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Welcome to WFAEats — a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and interesting in the Charlotte food scene. We want to share stories, recipes and culinary escapades and hear about yours!

Square Fish, Bread-Butter-Milk And Other School Food Mysteries


Fish square on bun, tartar sauce, buttered corn, Jell-O cubes. Bread, butter, milk.

Welcome to school lunch, any Friday in 1963.

Menus, published every week in the Shelbyville, Illinois, newspaper, gave a heads up on what was for lunch at the school cafeteria. Teachers would know when to ditch the lunch line. Children, if they were able to read a newspaper, would know when to bring a sack lunch from home.

My brother and I would read menus as if divining the future for a particular week.

Monday: meatloaf, parsleyed potatoes with gravy, buttered peas, bread-butter-milk. (Ick!)

Tuesday: ham and beans, cornbread, cooked spinach, bread-butter-milk. (Ick again!)

Wednesday: Barbecue on bun, pickle relish, oven browned potatoes, cottage cheese, fruit cocktail.

Thursday: Baked Italian spaghetti, tossed salad, cheese stick, peach half, yeast roll-butter-milk. Thursday’s fare was by far the best thing doing, though the rectangular block of American cheese was as mystifying as how the cafeteria manager had remembered that “yeast roll” was bread.

Credit MBK (Marjie) / flickr

I grew up with enough Roman Catholics to tip the scale to meatless Fridays. The weeks alternated between tuna sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, or fish square on bun. I could tolerate all of these, but “fish square” was the most puzzling. Where did they get they get square fish? I had never seen one. I thought of fish as having skin that hid the squares which were tucked in , beneath the fins. Perhaps they came from the same place as Spam, though we never had to eat it since my father banned it; he’d endured enough of that in the Army.

Having a “square meal” took on extra meaning in the cafeteria—trays were rectangles embedded with square compartments, a place for your square-bottomed milk carton, your cubed Jell-O we called “fruit boxes,” and square pat of butter. A square meal all right.

My mother, a veteran of the Great Depression, was particularly troubled with the idea of schools encouraging waste by serving bread-butter-milk with every meal. “Who eats bread, butter, and milk with a sandwich?” she would ask.

There was no answer.

My father, who found wasted food repugnant, had also grown up with the disadvantage of the Depression years. He told of classmates who would bring raw wheat in their lunch pails. Some would fight over orange peelings richer kids had discarded. Still others, such as my Dad, brought lard sandwiches. Back then, the notion of a hot school lunch was as likely as a moon launch.

A few decades later, we kids would be learning how to waste with a capital W.

Never mind that we had a fish square on a bun. We had to have the obligatory slice of white bread on our tray so we would eat it, or so they said. We couldn’t choose two helpings of this or no helpings of that. Lunch was lunch. Take it or dump it.

Butter was the real thing. And the bread, of course was a slice of white sandwich loaf. Every child had to drink white milk. Chocolate milk, which walked with Satan to the dentist’s office, was banned from the menu. Soda pop and iced tea? Not considered.

I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for school lunch, and I don’t suppose that’s the sentiment, but just once, I’d like to revisit what was really on those lunch trays.

At least on Thursdays.