June 5, 2009
For someone that loves food as much as I do, many find it shocking when I admit the following fact about myself: I love cafeteria food. Specifically, public school cafeteria food. From first through twelfth grade in Oklahoma City public schools and all the way to the end of my Freshman year of college at the University of Kansas, I was in heaven when it came to my daily lunches. Just the thought of lining up in those hallways alongside my peers in the cafeteria is enough to send me into a culinary frenzy.
Middle school and high school provided countless lunches filled with cheap egg rolls, cafeteria-grade pizza and the best spaghetti (no sauce, just mountains of parmesan cheese) a public school kid could ask for. The novelty food was also brought in – Pizza Hut was a mainstay, and I have a foggy memory of Burger King making an appearance at one point, but I could just be making that up. I indulged a few times in the Pizza Hut offering throughout my years at Kenneth Cooper Middle School, but high school welcomed the onslaught of drivers licenses, my first kiss, and more importantly, the discovery that the general cafeteria pizza was not only considerably cheaper than Pizza Hut, but was also ten times more delicious. I remember many an odd glance from fellow students as I eagerly awaited those generic slices of what looked like plastic cheese topped with soggy pepperonis. How can pepperonis look soggy? I don't know, but they tasted damn good. In retrospect, the food served in the Putnam City school district was probably on par with prison-grade quality, but for whatever reason, I have a soft spot.
College brought more scrumptious dietary dilemmas when I encountered dorm food. I wish I had kept track of how many minutes I spent debating the merits of beef stroganoff versus a waffle with strawberry sauce for lunch. I also had the luxury of checking out multiple cafeterias on campus. I lived in the all-girl dormitory whose cafeteria, on a scale of 1 to 10, was maybe a 6 on a good day. However, I was dating Mike, who lived in the co-ed Oliver Hall across campus (aside from the food, this dorm was more awesome for multiple reasons, mainly because not every single girl living there was in a sorority). Mike and I had one of those really sweet, simple relationships where we kept things simple – we were young and happily content just to kiss and lie in his bed between classes watching Kids in the Hall re-runs on Comedy Central. It was uncomplicated and perfect (i.e no sex). Some of my fondest memories from Freshman year revolve around sitting in Mike’s dorm room eating soft served vanilla ice cream from the machines in the cafeteria. I was in heaven – pre-paid dorm food was bountiful and I was in love for the first time (side note: I was a victim of the Freshman 15, but in my case, it was more like the Freshman 40 – I blame the endless soft-serve).
But although the University of Kansas was gracious in their dormitory ice cream service, it was Harvest Hills Elementary that really took the cake – well, in this case it wasn’t so much a cake as it was a cinnamon roll.
I’m not sure if these cinnamon rolls were sent to all the elementary schools in my district, but any student at Harvest Hills Elementary between 1987 and 1993 knows what I’m talking about when I say “cinnamon roll.” For some reason, they were always served on the same day as tacos. My only guess why this menu combination was made was because in someone’s eyes down at the Superintendent’s Office, a cinnamon bun was as close to a churro as this primarily all-white community was going to get. In the 1980s, Oklahomans might have enjoyed Tex-Mex, but a churro was just a bit too foreign for the liking. Since I didn’t learn about churros until I moved to New York as an adult, I didn’t feel slighted. And man oh man, those cinnamon rolls were enough to not make you care even if you were wise to the secret underground churro.
Always served in the upper right-hand quadrant of the plastic cafeteria trays with built in dividers, the cinnamon roll was always reserved for last. But it was difficult to not sneak a taste prior to finishing off your tacos. It should be mentioned that those tacos were pretty damn good too, but it’s like comparing the Batman film series – Val Kilmer and Christian Bale were excellent “tacos”, but nothing holds a candle to Michael Keaton, the “cinnamon roll”. The man was born to play Bruce Wayne (I realize that George Clooney started in a Batman film too, but any self-respecting Batman fan will agree that he was crap. George Clooney in Batman is the cafeteria equivalent to coleslaw, which is the only cafeteria offering I don’t like). The tacos might have starred in terrific movies, such as The Doors and American Pschyo, but Keaton will forever be the iconic cinnamon roll that disappeared as I wrapped up my time at Harvest Hills Elementary (which coincidentally was probably around the same time Keaton’s career went down the crapper. Jack Frost anyone?)
Back to the cinnamon rolls. It’s been almost 20 years since I last tasted one of these cinnamon rolls, but I can still remember how the sticky to gooey ratio was a perfect 50/50 blend. Also, it’s the only cinnamon roll I’ve seen that didn’t feature haphazardly dripped frosting on top. They were perfectly formed swirls too , looking almost like how a cartoonist depicts those that have been hypnotized. I think the hypnotic association is perfect because that’s essentially what happened to everyone who laid eyes on one of these bad boys. It was like they radiated happiness, but that feeling didn’t just start when you finally tasted the buttery, cinnamony goodness melting on your tongue. On Cinnamon Roll Day, every student at Harvest Hills Elementary was treated with the smell of baking cinnamon rolls wafting through the halls all morning. The fact I even learned how to read or basic mathematic skills is a testament to the quality teachers I had, because trust me – when I caught the scent of those cinnamon buns, the only thing I could think about was my stomach and it’s desire to stuff itself silly with the awaiting dessert.
To this day, I’ve never found a cinnamon roll that was of the same quality as those found in the cafeteria of Harvest Hills Elementary. I find most to be a cheap imitation of what I experienced from the time I was 6 years old until I was 11. I believe they eventually discontinued the cinnamon rolls from the cafeteria, which must have been in a sad day in the history of the Putnam City School District. I can’t understand why something so beloved and famous (and c’mon – we’re talking about a cinnamon roll that more parents were aware of than they were of their own child’s standardized test scores) would be sent out to pasture.
No wonder the Putnam City School District is a shadow of its former self…