*The Delta variant. Politics. Afghanistan. Hurricanes. The general uncertainty of life itself. Sometimes, it feels like the world is on its way to hell in a recalled SUV.
On those days, when it all seems too much, I pine for something to sate my spirit; a source of comfort, if only fleeting.
I need a Public School Cinnamon Roll.
Nothing like a pandemic to send the world into a surreal, sentimental yearn. During last year’s lockdown, we sought solace in the things on which we were weaned: the music, TV shows, movies and books of a more carefree time—at least this is how parts of our past looks from here.
Of course, food plays a role in our mawkish ruminations. During the pandemic, we’ve placated our disposition with stuff we haven’t eaten in years. Which is the only explanation I have regarding my sudden hankering the other day for a cinnamon roll. Not just any cinnamon roll (stand down, Cinnabon), but those of my grade school days.
I’m not sure cinnamon rolls in public schools were a thing nationally back in the day; perennially, the intoxicatingly flavorful Butter Cookie held that spot. All I know is that at two of the Oklahoma City schools I attended on the town’s predominantly Black east side—F.D. Moon Jr. High and Douglass High—launched each school day with the Cinnamon Roll (which, henceforth, will be capitalized here, out of respect).
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Students would begin lining up in Moon’s cafeteria serving line for this thing about seven AM. Actual classes didn’t begin until nine AM, so if you were at school at seven, you came for the Roll. I forget how much they cost, but consider that a whole lunch at school was about 40 cents. When a kitchen worker rolled out an aluminum baking trolley transporting huge baking sheets of that precious cargo, kids in line began to fidget.
The Cinnamon Roll exemplified the kind of sustenance served by neighborhood schools during my late ‘60s/early ‘70s tenure. In large kitchens appointed with seemingly gigantic, industrial-level equipment, women wearing white, one-piece dress uniforms, aprons and hair nets, dutifully turned out hot meals, basic in nature but indispensably soul-warming.
I’m talking grown-up, suck-on-a-toothpick-afterward American cuisine: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried chicken, mac and cheese, Salisbury steak, melt-in-your-mouth corn bread, glazed carrots, green beans, sweet corn, salad, lasagna, fish sticks, ice cold, cartoned milk, both “white” and chocolate, green and red jello, vanilla ice cream in miniature containers with tiny, wooden spoons; apple pie, chocolate cake, pound cake, and, because my schools were in the ‘hood, the occasional peach or cherry cobbler.
No matter the menu, there were always dinner rolls. They’d go into the giant oven as mortal and emerge reborn—swollen, with a butter-kissed, golden-brown dome and a butter-singed bottom crust.
To those children who couldn’t afford an entire lunch, a couple of those dinner rolls, garnished with a pat of (still more) butter and gussied up in gravy, became a meal.
And each school day, the ambassador to all this public school food activity was the morning Cinnamon Roll.
It was almost as big as my head, that Roll. Consuming it was not without ritual. You didn’t dare commit the sacrilege of picking it up, like a slice of pizza or something. God forbid you use a knife and fork.
Instead, carefully, you unfurled it: You’d start at the Roll’s outside stem, meticulously undoing it, savoring each piece of baked nirvana as you journeyed to the center of this blessed, coagulated mélange of dough, sugar, butter, cinnamon, and icing. Did I say butter?
The heart of the Cinnamon Roll was more than merely its core; to a shy, introverted, thirteen-year old boy, that sweet, buttery middle was sunrise salvation. Seriously, if love could leave an aftertaste, it most likely would be the faint, satisfying tang of a F.D. Moon Jr. High Cinnamon Roll.
That sweet Roll was my tonic. Sure, my first class of the day was math–“Mr. Rucker’s Room of Horrors,” as a number of us characterized it—and I abhorred math. But with that Roll in my belly, I’d get through it.
How kooky of me, in the 21st century, seeking emotional fortitude in memories created in an era that was anything but idyllic.
In 1968 North Korea captured and held for 11 months the USS Pueblo, an 83-crew Navy spy ship that the U.S. vehemently insisted wasn’t a spy ship. That was just the start of the year.
Then came the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy; the nation’s riots, and the Oakland, California-based Black Panther Party, openly carrying weapons and keeping in check Oakland police’s brutality in that city’s Black community. Don’t forget the Viet Nam war, in which America had been involved since 1965.
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Not everything in ’68 was so heavy. That year Mattel introduced Hot Wheels.
Nevertheless, ain’t it always the way: During real-time woe—like right now—bad times tend to morph into the “good ol’ days.”
Years later, officials who declare these things, declared that most of the public school menu of my youth, often processed or canned, wasn’t the best for growing kids. Figures. Today, much of that stuff my stomach can’t handle, anyway.
However, after watching recent TV news coverage of people outside a hospital throwing fists over whether or not covid vaccines should be a mandate, I sure could use the meditative qualities of the Almighty Roll. Even though Lord knows I don’t need the sugar.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]