Middle school lunch just ended minutes ago. I feasted on Lasagna Bolognese and a superb vegetarian lasagna with spinach and onions. I passed on the Cobb salad but did have a go at the Caesar with crispy croutons and shaved Parmesan. Yum!! It never even occurred to me to try the 30-item salad bar or the sandwich station or the huge bowls of fresh chopped fruit with granola and three kinds of yogurt. But I could have. Lunch here is a real treat these days.
And yet, thanks to a recent conversation with Diane Wallace, I have been thinking of my days here as a student and the lunches provided by Mrs. Sydney L. Wigg, Jr. and her staff. Mrs. Wigg came on board at the same time as Mr. Massey and lasted here almost as long as he did. Over on North Shore Road there were two lunches, grades one through six and then the older boys. There was a small free-standing dining hall, which Mr. Maconochie insisted on calling the Refectory. Lunch was 14 to a table, grades together for the lower schoolers but completely mixed for the upper and middle schoolers. As the school grew, it got tighter and tighter in there, but to this day I don’t remember it ever seeming crowded. The picture below, while obviously staged, is a fair representation of the scene. A moment’s study reveals some significant differences between then and now, a couple of which turn my nostalgia switch on.
Before dissecting the photo, however, you must wonder at what was served in those days. Things were incredibly basic. A meat, a starch, and a green came every day, and that was it. The main courses ranged from Spam, sliced right out of the can, to chicken-fried steak (we called it simply “meat” because we were never absolutely positive as to its source) to sliced processed turkey accompanied by large pitchers of gravy and entire loaves of Wonder bread, white of course. What you did was put two or three slices of bread on your plate, pour gravy all over them and dig in. Seven boys at one end of the table could go through a loaf of bread in no time. We referred to this delicacy as “breadgravy.” You might have expected a more creative moniker, but a simple pleasure such as this required only a simple name. There was pork and beans (“beanie-weenies”), and of course fish sticks every Friday, even after Vatican II relieved Roman Catholics of the absolute requirement of no meat on that day. At the culinary pinnacle was the beef stew, perhaps the only dish that has survived intact through present day. It was the same then as now, hot and delicious over piles of white rice. It was considered poor form to praise the menus, but truth be told the food kept all those boys happy and going for a whole school day.
The photo, I think, is priceless. I can recognize four teachers and perhaps twice that many students – it was taken in the spring of 1960, so that gives some clues. Barclay Winn and Dicky Musick are unmistakable – can you spot them? As to the teachers, Garnett, Kepchar, MacConochie and Tyler jump out at me. Look closely at differences that matter. With the exception of the milk cartons (and not everybody is drinking them – many opted for the ice water poured out of tin pitchers into plastic glasses) there is not a single item that will turn into trash. The butter is a stick on a plate with a communal knife. We did not suffer the same fears of passing illness among us, and so we reduced our carbon footprint by a lot. There is no Purell dispenser in sight. Note also the wide variations in age – in 1960, 7th graders at the beck and call of seniors was considered not a potential for bullying but rather a valuable part of growing up. Most obviously, most boys are dutifully clad in their dress jackets – lunch was always coat and tie.
On the other hand, there are some things that have never changed. Students still like to joke that chopped spinach is only served the day after playing fields are mowed. And then there’s the one about Edgar Allan Poe’s last meal having been an NA lunch. No wonder he was found dead in a Baltimore sewer – nudge, nudge!! Of paramount importance, however, is the camaraderie captured by the photograph. Every boy in the frame is “in it” together – “in” the picture, “in” the lunchroom, “in” the Norfolk Academy. I know the picture is posed, but there are one or two clues that the atmosphere is real. What proves this most is the young lad in the bottom left corner who has found it a good idea to place a water glass upside down on top of his head. I swear I saw the same thing from an 8th-grade advisee last Friday. Another proud NA tradition at work!
Mrs. Wallace tells me that Mrs. Wigg was a valued friend of the faculty. To the wives of married faculty she was a willing coach and advisor about cooking. For the bachelor faculty she was something of a matchmaker, always having at the ready a list of “acceptable” young ladies in the area. And while there was nothing like the parade of special meals we have today, on those rare instances when she was called on to cook for parents or special guests, Eunice Wigg and her staff always rose to the occasion. For all those hot and filling lunches, however, it is a self-evident truth that neither I nor any of my fellows ever thanked her enough.
And what about the strange title for this rambling memoir? In Mr. Babcock’s 9th-grade English class, there came a writing assignment to describe a familiar object in the most excruciating detail possible. You were supposed to use as many senses as you could muster. I chose the legendary beef stew. I remember going on and on about taste and aroma and texture, but when it came to the visual, I hesitated as to how to describe the brown, soupy stuff in my bowl. My only recourse was to pick out the few floating orange bits that still resembled their original condition, and a title was born.
Got a 98 on that paper. And thank you, Mrs. Wigg.