Hell’s Cafeteria

Prompt Day # 276: Disgust a schoolchild by dishing out something surprising in the cafeteria.

This is less a horror story and more of a very long joke. I don’t know how well it works. You decide. Either way, I actually think its a cute story and I’m happy with it. It is dedicated to three very special men in my life: My son, Keegan who hates his school’s cafeteria food with a passion I’ve never seen, My husband Steve and Father-in-Law Mike both of whom are chefs and both, I hope will enjoy my joke even if no one else would.  


Hell’s Cafeteria


Abby looked down at her tray. A black gelatinous goo resembling rotten tapioca threatened to ooze over the shallow wall separating it from the compartment containing what looked like dehydrated mushrooms floating in an opaque cream sauce. The main dish was even worse; a pale pink lump of lobulated meat. She stabbed at it with her fork. It was softer than chicken. She shuddered.

“What is this stuff?” Abby asked the Marie, the lunch lady. She looked past her into the kitchen. Were there new cooks back there? She saw Mary, the head of the kitchen, standing at the oven with a mitt in her hand. Her large hips and thick stockings were unmistakable. Then there was Jerri. She was the one currently plopping this muck onto student trays. Her grey streaked hair was piled up in a rats nest beneath the hat. And lastly Grandma Rose, old and wrinkly managing the register. No one new or suspicious that she could see. “I thought we were getting a new menu? I thought we got that grant for better food?”

“Yep. That’s the new menu, alright. It came from the company you guys got your grant from, is what Mary says.” Marie answered dropping another dollop of frog’s egg tapioca on the next student’s tray. “You don’t like it, you’re gonna have to take it up with the student council and Principal Armstrong.” She shooed Abby along.

“I will. This looks awful.” She said. She handed her lunch card to Grandma Rose who slid it through her machine and smiled sweetly.

The food, if you could call it that, was completely inedible. The tapioca tasted like it may very well be frog’s eggs. It was salty too. Abby spit it back onto the tray. She tried one of the mushrooms. It was soft and gummy. Not a mushroom at all. It didn’t have much taste really but the texture was just wrong and the cream sauce was sort of slimy. She decided to save it as a last resort. The meat was also soft and smooshy. She tried to chew it but it was like chewing cooked fat almost. And the flavor was way off. It did not taste like meat. It tasted kind of sweet but also meaty. Maybe it was fish. She didn’t know but this meal was unappetizing and certainly not a step up from the bland pizza and soggy broccoli they’d fought so hard to change.

Abby looked around at the other buyers. They all had the same looks. Crinkled up noses, furrowed brows and eyes rolled up in their heads thinking about these new flavors. What she did not see was smiles, at least not on the buyers. There were plenty on the faces of the packers. They were laughing and pointing at the nasty piles on the trays.

“That’s it.” Abby said and stood up with her tray. She carried it straight to Principal Armstrong’s office and pushed right in. He was eating lunch; a sandwich from Subway. She sat her tray on his desk and pushed it towards him. He had to catch his tuna sub to keep it from falling to the floor.

“Abby Walters!” He shouted. “What are you doing?”

“What is this? We fought hard to get rid of the gross, flavorless crap we were being fed. We wrote a letter and got a grant from an upscale food company.” Abby picked up a spoonful of the black tapioca. “So, what is this? What have you done with our money?”

“Abby, that is the food the company sent. The grant wasn’t for money. It was a donation of a year’s worth of fine food. They were so impressed with your letter, they offered to send us food fit for nobility. I don’t know what this is,” he gestured to the spoon “because I have never had the opportunity to eat such fine food. You should be happy and proud of your accomplishment. You’re exposing yourself and your classmates to a cultural cuisine many may never have access to.” He smiled and took a bite of his tuna sub. Abby’s belly growled in jealousy.

“But Mr. Armstrong, look at this. We can’t eat it.” She was whining now, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. She worked so hard on making things better, making their lunches something more than prison food. Armstrong did look this time. He even picked up her fork and poked at the meat and the pruney mushrooms. She watched his face. He couldn’t hide the disgust on his face. He threw the fork onto the tray and picked up his phone.

“Get Mary down here. And have her bring the shipping invoice from the new shipment.” He hung the phone up and sat back down on his chair. He reached over and grabbed Abby’s butter knife. He cut his sandwich in half and handed Abby the clean half. They ate in silence waiting for Mary to come with the invoice and an explanation.

They could hear her bounding down the hall; her footsteps heavy under her weight. Principal Armstrong got up and opened the door before she could knock. He welcomed her in.

“Mary, you know Abby Walters? She is our sixth grade student council chairwoman. Abby and the other members of the student council drafted the letter that won us the gratis contract with Upscale Cuisine International. I know today was the inaugural lunch under the new contract. Abby tells us the students are less than thrilled with the menu today.” Abby watched Mary’s response. This was not a woman whose bad side you wanted to be on, and there was a lot of space on that side. She seemed to be only mildly irritated. “Can you start with telling us what you’ve served today?” He pushed Abby’s tray back to the opposite side of his desk, so that it was directly under Mary’s large belly.

Mary unfolded the square of paper in her hands. She looked down, then put on the glasses that hung around her neck. She still squinted.

“Well, half this stuff I can’t even pronounce.” She said

“You can spell it then.” Armstrong assured her.

“Ok. This stuff here,” she pointed to the frog eggs, “is called c-a-v-i-a-r.”

“Caviar?” Armstrong said. “Jesus. What’s this?” He pointed to the meat.

“I don’t know actually. It was labeled veal sweet breads but that ain’t no bread. Don’t seem like any kind of fish neither, so we think it’s maybe some kind of pork. Maybe like from a baby pig or something.” She said shrugging. Armstrong nodded.

“And this?”

She looked at the paper again. “Escargot” Mary said, pronouncing the T.

“Oh my God.” Armstrong said

“What? What does all that mean?” Abby asked, confused.

“Mary, caviar is an appetizer. It’s not meant to be served in a heaping mound like this. And Escargot” He pronounced it correctly “means snails. They are meant to be served with a garlic butter sauce and they are usually stuffed back into their shells with bread crumbs.”

“Ooh, yuck” Abby said. “Snails are gross. I can’t believe I ate one. And they were the best thing on the plate! And what is caviar?”

“Fish eggs” Armstrong answered. He ignored Abby’s gagging noises. “Sweet Breads are not bread, Mary. They are the glands, usually thymus and pancreas of an animal, in this case veal.”

“What’s veal?” Abby interrupted.

“It’s a young calf, Abby.” Armstrong answered again and returned his attention to Mary who stood there looking like dumb cattle herself. “It really needs to be prepared in a particular way, and this is certainly not right.” He swept his hand across the tray. “None of this has been prepared correctly.”

“Hey, we didn’t ask for this. We’re not chefs. Three of us didn’t even graduate high school. I get this shipment of food I can’t even read, let alone fix. No instructions that I could find. Some of the labels aren’t even in English, for Pete Sakes! So we thought this was some kind of pudding.” She stuck her finger right into the glob of caviar, then wiped it on her apron.  “We tried cooking it, but that wasn’t right. Oh, it stunk up the kitchen something fierce. So we chilled it and served it straight from the can. I don’t know what I’m doing here. Same thing for this snail stuff. We dumped it out, heated it up on the stove and ladled it out as is. And that meat bread nonsense, well, we baked it like a chicken breast.” She shook her head. “I’ll tell ya something, Mr. Armstrong, if your students want this kind of food every day, you’re gonna have to use all the money you’re saving on supplies to hire a bunch of hoity-toity chefs.” She put her hand on her hip. It was Mary’s classic this conversation is over move Abby has seen plenty of times when protesting bland pork chops or soggy French fries.

Armstrong looked at Abby. “Well, what do you say, Abby? Do you have a solution to this new problem?”

“Uh, you know, I was always a fan of Mary’s Mac-n-cheese bake. Maybe we could have that tomorrow?” She asked hopefully.

“And what about the food from UCI?” Armstrong asked.

“I’ll write a letter tonight thanking them for their kindness but declining any more food.” Abby said.

“Well what are we supposed to do with all those boxes that already came from them?” Mary asked.

“Mr. Armstrong, is there such a thing as a homeless shelter for rich people?” Abby asked.