During an out of town drive yesterday, I came across a talk radio program while skimming through the channels on the car radio. Various callers recalled their school day memories about lunch time and experiences in school cafeterias. The discussion was lively because, as the announcer mentioned in passing, nearly every American has eaten lunches in school.
I attended school in the 1960s, so I remember school cafeterias before the current trend of vending machines and nasty “sports” drinks. We pupils lined up for our turns. We presented our “lunch ticket” to be punched, selected a plastic divided tray from a tall stack, grabbed a napkin and cutlery, then placed the tray on a shelf-like ledge. We slid our trays along the ledge as the hairnetted lunchladies scooped the various foods into the compartments of each tray. At the end of the line, each pupil was given a half-pint carton of milk and a drinking straw.
Then we carried our food to a long table to eat it. Although several of the kids liked to make fun of the lunches, most of us thought the lunches tasted pretty good. At the very least, the food was “real” food, not the overly processed stuff that is passed off in many modern school cafeterias today.
The cafeteria at Irving Junior High in Lincoln, Nebraska was a unique experience as far as I know. Instead of a divided tray, we took a standard grey plastic tray and selected various foods served on small individual ceramic plates, some were covered with plastic wrap. Also, we were allowed to select our drink from regular or chocolate milk or plain water. At the end of the line, one of the lunchladies tabulated the cost, and we paid her. Usually, my lunches cost less than a dollar in mid-1960’s prices. I don’t know if the Lincoln Public Schools still serve lunches in this manner or not.
The American commercial cafeteria has been an important footnote in our history. There has been some disagreement as to the early history of the cafeteria, itself. Chicago likes to lay claim to the first convenient eatery. The owner named his business “cafeteria” which is the Spanish name for “coffee shop”. The origins of which is from “cafetera” coffee maker, from the French word “cafetière”, derived from café. The actual concept of a cafeteria was invented eight years earlier when the “Exchange Buffet restaurant opened in New York City in 1885 inspired by the Swedish smorgasbord.
Civil rights history was made in February of 1960, when four African-American students from A&T College seated themselves at a Woolworth cafeteria lunch counter reserved for white customers. in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. When the waitress asked them to leave, they politely refused. The students remained seated until the store’s closing time. The next morning, several more students sat at the lunch counter. Again, there were no confrontations, but this time, the local media arrived and publicized the “sit-in”. The protesters eventually did agree to the official request to halt their sit-ins while a resolution was negotiated.
Regarding LGBT history, an event pre-dated the famous 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York City. Many historians claim the actual beginning of the Gay Rights movement began on the opposite coast, three years earlier. Transgender women and gay men in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District reacted in August of 1966 when police raided Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. The cops harrassed the trans girls because “cross-dressing” was unlawful in those days.
One of the so-called “screaming queens” splashed coffee onto a San Francisco policeman’s face. Immediately a riot ensued. The cafeteria’s windows were shattered and a squad car, outside, was damaged. The following night, the cafeteria’s replacement windows were smashed and the LGBT community picketed the neighborhood. Unfortunately, gender non-conformity and homosexuals were a taboo subject in the media, so very little, if any, press coverage exists. Even in the “flower power” San Francisco of the 1960s, a street battle between the cops and queens was kept under wraps. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot was the first mass resistance action against anti-LGBT oppression in American history.
Today, cafeterias are commonly found in colleges, public schools, hospitals, office complexes, and industrial plants. In the military, a mess hall or mess deck is basically a cafeteria. We can still find cafeterias in “Food Courts” at shopping malls or as stand-alone eateries in business districts or highway locations.
The popularity of cafeteria dining has greatly diminished ever since fast food places and fast casual restaurants began to dominate the dining industry.