So for this week’s blog I thought it might be fun to talk about school lunch menus from New Mexico throughout the years. Since the late 1950s, a number of state newspapers published the weekly menus for anyone to peruse. Some of these samples may stir pangs of food nostalgia for those who grew up on school lunch, and many will likely leave your appetite un-whetted. I make no pretense of encompassing all the lunchtime variety throughout the whole state, but consider this a sample grounded in a diversity of places and times.
1958 began on a high note, as high schoolers at Sante Fe High were serving hamburgers on freshly baked buns. This might have been paired with a cheesy potato salad recipe, incorporating an assortment of vegetables such as celery and corn. This meal served as an emblem of lunch progress to the state, as it was both flavorful and thrifty, with the fresh buns utilizing commodity dry milk and the salad “glamorize[d] with color, shape and texture.” These promising returns came during a time of increasing participation in the lunch program.
Alamogordo’s menu for their 1961 celebration of National School Lunch Week also demonstrated the continued development of New Mexico’s lunch program. Monday’s meal was an attempt at Mexican fare; children ate pinto beans, Mexican rice, and cornbread. However, Alamogordo’s attempt at an international flair may leave modern eaters cold, as they paired those southwestern staples with a “sliced pineapple and grated cheese salad” with French dressing (I don’t recommend trying that one at home). The week’s menu improved from that rocky start, however. Their Friday meal consisted of a salmon egg salad with stuffed celery and pickled beets, a roll, and dessert options of a snickerdoodle or fruit compote. One may ask what the celery was stuffed with; I have no clue. Nevertheless, this decidedly mid-century American meal seems healthy enough. This menu was supposed to entice parents into eating alongside their children during this particular week.
For National School Lunch Week in 1963, Clovis educators reemphasized the importance of milk to the school lunch. They affirmed a commitment to the “Type A” lunch program specified by the USDA; a hypothetical meal in Clovis schools included a half-pint of whole milk, vitamin-enriched bread with butter, perhaps an egg or half cup of peanut butter, and another portion of vegetables. Their menu planning described the meal in more scientific terms than other districts, perhaps suggesting that local idiosyncrasies in the administration mattered here in NM. Certainly, describing the amounts of vitamin A or B in a food, or the importance of calcium, did not stir the emotions of schoolchildren who ate in their Clovis cafeterias.
Espanola’s school lunches were among the most hearty of the 1960s. For one week in 1968, the children could expect, as entrees, “meat patties with Swiss sauce, buttered corn,” “hamburgers on bun, ovenfried[sic] potatoes” or “roast beef, natural gravy, mashed potatoes” all served with various buttered breads and diced fruit. Friday’s meal was the only exception; it was enchilada day, but they could not resist adding buttered rolls to that either. It was an open secret that the school lunch was a boon for local agricultural industries, and New Mexico’s dairy industry must have thanked Espanola’s nutritionists for their butter penchant. In truth, NM dairy advocates were involved in projects such as school 4H, and the national dairy lobby was growing stronger.
This brings us back around to the state’s largest city. What was on the menu in Albuquerque public schools in 1969? Horse meat. Supplying the public schools with “ground beef” was Walter Fields’ Lobo Packing Plant, which was purchasing horses and selling their meat back to meat markets and the school system. In early 1969 a Mexican immigrant named Julian Soto helped expose Fields and his operation; immediately a backlash ensued against Soto, who was vilified and denigrated in the local paper. Assisting him (protecting him from deportation and violence) was Tijerina’s Alianza, which initially broke open portions of the story to Rees Lloyd, from the Albuquerque Journal. The debacle resulted in a fine for Fields, but became emblematic of the state’s anti-Mexican sentiment for many in NM. El Grito del Norte, in its typically harsh prose, condemned Fields as a “tiny mind in the insensative[sic] body of a lummox; Fields, with all of his crimes against not only Soto but all of us—Fields is the essence of our system.”
This “horse meat scare” should resonate with the modern reader; after all, the trial of a Dutch meat purveyor (who supplied tons of horse meat to European markets) is currently ongoing. I end with this story to also illustrate the ways that school lunches interact with larger issues, including culture, race, and business. School lunches are edible documentations of our past, and their menus are culturally loaded with meaning, whether they represent the scientific discourses on vitamins, the hispano cooking heritage of NM, the bland conformity of a state project, or cast visions of The Jungle in the desert.