(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] was offering food writing classes via Instagram Live while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts. Prompt: “Write a Thank-You note to your school lunch person”. While I was drafting this letter with the hopes of ultimately sending it to Mr. Salm, I was saddened to find out on Facebook that he had passed away just a few weeks ago. I’m publishing this unsent letter with the permission of his son. My sincerest condolences to the Salm family and everyone who’s had the honor of dining at their table.)
You may not remember me, having served thousands of students for over a decade as my high school’s Food Service Director. Then again I was in the same class as your son Shane so maybe you do. I was doing a writing exercise earlier this week and the prompt had us writing to our “lunch lady” and I suppose you’re the closest (and only) one I really ever knew and remembered from the days of eating out of partitioned lunch trays and federally mandated carrots. I remember you only ever wearing two things: your chefs whites and baggy pinstripe pants behind the lunch counter and a yellow sweater when you showed up to the basketball games that your son played in.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that for the most part, school meals were mostly forgettable affairs: beef stroganoff, fish sticks, chicken cordon bleu, and beef tacos cooked en masse with the rare sparkling grape juice served in plastic cups for special occasions. Still, I wish we thanked you more for keeping us full. The cross country runners who ate platefuls of stuck together pasta to carb load, the bleary-eyed choir boys who rolled hard-boiled eggs during breakfast while NPR blared over the speakers, the perpetually-hungry who fought over chocolate milk and seconds, the international students who learned to like the after-lunch dessert of PB&J dunked in Vitamin D milk. I think those are thanks we owe you and all the other food professionals who’ve done their best to keep students fed on strict regulations and stricter budgets over the years. But my memory and gratitude go a little further.
I remember you opening the doors to the kitchen during Ethnic Foods Night to us kids for the one time in the year when we could man the deep fryers and prep stations. I wrote about that event being the first time I really cooked something from start to finish but neglected to mention that it was you who made sure we had enough bananas, brown sugar, and egg roll wrappers to feed dozens. Not to mention you probably prevented countless kitchen fires over the years.
I remember the single time I dined at al Corso for our graduation. I won the debate amongst the international families (the opposition strongly voiced their support for something in the general direction of Cheap Chinese Buffet) and it was probably one of my earliest memories dining in a nice American restaurant complete with a wine list, silverware, and properly printed menus. My idea of fine dining at that point was the Chili’s near my house in Saudi Arabia. It’s been twelve years since that meal and I still remember the Lamb Shank. I remember your wife taking care of all of us and joking that if we washed the dishes we wouldn’t have to pay (she later refused to have me wash the dishes). It was a single meal but for a kid who at one time wanted to be a chef, that Shank had its effect.
There was a night when Shane had invited a few of us over and I recall coming in when it was too cold to enjoy the bonfire. “You really want to cook?” you asked me, shaking your head and laughing when I said yes. “It’s a hard life” is what I think you added afterwards, something echoed by another classmate’s chef father when I had a similar conversation in his kitchen. More than a decade later, I suppose you were right as I’ve given up on that childhood dream of opening a restaurant. I suppose if I was only cooking, I wouldn’t want to do that over several years. But you didn’t only cook did you Mr. Salm? From what I’ve read scrolling through Instagram, old news articles written by people who’ve met you, and my own memories, you fed. And the effects of feeding stays far longer in the mind long after the bland lunch chicken nuggets have been digested.
If instead, I had been the one to ask you that night if you really want to spend your life feeding others, I think everyone would know the answer to that. Thank You Mr. Salm. For feeding us. And the Lamb Shank.