Averyell A. Kessler
I’d been warned for weeks; spinach was coming to the Power School cafeteria. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes or who decided Popeye’s life altering vegetable was a critical addition to my lunch tray, but Mrs. Mills, my teacher, touted it benefits for days. She reminded us all that whenever the pipe smoking sailor man was in deep trouble, he squeezed open a can of spinach, swallowed the contents whole, and exploded into an early version of the Incredible Hulk. As a double whammy, she established The Clean Plate Club.
For me, this news was especially distressing because I had a definite list of cafeteria favorites, as well as “do not touch with a ten-foot pole” items. My parents, born in Ohio and Michigan, were still struggling to overcome their Northern sensibilities, and my childhood meals would have made a southern cook shiver. I had no Mamaw serving hot biscuits and cane syrup or frying up sausage patties in a black iron skillet. I lacked a delta relative who’d send us a bucket of homemade tamales from their pal down the road, or bounty from hunting camp. No one shared a mess of catfish or fresh caught shrimp from the coast. Many times, a stack of pasty white bread slices appeared on our table (a serious food felony), as well as canned peas and carrots, yellow hominy, blood red beets and cold Pillar Rock salmon, bones included. I grew up thinking all vegetables were tasteless, mushy, and suspicious.
When Mrs. Mills announced the formation of The Clean Plate Club, I panicked. I did not welcome the advent of spinach, or whatever new horrors were coming my way. She produced a large poster chart with our names printed in bright red letters. Whoever ate their entire lunch would receive a gold star. We were only in the first grade, but our minds whirled as we prepared to fight back.
Monday morning arrived. It was a bright day in mid-October, full of sunshine and blessed with chilly fall air. When I followed my classmates into the cafeteria, I pushed my tray through the serving line and hoped for the best, chicken and dumplings maybe or crunchy fried fish. No luck. It was far worse than I’d imagined. Nestled beside a small puff of mashed potatoes, I saw an abundant mound of slimy green spinach festering in a pool juice. What was this, a legless sea monster, a glob of Superman’s kryptonite, stewed lawn mower clippings? The real horror occurred when the serving lady reached into an overflowing pan of mysterious brown gravy and ladled up a dripping piece of liver! My dreams of a gold star vanished.
What to do? There was no hungry dog lurking under the table. Popeye would not come to the rescue. I had once tossed a handful of boiled carrots out of an open window, but I knew this wouldn’t work at school. My buddy, Marilyn, developed the first strategy. She hid the liver under her plate, and somehow managed to gulp down the spinach in one monstrous bite. Tommy also hid his liver but spooned his spinach into a potted plant on our table and mixed it into the soil. We laughed and promised not to tell. Patty, an obedient child, ate her entire meal, but the scowl on her face told the tale. I decided to forfeit my star and not eat anything except an always delicious buttery roll and piece of chocolate cake.
Mrs. Mills, of course, was not a fool. We followed her back to our classroom, walking slowly, heads down and craving a Krystal hamburger, a sumptuous apple pie from Major’s Pig Stand, or even a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup.
“Only one person deserves a star today,” Mrs. Mills said. Her eyes were steel, her lips a tight line. The nutritional revolution had a single survivor. “Patty, honey. I’m proud of you, come to the front and receive your star.
Everybody pay attention now!”
Patty stood. Her face was chalk white. “Yes, Ma’am,” she whispered, as she reached out for her precious gold star. Suddenly Patty’s knee buckled. She fell to the floor in a heap of misery. Luckily, Mrs. Mills had a large trash can beside her desk. Patty reached for it just in time as the entire contents of her stomach returned for an encore.
The Clean Plate Club went downhill fast.
After Mrs. Hustled Patty off to the clinic, she fessed up.
“You know, children,” she said. “That lunch wasn’t very good. I didn’t eat much of mine either. We’re all getting a star! Me too!”