Writing Tool: School Lunches

Porcupine photographed by Mary Harrsch.

What’s for lunch?

Yesterday I talked about the tool of specificity.  By looking closely at – and writing about – the details, we can often jumpstart the writing process and end up in a completely different place than where we started.  The benefit of specificity is that takes out some of the mystery of the writing process, brings it back down to earth where it’s suddenly more “doable.”

A similar tool is what Anne Lamott calls “short assignments.”  When combined with specificity, short assignments can help ignite the creative process.

“Taking short assignments and then producing really shitty first drafts of these assignments can yield a bounty of detailed memory. Raw material and strange characters lurking in the shadows,” says Lamott.

“Sometimes when a student calls and is mewling and puking about the hopelessness of trying to put words down on paper, I ask him or her to tell me about school lunches” she continues. “They always turn out to be similar…but in more important ways they are different, too, and this is even more interesting.”

So in the spirit of specificity and short assignments, here’s what I remember about school lunches. 

The embarrassing thing for me about school lunches was that my parents unabashedly signed me up for the free school lunch program.  At least, I think that’s what they did (maybe it was just the breakfast that was free).  In any event, I never paid for my school lunches, my name was just on a list that was checked off by the lunch monitor, a cheerfully chubby woman married to the high school baseball coach and mother of a thin, frail looking daughter who wore a hearing aid and returned smiles with quick, timid grins.

At some point I think I begged my parents to take me off the free lunch program because I didn’t like feeling poor.  But that meant that I had to remember to bring money to pay for my lunch – which didn’t always happen, which meant I’d have to tell the lunch monitor that I couldn’t pay and she’d have to put it on my tab.  Sometimes my parents would let that tab go for weeks before they’d get around to paying it.  At the time I blamed it all on their overall distraction with running the their business, but looking back I wonder if we really couldn’t afford those lunches and my parents were trying to find a way to get around that without embarrassing me.

And while kids who’s parents were on it – who participated in the PTA and maybe coached little league or baked cupcakes for the class on your birthday – were able to cobble together enticing sack lunches for their conscientiously parented brood, it was rare that the school lunches ever excited my pallet.  Unlike the surprises that could await you inside your lunch pail or coolie bag, those of us on the school lunch program always knew what was in store for us.  We’d get the whole months’ menu ahead of time, and so while you could see bright days ahead when pizza or hamburgers showed up on the list, you also had time to anticipate with dread the end of the month occurence we called “porcupine balls day.”

Porcupine balls, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing I’ve ever encountered in my whole life.  In fact, come to think of it, they could be the whole reason I’ve been a vegetarian for the last 20+ years.

Basically, the “balls” consisted of one huge meatball made up of all the left over meat for the week (or – god help us –  the month).  Its insides were comprised of not just week old ground beef, but also left over sausages from earlier pizza days and the random breakfast patties that remained after breakfast service ( thankfully…hopefully…no actual porcupine meat was involved in the process). The porcupine balls were covered in a sickly sweet gravy; glutinous and tasting of meatloaf marinade gone bad.  When you bit into the meatball, you’d hit this grizzled mishmash of soft meat and hard little balls of cartilage or whatever else was in there.  I don’t think I ever took another bite of my porcupine ball after that first taste.  It would just sit there in its pool of diarrhea-invoking gravy.

You always held out hope for the side dishes on porcupine ball day.  Perhaps the vegetable would be edible – steamed broccoli with cheese sauce, maybe an iceberg salad… even sautéed spinach was doable.  And you were also looking forward to the desert – maybe a piece of white cake with chocolate frosting.  Or a cookie.  Or something seasonal, like pumpkin bread.

But inevitably you’d end up with your expectations dashed.  I don’t know what kind of masochists ran the Cayucos Elementary School cafeteria in the early 80s, but they seemed to think that most appropriate plate companions to a porcupine ball feast were canned green beans with cold and runny carrot-raisin cold slaw (for dessert!).

Ugh.

It was awful.  You would actually prefer the hallow nausea of starvation to the congealed awfulness of the porcupine balls meal.  And the smell of that fucking gravy would linger around the playground the whole day.  You could not escape the stench, even if you’re family was put together enough to supply you with a more edible sack lunch.

We were, all of us, polluted by the porcupine balls.  In that, we were all equal…we were all the same.

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