specific way, greasy taco salad — Salisbury steak, even — I liked them all. I remember being in fifth grade and railing about the food’s quality with my tablemates. Our accusations were empty; every weekday we devoured the feast. We sped through the fried chicken or ‘ribette’ or kielbasa, then slurped up mashed potatoes or corn or lima beans, enjoying every bite. When I decided to review the cafeteria at Hillcrest Elementary, my recollections of school lunches past were so overwhelmingly positive I thought it wise to bring a pair of objective experts to balance my possible adulation. I enlisted Ed, a degreed Food Scientist, for nutritional analysis, and Bryant, a trained designer, for his thoughts on the cafeteria’s decor.

I called the school’s office to schedule our meal:

“Tomorrow’d be fine, or any day,” the office administrator told me, “you don’t have to call ahead—we always order extra.”

“Oh, perfect,” I replied — I was expecting more Hassle — “so either tomorrow or Wednesday would work?”

“We’ll have enough food any day of the week,” the administrator informed me before adding, “but if I may make a suggestion, I’d avoid Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” I quizzed.

“Uh huh. Wednesday’s chili day.”

“Wednesday’s no good — good to know. Tomorrow’s okay, though?”

I could hear the rustling of paper. She was double-checking the menu. “Tomorrow’s good, tomorrow’s chicken nuggets. They’re fine. And also you could have a cheeseburger or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and we have our salad bar every day.”

“Nuggets sound great,” I told her, “we’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

“Glad I could help.”

During my formative years at Topeka, Kansas’ now-demolished Potwin Elementary, sixth graders enlisted for two-week stints in the lunchroom general infantry. It was an excuse to skip Spelling lessons, earn a meal with an extra desert on the state’s tab, and clean tables with Lupé, the janitor, so everyone jumped at the offer; shoveling green beans onto classmates’ plates beat I before E hands-down. In retrospect the practice of hiring 6th grade lunch help at sub-minimum wages does seem peculiar, but still I was surprised to find Hillcrest Elementary’s lunch line strictly Self-Service; even the entree choice was customer-managed. The cook simply maintained the endless supply of nugget baskets and added lettuce to the salad bar. Gone are the days when a hair-netted lunch lady dished every protesting child a ladle of Brussel spouts, which invariably found their way to the trash barrel in a milk carton coffin.


Starch

The instant mashed potatoes I’d idealized in memory were, as they’d probably always been, bland and unrecognizable as the pride of Idaho. The gravy I’d pumped onto them from a plastic dispenser did little to improve the flavor. I couldn’t tell what stock the gravy was designed to emulate, which was more troubling.


Vegetable and Bread

The salad—dressing-drenched iceberg — was up to McDonald’s standard. I was unable to determine what flavor the dressing was; it was a white goo, dispensed from a pump that drew from a gallon jug. Most of the children skipped the salad . The roll was bleached, refined, and flavorless, but for $2.50 I wasn’t expecting fine greens and oven-baked twelve-grain wheat. Packets of barbeque sauce were provided for the chicken nuggets, but sadly the cafeteria didn’t stock a supply of butter, bread’s natural complement.


Entrée

Food Scientist Ed tore into a nugget while I shook my chocolate milk. He picket at it for half a minute before looking up, dropping his jaw for effect, and stating with surprise, “This is real chicken. No extenders at all.” He shook his head in disbelief.

Bryant beat me to the question: “What were you expecting, Ed, plastic?”

Ed loves to talk about artificial ingredients and elaborate chemical processes. He spent two years as a soy alchemist, creating soy sausage, soy chicken, soy cars — soy everything. “You wouldn’t believe what they put in these things. They can blend in soy, textured whey protein, carrageen, and other concoctions you don’t want to imagine.”

“But this real?” I confirmed, nugget in hand.

“I don’t have a microscope, but I’m fairly confident of my preliminary analysis.”

I bit off half a nugget and chewed. It tasted like real poultry, I’ll grant — much more chicken-y than fast food bird — but it was barely above room temperature. I tore open a packet of barbecue sauce and squeezed a dab onto a second nugget; I preferred the taste, though it further lowered the nugget’s perceived temperature.


Amenities

The cutlery, a plastic spork, was sanitary and effective, though slightly demeaning: even kindergarteners are capable of manipulating a knife, fork and spoon. Could it be an anti-terrorism measure? Doubtful, I think; likely it’s a cost-cutting measure.

I asked design-consultant Bryant what he thought of the facilities. There wasn’t much he could say. It’s a gymnasium-cafeteria hybrid, not a Frank Gehry museum: functional.


Conclusion

At $2.50, the Hillcrest Elementary School Cafeteria’s price is right, but it’s hard to reserve a table unless you’re parent, teacher, or waving press credentials.

Value-seekers will find more for their money with the fried rice at Jade Garden, which comes with a crab rangoon and is accompanied by traditional tableware. Those seeking a close approximation of school lunch vittles, only tastier, are advised to sample the weekly Friday Fried Chicken Buffet at the Pink Flamingo Club. While the Flamingo’s meal is high-value and All-You-Can-Eat, it must be noted that it is several dollars more costly than the Elementary School alternative ($7 plus gratuity). The Flamingo is less Family-Friendly (some parents will object to the dancers), but the staff doesn’t rush you to eat and urge you keep your voice low, so overall it scores points on the cafeteria hot lunch.

Unless you’re a Hillcrest student, there’s little reason to choose the cafeteria over other low-cost lunches. Adults of large appetite would probably find the elementary school cafeteria’s portions disappointing, while several of the sixty-pound waifs sitting at the next table seemed satisfied with a lunch consisting only of a small basket of nuggets. The portions seem appropriate for the target market, while the general public would be better served at Jade Garden or the Pink Flamingo.

Enjoy your culinary ignorance while you can, kids. One day you will miss it.

Food: /*

Service: n/a

Decor: /*

Cost: $2.50 prix fixe, gratuity: n/a

Overall value: 1/2/*

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