With another school year coming up, watch for lots of stories about the terrible food in cafeterias. Here's one from Newsweek about the movement to improve what students eat. That's fine, I suppose, but salad bars? Skim milk? Childhood obesity is a problem, acknowledged; turn off the TVs and the video games, and run the kids around the block a few times, and make sure school includes gym class. But don't try to take away every morsel of junk food that makes childhood worthwhile.
My high school cafeteria had two lunch lines -- run by lunch ladies, not chefs -- a full-meal line with entrees and vegetables and probably even salads, and an a la carte line that had more of the stuff we really wanted. When the full line had a gross main dish -- tuna casserole or meat loaf, say, instead of roast beef or some recognizable form of chicken -- I went straight to the a la carte line and, more often than not, got the sloppy joes. This was in the days before Manwich, mind you, so these sandwiches had distinct, savory pieces of green pepper in them. A little bit tangy, a little bit sweet, hardly any chewing needed. Talk about comfort food.
It's still one of my favorite meals for a cool evening or whenever I want to go back in time to the days when lunch was a hectic break between world history and trying not to fall asleep in study hall. My tastes have changed a little, so I've added some zip to the recipe over the years. Try this for your next card party or work carry-in:
SPICY SLOPPY JOES
3 lbs. ground beef
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bottle (12 oz.) prepared chili sauce
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
4 Tbs. brown sugar
3 Tbs. brown mustard
3 Tbs. vinegar
3 Tbs. Worcestershire
1 Tsp. chili powder
3 Tbs. jalapeno pepper, chopped fine
A shake or two of Tabasco sauce (to taste)
Water (as needed)
In a large skillet, brown beef, onion and garlic. Drain. Combine all other ingredients in a slow cooker and stir in meat mixture. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Check occasionally and thin out with water as needed. Serve on toasted buns. Mounds of mashed potatoes with gravy, Jell-O with fruit pieces, white milk (not skimmed) and cute sophomore you'll never have the courage to ask out, optional.