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The Lunch Lady and the Pearoll

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Sept. 10, 2003
Robert St. John is executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf, Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar in Hattiesburg and Meridian. If you have any
questions or comments he can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or at (601) 264-4909, www.nsrg.com.
Over the years, school cafeterias have changed drastically.
Today's lunchrooms seem more like mega-mall food courts than cafeterias. My elementary school had a true-blue, line-'em-up-at-the-back-of-the-room-single-file, grab-your-tray-and-silverware, mashed-potatoes-and-gravy cafeteria.
I remember eating the typical, school cafeteria fare: meatloaf, baked chicken, butter beans, neon-colored lime Jell-O and school milk. School milk came in half-pint cartons, and for some strange reason was never cold. I like my milk at the just-before-freezing stage. I remember coming in from recess out of the hot, humid Mississippi sun and having to drink lukewarm milk. Yuck.
In the fourth grade I conducted a scientific study. The hypothesis: every time the school-maintenance crew mowed the grass, the cafeteria served turnip greens. I had my classmates convinced.
My school, Thames Elementary School, made excellent yeast rolls. I usually ate my roll and begged a couple of uneaten rolls off of my friends. I love any type of bread, but for some strange reason my elementary-school friends never ate their rolls. Maybe it had something to do with the warm milk.
The Set-Up
At Thames School, once the students finished eating, a lunch lady took our trays and passed them to the dish room. If a student hadn't eaten their roll, the lunch lady would remove the roll from the tray and place it into a basket with other uneaten rolls.
This was standard operating procedure in the early 1970s world of lunchladyland. I studied this process for the first few weeks of fourth grade. My classmates and I held numerous in-depth discussions over the fate of the uneaten rolls. Everyone had an opinion. My guess: she was taking them home.
The Scheme
One day, I cut a hole in the bottom of a friend's uneaten roll, hollowed it out, stuffed my leftover English peas inside and then replaced the plug. It was a surprise gift for the lunch lady. I dubbed my creation the "pearoll."
We laughed at the thought of the lunch lady going home and giving the pearoll to her husband for supper. He would bite into it, discover the cold, half-eaten stash of English peas tucked inside and fall over backwards in his chair.
I placed the pearoll back onto my tray and made the slow, anxious march towards the lunch lady. I did my best to keep a straight face as I walked closer in anticipation of the ceremonial removal of the roll from the tray and its usual cavalier placement into the uneaten-roll basket.
Would the plug hold up? Would peas spill out onto the floor? Would the lunch lady see the guilt in my eyes and beat me over the head with her hair net? Not a chance. Success! Phase 1 of the pearoll plot completed without a hitch.
The next day, as Mrs. Nell Smith's fourth-grade class entered the cafeteria, I kept a close watch on the lunch lady to see if she was acting suspicious. I dreamed she, and a jackbooted lunch lady hit squad, would be standing guard around the perimeter of the lunchroom surveying tables for the pearoll culprit.
Nazi-style interrogations and Chinese-water torture would be the lunch lady's methods of choice for extracting information from the student body about the identity of the pearoll perpetrator. At our table, we quietly snickered at the thought of the lunch lady's husband biting into the pearoll at the previous evening's supper.
The Sting
Moments later, my fourth-grade classmate and fellow pearoll culprit, Mark Weldy, let out a shriek that could be heard all the way to the principal's office. All eyes turned towards our table. The lunchroom fell silent except for Mark's screams. He had taken a bite of the pearoll! He sat frozen in his chair, surprised and stunned. His mouth wide open, uneaten peas and partially-chewed yeast roll were staring back at us. "AAAAAAAAGH!" we screamed, "Mark ate the pearoll!"
In a "Soylent Green"-inspired moment of sheer horror, we learned that they weren't taking the uneaten rolls home with them. They weren't even throwing the uneaten rolls into the trash. They were saving them to be served the next day! If only we could have such budget-minded, educational cost-saving practices in the current school budget crisis.
I invented the Hot Pocket long before it hit grocery store shelves. With the exception of the small cakes I baked in my Easy Bake Oven, the pearoll was my first culinary creation. Ironically, I have the lunch lady in the Thames Elementary school cafeteria to thank for my 22-year culinary career.
Occasionally, I still chuckle at the thought of the pearoll and how it came back to haunt us. It was an unadulterated case of lunchroom karma. Day-old English peas stuffed inside of a lunchroom yeast roll to this day I imagine Mark Weldy eats neither.

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