All Hail: Lunch Ladies!

Asking Amy Issue #12 Sometimes ... heroes wear hairnets. Plus, Saucy sauce, Doh! Dough, and Loving "Matilda"

Recently, a beautiful rainbow scored a goal over the football field at my high school alma mater.

Hello, readers! A late entry this week — mainly because I prepared something that I decided at the last minute was just “not ready for prime time.” And you know what? It wasn’t. It was just one of those weeks. You’ve had them — I have them, we all have them.

Here instead is my invitation for you to grab your melamine lunch tray and help yourself to a little serving of positivity.

All Hail, the “Lunch Lady”

A recent letter to my “Ask Amy” column both moved and inspired me.

Behold, this very sweet tribute to the unsung hero of many a school cafeteria: the “Lunch Lady.”

“Dear Amy: In a recent question from "Upset and Embarrassed," the writer noted that fellow nurses bullied her, calling her a "lunch lady."

I wanted to share a story about lunch ladies, who should be respected and lifted up for feeding our children with a smile.

I'm not sure how universal my experience is, but I like to believe that there are more stories like mine.

When I was in school, I was shunned for a variety of reasons, by students and teachers alike. I often sat alone in a corner during breakfast and lunch.

I was often the first to arrive at breakfast period to get away from home earlier.

I'm not sure if the lunch ladies noticed this or were just fond of me, but they became some of the most welcoming, nurturing people in my school life.

They always greeted me with more enthusiasm and bright smiles than anyone else. They made sure I had enough to eat, even when I had no money.

Eventually I became sort of an assistant, spending my lunch periods learning how to use the equipment and how a commercial kitchen worked.

On many days, their welcome ensured I came to school instead of skipping the day altogether, and I think their pseudo-mentorship shaped my life more deeply than anyone could imagine a "lunch lady" could.

"Lunch Lady" should never be an insult. Mine were heroes.

— Former "Lunch Boy"

Former “Lunch Boy”: This is such a moving and well-deserved tribute to some of the lesser-recognized personnel at school — the lunch staff, librarians, bus drivers, band and choral teachers, janitorial staff, administrative assistants, security officers and student teachers.

I hope that every adult who works in a school environment recognizes the power of eye contact, a smile and the recognition to a child that: “I see you.”

Thank you so much for this letter. I hope it is printed out and posted in cafeterias everywhere.”

After this letter was published, I received even more tributes to school staff. I especially enjoyed this shout-out on Twitter from writer Jarrett Krosoczka, author of the wonderful “Lunch Lady” comic book series for young readers.

I became even more of a fan of Jarrett Krosoczka when, all during the pandemic, he offered free online drawing lessons for kids.

Click here for a link to a Lunch Lady book! (Great for 1st or 2nd grade readers)

[ To mark the closing of a very challenging school year, I will be devoting a future newsletter to hero teachers and school staff, so if you have a story you’d like me to highlight — from this past year, or your own school career — please let me know!']

DEPARTMENTS:

JUNK FOOD: “Stuff I consume to feel better,” by Railey Jane Savage

Railey writes:

In Praise of Helpers

“I already loved Matilda when the movie came out in 1996. The bright colors and from-a-kid’s-vantage camerawork charmed me in the same ways Dahl’s words had, underscoring the performance from little Mara Wilson who played “Matilda” as clever but not showy, sad but not defeated. In the story, when she finally gets to attend school, her teacher, Miss Honey, sees Matilda in a way her family can’t. This opens Matilda’s eyes to unconditional love as Miss Honey shows her — that not all adults are bad. 

I find it so strange, so lovely, and so sad that we learn so many lessons through the hardships suffered by fictional children. The resilience a kid displays in the face of overwhelming odds is how a story taps into the audience’s pathos, thereby increasing the likelihood the lessons will stick; we remember the things that make us feel. I remember how movies make me feel, so I’m careful to curate my re-watches (hence “JUNK FOOD: The Stuff I Consume to Feel Better”). But sometimes a re-watch can hit differently, and make me feel a way I didn’t expect.

I hadn’t rewatched my copy of Matilda in some years. And certainly not since I learned that Mara Wilson lost her mom while filming. On screen, Miss Honey saw that Matilda needed help, and so she helped. Off screen, director Danny Devito saw that Mara needed help, and so he and costar/wife Rhea Perlman helped and welcomed Mara as part of their family. Both Matildas needed love and help, and both got help from their teachers.   

I had put Matilda on to feel happy and charmed but, watching it now, my smile is punctuated with silent tears, called forth by watching a child need help, and get it.”

[Railey Jane Savage lives, writes, and watches from her home in Ludlowville, NY. You can follow her on Insta! @cartoonsandcats]

Laura Likes (Where my friend Laura recommends great stuff):

Laura writes:

“I like good food as much as the next person, but I don't really have it in me to be a foodie. I like basic things, prepared well. That Humboldt Fog chevre/fig appetizer on handmade chia seed nori crackers drizzled with artisanal acacia honey is completely wasted on me. I can appreciate it, but honestly the pinnacle of fine dining for me is a perfectly roasted chicken with a fresh salad on the side, maybe some steamed green beans or something.

As a result, what I mostly prepare for myself and my husband is pretty straightforward fare. The big exception, I suppose, would be pastries or desserts, which I enjoy making just for the challenge of doing it. But even then, the basics are what I like best. I think it's tough to beat plain old handmade vanilla ice cream, or a basic chocolate cake, or bread pudding. 

This is not to say I don't fancy it up a bit, and the way I'll almost always do it is with a caramel sauce. It's easy, it's delicious, and it's fast. Plus, it looks like you went to a lot of trouble, which if you know what you're doing, you didn't. There are hundreds of recipes for caramel sauce online -- pick one you like, and try it. I myself like a darker caramel, so I always go for the dark brown sugar versions. I find that the recipes that use light corn syrup (not high fructose corn syrup, that's something else entirely) tend to be less fussy -- you won't need a candy thermometer, and it won't stiffen up so much it's unusable.

My one foolproof tip on this front is "don't blast it with heat because you want the process to go faster." Medium-low is the way to go, and the extra 90 seconds it takes to melt everything means you won't scorch the pan or have it overflow all over your rangetop. (Not that this has ever happened to me. Nope, totally speaking hypothetically here.) 

(This is a basic caramel sauce, fresh off the stove, which I made about 5 minutes ago. Keeps for a week in a resealable jar in the refrigerator. You can reheat it in a double boiler, but honestly I just stick it in the microwave and keep an eye on it.) 

Once you have your basic sauce on hand, you can thin it out with cream to make it richer, if that's your thing. You could also add flavoring like a liqueur or a bit of rum or bourbon. Like I said, it's almost infinitely adaptable, you probably have everything already on hand, and it looks like you put in a lot of effort when actually the whole thing takes about 5 minutes to go from thinking "I should make some caramel sauce" to thinking "cool, now I have caramel sauce."

(Here is some of that same sauce, after I poured about a half cup of it out into a different bowl and mixed it with a tablespoon of heavy cream. I poured it over a serving of brioche bread pudding. You can see little flecks of vanilla bean all over the place, because I scraped out a vanilla bean and stirred the little bits into both the custard mix for the pudding and into the sauce/cream mixture.)

Caramel sauce: It can make the ordinary suddenly seem extraordinary, and that's a great thing to have in your back pocket for unexpected guests, or just to make the average Tuesday that little bit more special.”

[Laura Lorson is a radio producer and woman about town in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @prairielaura]

Consumer Correspondent Emily Mason reports on the latest whatnot the Internet wants her to buy:

Emily writes:

“What’s New: DOH!

This week I discovered the Raisenne Dough Riser. If you bake a lot of bread and can’t seem to get your dough to rise, then this is the device for you! 

This ultra-thin pad allows the user to speed up the rising time on their dough. Simply plug in, set your unrisen dough on top, and watch your dough rise! Apparently Raisenne can cut dough rising time in half!

Raisenne says it’s easy to use! Plus, it’s easy to store! And — even though it looks like it could serve as an iPhone charging station, or even a handy coaster for your mug of coffee — the Raisenne is ONLY FOR RISING DOUGH!

Yay! A device that only serves one purpose! I love those...!

Why am I seeing this?

I looked at ONE thing on Williams Sonoma. One. Thing.

Did they sell me?

Well, the search is over; I have found the most unnecessary product available on the internet (baking category).

...That’s me-speak for “NO.” I SAY NO DOUGH!

Raisenne really steams my clams; this is a company that is lying to you! They want you to think that making your own bread is hard.

(If the Swedish Chef can do it, so can you!)

It’s not, hard — really! Bread has four ingredients, and what could be simpler? Making it yourself just requires patience, and maybe a little practice.

I speak from experience; I love baking bread! When quarantine hit, my first thought was, “Step aside, Pepperidge Farm — this is it, this is what I’ve trained for.” 

I actually had to create a dough embargo for a while because I was baking too much bread...

That being said, I’ve had dough-mergencies before. When leaving bread dough to rise at room temperature wasn’t cutting it last winter, otherwise known as the Coldest Winter Ever, I turned to baking experts. They recommended a revolutionary kitchen device:

… Its called an oven, guys. In a pinch, dough can rise in the oven.

DOH!

[Emily Mason does her thing in Chicago. You should follow her on Twitter @themistakemaven]

  • HI dear readers! Amy here … if you like what you’ve read, please do me and my contributors a solid and shoot us a “heart” at the bottom of this issue. It truly means a lot to us.

  • As always, if you’d like to comment, add your own thoughts, pick a fight, nominate your favorite school staffer for sainthood, or make a suggestion, please “comment” below. (Except for the “pick a fight” part. We don’t do that, here.)