The school year is upon us once again. Clothes and supplies shopping days are in a final frenzy…adolescent mood swings are in agonizing arrhythmia. The school bus drivers are buying extra strength earplugs. And, of course, my thoughts turn to food.

Last year I noticed that the students at the high school by our house were buying lunch from food trucks. The kids were out in the street getting hot dogs, burgers and pizzas. This was not the way it was when I went to high school. We ate in our high school cafeteria.

I have an olfactory memory of this cafeteria that sunk somewhere in me. This smell is as ineffable as some other familiar school days scents…white paste, freshly mimeographed test papers and our gymnasium locker room at half time.

When I was sixteen, I spent a summer working at my high school as a janitor to make some money. One day I was told to help the lady who ran our cafeteria organize her walk-in freezers. Believe it or not, her name was Mrs. Cook! During the past school year I had my adolescent body nourished by some of the stuff in there.

Here I discovered, with a sense of power, is where they stashed the foundations of such mysteries as "Macaroni Wiggle," "Salisbury Steak" and the ultimate of mysteries, "Mystery Meat" (itself!). Mrs. Cook asked me to straighten out the bags of frozen vegetables and fruits that were stacked to the ceiling. I had other plans. I intended to find out from what tissue this staple of high school menus was made.

When I finally found the box labeled "Mystery Meat Entrées" I was shivering so much that I lost my grip on a 25-pound sack of frozen blueberries that sat upon it. Of course it hit the freezer floor just as Mrs. Cook poked her head in to check on my progress. The bluish pellets ricocheted in every conceivable direction, including her once white smock. She ordered me, "OUT!"

I determined that from that day forward I was not cut out for cafeteria work. The secret of "Mystery Meat" would elude me forever.

Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2000