The following reader letter, which I received this month, started me thinking about the hot meals on lunch trays served in school cafeterias of yesteryear, while I was growing up in the 1970s.
"Dear Phil: I hope you can put this request out to your readers. I'm desperate to find a recipe that goes back to my grade school days at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Arizona Street in the Hessville area of Hammond. Back then, we had a real cafeteria, with real homemade food, made by real cooks. This was late '50s and early '60s. The menu concoction I still remember and long for is a blend of ground hamburger meat in a gravy poured over mashed potatoes. Sounds simple, but it was sooo good. Maybe someone out there has the recipe passed down from their relative that worked in a school kitchen at that time? It brings back a warm and fuzzy memory that I'd like to re-create now in my kitchen. Truly hope you can help me. Your faithful reader, Jeanne Newell"
Thank you Jeanne for writing to me.
I was asked by Jean Kirk, a family and consumer science teacher at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, to be a guest speaker at a large high school career day conference held on Tuesday this week in the ballroom at Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza in Merrillville.
This gave me a chance to talk to students about today's lunch menus. And wow! School lunch menus have really changed.
By the 1950s, most schools had incorporated "hot meal" lunches as an option for students to eat "at school" rather than returning home for lunch hour (called "open campus") or having to eat a packed "sack lunch" brought with them to school each day.
During my elementary school days, which started in 1975, a daily "lunch ticket" would cost 30 cents. Some of the alternating lunch menu staples I recall from my youth included ham and beans served with cornbread, chop suey over rice, tacos, Salisbury steak, turkey and dressing, beef and noodles, beef stew, fried chicken, and yes, your recipe favorite, "hamburger gravy with mashed potatoes" and even it's runny rival "chipped beef over mashed potatoes."
Only on rare occasions, did we have more contemporary menu highlights, similar to today's offerings, such as sloppy Joes, a soybean-based hamburger patty, pizza, hot dogs and tuna salad (with heavy large chucks of celery and served on a hamburger bun).
Today, it seems many schools opt to only serve usual suspects like chicken tenders, pizza and burritos.
As for your recipe request, I didn't have to look far to find what you've been seeking.
My older sisters Pam and Carol share your same recipe fondness (actually, more my older sister Carol's husband Bill, rather than Carol herself.) While my mother doesn't care for this "stick-to-your-ribs" cuisine, she would make it once in a while for my sister Pam while growing up. Today, Pam makes her own variation, which she thinks is quite close to the appetite offering from her school.
She shared it with me to print for readers. But it's up to you to find your own dented lunch trays to serve it on. Enjoy!
Pam's Easy Hamburger Gravy
1 pound ground sirloin or lean ground beef
1 (10-ounce) can of cream of mushroom soup
1 package of dry soup mix (either onion, onion and mushroom or beefy onion)
1 3/4 cups of milk (2 percent or whole milk)
1/2 teaspoon of brown gravy coloring
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Pepper to taste
DIRECTIONS: In a large skillet (or Mom likes to use her electric skillet) brown ground beef and break into crumbles as it cooks. You may add pepper and a little onion powder. If not using lean meat, drain. Otherwise, retain the drippings for flavor. Add all additional ingredients except cornstarch. Stir slowly to combine ingredients and simmer 15 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Thicken gravy with cornstarch diluted in 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and add slowly while stirring gravy. Adjust seasonings as desired and simmer 3 to 5 minutes more, until gravy has thickened. Serve hot over mashed potatoes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.