Serving up 35 years of yumWhen Mary Brown began working in food services at the Superior school district 35 years ago, her profession earned little respect. What passed for a “kitchen” at Franklin School was a girls locker room with no running water.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
When Mary Brown began working in food services at the Superior school district 35 years ago, her profession earned little respect. What passed for a “kitchen” at Franklin School was a girls locker room with no running water.
“Balls would be coming at us from the gym; we’d be ducking volleyballs,” Brown said. “From there I moved up in the world.” Brown is hanging up her hairnet this June after three and a half decades serving meals to students in Superior. She has seen monumental change in the food service department, and some of the little children she once served are now adults who still remember their elementary school lunch lady.
“Normally in the school district, when someone retires or resigns there may be one or two days overlap, sometimes zero,” said Jeanne Hopkins, food service director. “With Mary we asked the school district to make a concession and announce who Mary’s replacement would be in April or May so that they would have many, many days to train with Mary. It’s not so much knowing what she does at 8 a.m. or at 10:30 a.m., it’s all that technique of baking.” Brown is the school district baker, preparing all of the baked desserts and breads for the schools.
“I’ve never seen anybody bake like she does. Honestly,” said Anita Maki, kitchen manager at Superior Middle School. “She can take anything and make anything out of it. It’s going to be hard to replace her with somebody brand new.” After starting off in a girls locker room, Brown moved on to Nelson Dewey School. There she shared the kitchen equipment in the teachers lounge with the PTA and instructors.
“I was told right from the start that I was intruding on their territory,” Brown said with a grin.
The kitchen space was so cramped Brown had to ask the teachers — often smoking cigarettes — to move from their seats so she could open the oven door. When the PTA shared the space, women used it as a changing room for their babies. Even school children would show up in Brown’s kitchen, sneaking in from recess to ask for a drink of water.
“There was no security,” Brown said. “My backdoor was to the playground. Kids could wander in; it was just common then.” From there, Brown moved on to her first real kitchen, working for the high school food service department. She spent the majority of her career working at the high school — more than 20 years.
“We had pre-packaged meals. I think that’s when we all got the bad rep for the lunch ladies, with the mystery meats and mystery foods because it was,” Brown said. “It was tinfoil dinners, covered. We had no idea what we were getting for the day. Peas would be in the applesauce, the applesauce would be in the meat.” The kitchen was full of surprises back then. One time a live frog even jumped out of the lettuce box. In those days, Brown said food services didn’t track where produce came from, so the lettuce could very well have been shipped from another country — with the little frog along for the ride the whole way.
The cooks captured the frog and then passed it off to where it could be of use.
“We gave it to the biology class,” Brown said.
No frogs are hopping out of the lettuce at Superior High School today. Some of the food served is even locally obtained through the Farm to School program. Students pitched in to help the effort last summer by raising tomato plants, and this fall the district served students locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“Jeanne had apples coming from Bayfield last year right from the tree,” Brown said. “The kids sometimes were shocked when the leaves were still on them.
“The kids notice things like that. They know the difference between the fresh strawberries we have and then the canned fruit.” Demands for healthier, fresher food have increased exponentially since Brown began her career, and students also expect a variety of meal options each day. Superior has obliged in both regards.
“It’s hard for us to hear when they walk in and there’s five choices, but it’s not what they want, they’ll say, ‘There’s nothing to eat here.’” Maki said.
“It might just be one child in 1,200 that says that, but people want to make it right. That’s how Mary is; that’s how Anita is,” Hopkins said.
The district now offers a wide selection of healthy food for students to choose from, serves free breakfast every morning and caters district events. Each school also must meet state and local health regulations and safety standards.
The Douglas County Health Department inspected the district kitchen in March, testing food temperatures and checking equipment. Hopkins said every school kitchen passed without incident. Near the end of March, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction analyzed school meals for their nutritional content, a significant change from 35 years ago.
“When I first started out, we served just the basic TV dinners. They came frozen and we had to put them in the oven,” Brown said. “So we went from frozen dinners to everything fresh here: fresh bread for the sub buns, fresh fruit, fresh veggies.” For the past seven years, Brown has worked at SMS. During the days spent heating up prepackaged meals or dodging stray volleyballs in the girls locker room, she never dreamed she’d get a chance to work in a first-class kitchen like the one at the middle school.
“I’ve bragged about this kitchen. Every time someone comes in I show it off,” Brown said. “It’s really, really nice.” Brown has only a month and a half left as an employee of the Superior school district, and the countdown has begun.
“I have the calendar marked for her,” Maki said. “She couldn’t keep it straight so we numbered the calendar for her so she’d know each day.”
Brown said she doesn’t have any big plans for her retirement. She simply hopes to regroup and take it easy. On her last day, she said she’ll probably be sad to leave the job she has known for 35 years.
Quite a few middle school students will also be sad to see her go.
“I’ve got my special friends that will come and talk to me,” Brown said. “There’s four of us that check out but they seem to come to the same line all the time, so you have the regulars.” Those regulars will probably wonder where Brown is next year, and even though she won’t be at the head of the checkout line, she won’t be forgotten.
“I remember my lunch lady way back at Franklin when I was a little girl, Mrs. Holmes,” Brown said. “I think you do remember certain things.”