“Back to school” time in Des Moines always gets me thinking of one thing – school lunch. Memories of  school lunches tend to trigger an array of emotions in most people. Oddly enough, chefs and other foodies can get really fired up on the subject of school lunches. If you’re like me you probably have fond memories of the lunch ladies at your school. Anyone old enough to remember the early 1980s might even recall when the federal government made a move to classify ketchup as a vegetable in 1981.

Some people speak of their love for the neon yellow gravy. Some, the rectangular pizza. Others the Salisbury steak. (Here’s a little known side note: Salisbury steak was invented by a doctor in the late 1800s as part of a low-carb diet.) And who didn’t love sticking Lil’ Smokies in mashed potatoes? (I’m sure Dr. Freud would have enjoyed psychoanalyzing that behavior!) As for me, I was particularly fond of any day when freshly baked rolls were available. I am not sure if any schools still make their own rolls… perhaps in some of Iowa’s more rural areas?

Once upon a time this is how school lunch rolls used to look.

My ideas of school lunch are strongly rooted in my own childhood era. My father brought his own lunch to school in the late 30’s and 40’s and would tell us that other children would poke fun at the Italian kids for their sack lunch. Standard fare in Italian lunches included fried peppers – the juices would leak through the lunch sack and leave a trail from home to school and back again. If the other kids knew better, they should have followed that trail to “the good stuff!”

My love of food history has resulted in my collection of cookbooks, both current and vintage. What I love most about cookbooks is that they serve as a snapshot into what food is or was like at any given point in history. I have several old cookbooks about school lunches – nearly all have very simple menus with basic ingredients. Around 1940, creamed chipped beef, meatloaf, smoked pork, and ham and gravy made from “real” drippings look to be most popular. Scrapple, liver, bean loaf, baked meat with cereal, pecans and rice seem far less popular. Canned vegetables from that era often needed further processing… and their potatoes actually had skin! Desserts of puddings, crisps and cobblers ruled the day – but I’ve got feel for the kids who looked forward to “prune whip” for dessert!

Curiously, one collection of 1943 school lunch recipes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture features a strong focus on soya. Was that due to World War II-related rationing? Or was the USDA really trying to encourage soy consumption for some other reasons? Regardless, these soy recipes were not vegetarian by any means – the soy was clearly used as an “extender” or filler. Recipes included soya meatloaf, soya meatballs, and soya scrapple – all very bland, akin to something that might get served in a penitentiary!

By 1947 more international options became prevalent. Dishes such as chicken a la king, Hungarian goulash, Italian spaghetti and chop suey might have made their way onto menus alongside chili, meatloaf and creamed chipped beef. Of course, if you were to look at these recipes you would probably associate these dishes more with hospital food of today (if today’s hospital food were still made from scratch, that is). Also, the international-themed dishes were not real Hungarian goulash or Italian spaghetti; they were very Americanized versions of those dishes.

By the 1960’s standardized recipes looked to be more sophisticated and recipes were a bit more seasoned. A wider range of spices were more widely known and made their way into the school cafeteria. If you are like me and looking for some additional reading, you might want to check out The School Lunch by Marion Cronan. You are not going to find any ground breaking recipes here, but you might find that long-lost taste of your childhood!

Michigan School Lunch Recipes is another interesting read. Sometime during the early 70’s, a new dish popped up called a “Perowski,” no doubt a regional specialty. Basically, they’re meat and cheese-filled milk rolls. To this day these rolls are one of my favorite dishes. Sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, pre-made breaded meat products, such as beef patties became popular, as did prepared burritos.

Fast forward to today. Some ready-made products are still staples of the lunch room. But state-of-the-art equipment is being utilized in the pristine, lab-like conditions of the Des Moines Public Schools at their central kitchen facilities located in the old Colonial Bakery building on Second Avenue. This is where they produce a huge amount of food from scratch for schools across the district. While that saves time, money and manpower, I can’t help but feel sad sometimes for today’s school kids. One of my favorite memories was walking through the hallways of my elementary school, surrounded by the smells of what was cooking in the kitchen!

Here’s a hands-on recipe for on of my favorite school lunch treats.

As I said before, school lunch rolls were a favorite of mine. I’ve adapted this from classic school lunch recipes from a simpler time – back in the day when students sang Christmas carols around a big Christmas tree, brought homemade snacks to school on their birthday and climbed on that insurance nightmare  – the jungle gym.


  • 1 quart warm water
  • 1 package yeast
  • 1/2 cup lard or shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 pounds of  flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place warm water in a large mixing bowl. Add the lard or shortening to melt. Add yeast and then add the powdered milk and dissolve. Follow with salt and sugar. Mix well.

Slowly start adding flour until dough forms.

Place dough on floured table and knead until dough is soft and smooth.

The dough must be kneaded until it is soft.

Place dough back into the bowl rubbed with a small amount of oil. Let rise.

When dough has doubled in size, cut it into small pieces. I don’t worry too much about each one being exactly the same. Roll into little balls and place on a lightly buttered sheet pan.

This is how the dough will look before it goes in the oven.

When you poke the dough with your finger and the print stays, the dough is ready to bake.

Brush dough with milk, melted butter or egg wash.

Bake in preheated 375 degree oven, directly on center rack for about 25 minutes. Rolls should be golden brown.

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