Averyell a. Kessler
We’d been warned for weeks; spinach was coming to the Power School cafeteria. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes or who decided Popeye’s life altering vegetable was a critical addition to our diet, but Mrs. Mills, my teacher, touted it benefits for days. She reminded us that whenever the pipe smoking sailor man was in deep trouble, he popped open a can of spinach, swallowed the contents whole, and changed into a forerunner of the Incredible Hulk. As a grand double whammy, an “eat it all or else” policy was established.
For me, this news was especially distressing because I had a definite list of my 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 southern cooks shiver. I had no Mamaw in south Mississippi serving hot biscuits and cane syrup, a dollop of grits, or frying up delectable ham slices 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 fresh raw oysters from the coast. Many times, a stack of white bread slices appeared on our table (a serious food felony), as well as canned peas and carrots, yellow hominy, 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 shiny bright day in mid-October. When we filed into the cafeteria and pushed our trays through the serving line, it was far worse than we’d imagined. Nestled beside a small puff of mashed potatoes, I saw an abundant mound of slimy green spinach festering in a pool of juice. What was this, a legless sea monster, a glob of Superman’s kryptonite? The real horror occurred when the serving lady reached into a serving pan overflowing with mysterious brown gravy and lifted up a piece of liver! As I handed over my lunch ticket, 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. Tommy followed her lead. He also hid his liver, then 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, the scowl on her face told the tale. I decided to forfeit my star and not eat anything except a piece of chocolate cake.
Mrs. Mills, of course, was not a fool. We followed her back to our classroom, heads down and craving a Krystal hamburger, a sumptuous apple pie from Major’s Pig Stand, or even a TV dinner.
“Only one person deserves a star today,” Mrs. Mills said. Her eyes were steel, her lips a tight line. The nutritional revolution had only one survivor. “Patty, honey. I’m proud of you, come to the front and receive your star. All of you, pay attention now!”
Patty stood. Her face was chalk white, but she smiled. “Yes, Ma’am,” she answered, as she reached out for the precious gold star. Suddenly Patty’s knee buckled. She fell to the floor I a heap of misery. Luckily, there was a large trash can adjacent to our teacher’s 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. Mils, hustled Patty off to the clinic, she fessed up.
“You know,” she said. “That lunch wasn’t very good. I didn’t eat much of mine either. You’re all getting a star, and that’s that.”