Chuck Wagon Steak
Lunchtime promised no treat at Salvation Baptist School. Each day we ate the same variety of cheap processed beef, purchased in bulk and stored for months in the cafeteria's huge walk-in freezer. Monday's menu advertised Chuck Wagon Steak, Tuesday's Pepper Steak, Wednesday's Western Fried Steak, Thursday's Salisbury Steak, and Friday's Chicken Fried Steak. The next week the names changed but the same slab of greasy mystery meat appeared on our molded plastic lunch trays. Nutritional balance manifested itself as canned peaches one day, canned pears the next, canned potatoes the next--served from the same kind of ten-gallon containers that provisioned prisons and army mess halls.
If you worked in the kitchen, you appreciated the size of those aluminum cans. In the frugal Protestant tradition, our cafeteria staff allowed no food wastage, to the extent of serving from a partially opened can of pears that had stood uncovered and unmolested in the refrigerator room for the entire Christmas break. A single slice of unbuttered white Sunbeam bread completed the meal, along with that half-pint of white milk that the teachers required us to drink to the last drop. If you didn't, they wrote down your name and denied you the week's lone treat, a carton of chocolate milk served only on Fridays.
From time to time our colored cook with a third-grade education, Francis, wanted to concoct something special. Her efforts usually fell victim to a veto by our white, college-trained dietitian, Mrs. Dobson, who calculated a "daily cost to feed' as if she were a defense department contractor extracting maximum profit from a congressional appropriation. She insured the bland taste of our daily cuisine by denying us elementary school kids those little paper packets of salt and pepper. She feared we'd have salt and pepper wars. Or, worse, the grease left by a half-eaten Chuck Wagon Steak would cause those packets to adhere to the lunch trays. That would clog the dishwasher's drainpipes, a frequent occurrence that our cafeteria manager blamed on the indolence of the high school kids on work scholarship who staffed the scullery. Mrs. Dobson was always fussing at them, either for failing to knock the residue completely from of the plastic trays or for hitting them too hard against the galvanized garbage can, shattering the trays into pieces.
One morning Francis convinced her boss to allow her to prepare a large vat of a New Orleans culinary tradition, red beans and rice. That's as far as tradition went, as Mrs. Dobson intervened, making it truly a meal to forget. In any respectable Louisiana kitchen, a sizable hunk of pickled meet, smoked sausage, or Andouille exudes its juices in the pot where red beans and rice simmers. Bay leaf, thyme, or some other seasoning complements the flavor, together with generous amounts of salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Mrs. Dobson was having none of this: "No, Francis, you can't add meat," she scolded. "That would cost too much and those kids would never appreciate the flavor. And lay off of the spices. Young, undeveloped taste buds will never favor any kind of seasoning, and we'll wind up with garbage pails full of red beans and rice."
As the bland concoction boiled in the huge industrial pot, Francis simmered on the inside. "Who ever heard of red beans 'n' rice without spicin'?," she muttered under her breath. "Even dose white babies is used to salt, pepper and hot sauce at home!" The next year, fed up with Mrs. Dobson, Francis took a job with a small Creole restaurant where she eventually became head chef.
Perhaps my reaction that day cemented her decision to quit. Admonished by my fourth-grade teacher to "clean your plate," I projectile vomited partially digested red beans and rice--mixed with white milk--all over the table, my classmates, and myself. While the teachers cleaned the smelly mess from the nostrils, earlobes, and eye sockets of the other little boys and girls, the Negro janitor answered an urgent call to mop the floor and wipe the table. The incident earned me a trip home via the school nurse's office. She didn't even examine me to see if I had been faking it. In the judgment of our sage school administration, any kid who upchucked savory Salvation Baptist cafeteria cuisine must indeed be sick. It never occurred to them that the mess Mrs. Dobson served was damned near inedible.
I wish I had been sick on one memorable afternoon. That was the day when one of my classmates decided that a particularly deserving offering of Chuck Wagon Steak should find a final resting place on the lunchroom floor. The kid almost got away with it, save for the sharp eye of our teacher, Mrs. Bumfuzzle, whose young husband was studying to be a minister of music at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. She had grown up in a small town in northern Mississippi, daughter of a local justice of the peace and Baptist church deacon. Her daddy, a child of the depression, enforced a strict family rule: take all you can eat but eat all you take. Mrs. Bumfuzzle wasn't quite sure whether that was found in the King James Bible, one of daddy's law books, or whether it was a holdover from his World War II army service--but she intended to pass along the wisdom to her young pupils.
Cutting short our lunchtime recess, our teacher ushered us back to the classroom, commanded total silence, and then told us to put our heads down--our noses touching the tops of our school desks. I knew somebody had committed a grave sin. Only once before had they punished us this way, the day that the principal announced President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and my classmates responded with cheers and applause. Even in the racist environment of an all-white Louisiana private school in the 1960s, that was a no-no. No matter how much our parents railed at home against the "uppity niggers who won't stay in their place" and those "damned, pointed-head liberal, white agitators from up north who are stirring them up," our teachers considered it downright unchristian and unpatriotic to cheer the assassination of a president--even if he was a civil rights advocate.
We had to keep our noses on the desk for at least fifteen minutes on that memorable Friday afternoon in late November, and on the next Monday the principal fussed at us over the P.A. system. This time, the saga of the jettisoned mystery meat would consume our whole afternoon. Mrs. Bumfuzzle was determined to extract a confession, the first step in a painful repentance process that our morally minded young teacher had in mind for the, as yet, unidentified young miscreant.
Tap, tap, tap, went the sound of the white pine paddle, its business end lightly impacting the palm of Mrs. Bumfuzzle's smartly manicured hand left. Click, click, click, sounded her high heels on the linoleum floor tiles, as she paced up and down the aisles between our rows of school desks. As she walked past us, her back turned momentarily, a few of my braver classmates momentarily dared to lift their heads to steal a glace at the "rod of correction," as our some of our more scripturally inclined faculty put it. In secular school parlance it was the junior paddle, measuring some twenty-one inches from handle to end. High school teachers and the coaches chastised older students with a larger and more fearsome looking implement, the senior paddle, a dastardly weapon that we elementary school kids knew of only through school legend. Each September that was the first project tackled in woodshop: manufacturing the year's quota of spanking sticks. Corporal punishment was in vogue at Salvation Baptist School, and why not? It's in the bible! Spare the rod and, well, you know . . .
Tap, tap, tap the paddle sounded; click, click, click went her jackboots, as Mrs. Bumfuzzle pontificated on the importance of fessing up to one's sins. The Apostle Paul said women shouldn't speak up in church very much, so our denomination forbad them from becoming ordained ministers. Instead, Southern Baptist women preached in other venues. Our teacher's sermon this day concerned accountability and the inevitability of consequences. She made it clear that that we'd never be allowed to raise our noses from the desk until the guilty one confessed--even if that meant keeping us in after the school bell. God knew the identity of the child who threw that delicious, nutritious hunk of manna from heaven on the floor, which Divine Providence had provided through the Salvation Baptist school cafeteria at a pittance of thirty-five cents. It was high time for the ingrate to own up and receive well-deserved comeuppance.
Tap, tap, tap. Click click, click. The cadence droned on. In the ten-year-old mind, minutes stretched into hours. The pressure built and some of us were already cracking emotionally. A few sobs interrupted the odd rhythm of paddle taps and heel clicks. We dreaded the sound that would surely follow, the rod of correction's sharp crack on the flesh of an unfortunate derriere. Woodshop students had drilled a series of holes in the business end and cut several v-shaped notches along the periphery. That prompted spirited debate among the boys at recess. Those bound for university studies in the physical sciences theorized that the holes mitigated aerodynamic drag, allowing the paddle to impact the upturned buttocks at a greater and consequentially more painful velocity. Others, destined to study biology or medicine, knew the tenderest area of one's bottom after a spanking was where the paddle's abrupt edge had impacted the flesh. Drilled holes and cut notches elongated the "edge space," making a whipping that much more painful and memorable. As for myself, destined for a less lucrative future in the humanities or social sciences, I thought some sadistic paddle engineer designed those features for psychological effect--making the diabolical instrument appear much more scary and intimidating. Our classmates headed for blue-collar trades just said the damn thing hurt like hell.
After what seemed an eternity, I lost it. Tears streamed from my eyes. I broke the silence with an impassioned plea for our teacher to let some steam out of this pressure cooker. I couldn't take it any more, I sobbed. I didn't do it, so why did I have to suffer this inquisition?
That was a mistake. Instead of feeling sorry for me, Mrs. Bumfuzzle took my outburst as an impending admission of guilt. Just a little more persistence on her part, she reasoned, and I'd confess my sin. Then she could put the rod of correction to its proper use. Her cold green eyes projected a menacing, laser-like stare, cutting through my tears, penetrating my corneas and burning a hole in the back of my head. All of a sudden, I was the prime suspect. The other boys and girls seemed uplifted; they, too, thought I was guilty, and that got them off the hook. What had I done? Why couldn't I have been braver? In our 1960s code of boyhood chivalry, I was supposed to refrain from crying in class by the fourth grade. Most of the girls were taking this ordeal better then me. Now our teacher shortened her orbit, circling the row where my desk sat like a shark that smelled blood in the water.
Tap, tap, tap. Click, click, click.
Then God intervened.
Beverly, our class's only Catholic and our honor student, stood and proclaimed: "I did it! I threw that retched meat on the floor! I just couldn't stand it! I hate that greasy, smelly stuff! I never want to eat it again!"
Not a tear appeared in her eyes, although I could detect a slight quiver in her knees as thirty pair of eyeballs focused on her. She remained defiant nonetheless. Even Mrs. Bumfuzzle seemed taken aback. Not Beverly! Not the girl who wore a golden crucifix on a metal chain, who made perfect scores on spelling and math tests alike, and whose impeccable manners almost made up for her refusal to walk down the aisle at chapel services to make a profession of faith. Our teachers so fervently wanted Beverly to forsake her cradle Catholicism in favor of evangelical Christianity, to get saved, thereby assuring her place in heaven.
Who could have believed it? Nothing this shocking had happened during my short school career, perhaps not in the history of American elementary education since a nineteenth century Becky Thatcher fearfully admitted tearing a page of the teacher's anatomy book. No latter-day Tom Sawyer sprang to his feet that day to refute her confession and take her whipping. Standing almost a head taller than most of her classmates, her golden blonde hair braded in two symmetrical ponytails that stretched three-quarters of the way down to her waist, Beverly extended her hand to Mrs. Bumfuzzle's.
The teacher, holding the paddle in her right hand and guiding Beverly with her left, gently marched the young offender out of the classroom and down the hall to the ladies room. There she inflicted chastisement with a degree of solemnity and dignity befitting a good student who made an unfortunate choice.
We could hear the loud, rythmic pop of pine meeting flesh all the way down the hall. But Beverly fought the urge to cry out and took the whipping stoically. Silent defiance characterized her countenance. No matter how many times Mrs. Bumfuzzle applied the rod of correction to her little bottom, nothing could make Beverly penitent. Tears streamed from her eyes but not a whimper came out of her mouth.
I supposed Mrs. Bumfuzzle elected to ignore her young pupil's defiant words, so compliantly did Beverly accept her punishment. If it had been one of us, we'd have been bent over the desk, whacked in front of our peers' gawking, silver-dollar size eyeballs, and verbally chastised to boot.
Beverly's parents, both university teachers, pulled her out of Salvation Baptist the next semester and enrolled their child in a school that put more emphasis on intellectual development than dogmatic, biblical discipline. I don't know whether her new school had a better cafeteria. As for me, I took care to eat my Chuck Wagon Steak, or whatever it was called that day, down to the last fat-laden crumb. I had learned my lesson.