That Old Cafeteria Smell



I’ve spent a lot of time giving talks at elementary and middle schools recently, as I’m touring for my new book Unlikely Friendships DOGS (yes, that’s yet another shameless plug).

Wandering those halls, with their shiny mopped floors and florescent lighting, draws up so many strange feelings—like that first-day flip-gut excitement (School! New books! Friends! Chalk!) followed by the inevitable rush of fear (School! Overdue books! Judgmental friends! Embarrassing chalk incident in 6th grade math!) topped off by a dribble of melancholy (I’m old now and everything hurts), plus a bunch of emotions that are too hard for this tour-weary writer to explain.

The most powerful moment of familiarity, though, comes with a smell. Humans, after all, can detect a trillion different odors with our six million or so odor receptors, of which there are 400 different types. So, even if dogs have something like 300 million to our six, a little schnoz hubris is in order. We have plenty of molecular know-how to pick up what’s cookin’.

What’s cookin’ in this case (see what I did there?) is whatever’s for lunch in the school cafeteria. It’s the “hot lunch,” as it was known at my ES. (“Cold lunch” meant you brought it in a bag or box [boy do I wish I’d saved the latter–Scooby Doo, of course] and had a blue token to get a milk. And whatever was in your bag, including the smushed PB&J, you probably traded for something else.) There is no odor quite like school hot lunch, and it seems to be exactly the same in every hall of education I’ve been in.

How can that be? It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s taco or pizza day, or burger or salad day (I made up that last one, no doubt). The smell doesn’t change. And we get a good dose of it because our smelling ability peaks (and plateaus for a while) around age 8. Our most formative nose years are spent basking in cafeteria odors.

The combo platter of smells is not pleasant. For some people, it’s gag-inducing. For others, it’s simply ubiquitous and unfortunately memorable. Blame the latter on brain anatomy, specifically the hand-holding between the olfactory bulb and those memory centers the amygdala and hippocampus.

Plus, like the stench of cat pee in a basement rug, it puts that coating in the back of your throat that just won’t wash away. It’s a taste as much as a smell. But what exactly is it?

I’ve been searching for a description that matches my experience, and I haven’t found quite the right combination in anyone else’s online blabbering.

Still, I think we are all experiencing the same thing. Although, I have to wonder: Do school cafeterias in other countries smell the same way? Likely in different parts of the world you’ll find overtones of nationally beloved ingredients…perhaps curry in India, say. And at least in photos I’ve seen, some country’s lunches look pretty darn tasty compared with ours (I’m looking at you, Italy…and France, good, fresh effort). But I’ll bet the crusty, dank layer I’ll call the undersmell is the same stank we’re all used to. Whether private schools have their own version I can’t say, but I’m guessing it’s familiar except for the occasional waft of starched shirts and crisp Benjamins.1822554653_6018f7340b_z

My mother used to say baklava was made of straw, honey, and glue. I always considered that an extremely effective description of the mouth experience of that dessert, though it left me wondering whether she liked the stuff or not. Baklava isn’t terribly relevant here, but my mother’s analysis inspired me to try to tease out the make-up of a sensory experience of my own.

So, the following combination of ingredients, complete with totally random ratios, describes my best guess at what makes up the undersmell of public school cafeteria.

Catsup/Ketchup, 2-Tbs glob (> 4 grams of sugar per)  31.6%

Bleach   9.9%

Rag/Mop Water, post milk-spill cleanup   15%

Friday’s chunky oily bits left in fry basket, sniffed Saturday morning   22%

Overripe banana   11%

Scorched Teflon     4%

Fish stick, defrosted, Mrs. Paul’s   16.2%

Slim Jim   5.4%

Gym-shoe tongue, sophomore boy, cross-country 2nd place, regionals   2%

No. 2 pencil eraser, chewed   .09% 

Processed cookie dough, sliced   8%

Plastic school lunch tray (brown) after 117th super-hot dishwasher run   8.1%

Onion salt, aged 7 years, w/ moth larvae   2.8%

Canned pinto beans, just the liquid  4.1%

Never mind that my numbers surely add up to more than 100. As mentioned, I’m tired.

Now you. Anyone want to take a stab at it? What exactly makes up that unique school odor, as you remember it? And can we blame years of inhaling it for most of our adulthood ailments? Because I do. That shit can’t have been harmless, and I swear it stays with you through the years. Hell, I can smell it right now. You?


top photo by Ishikawa Ken via Flickr

bottom photo by Photos of the Steve via Flickr

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Categorized in: Food/Drink, Jennifer, Mind/Brain, Miscellaneous

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