The Ghosts Of Johnny Marzetti

It’s amazing what you can learn just by looking at signs in downtown Columbus.  Yesterday, as I was walking past a building that is being rehabbed and rebranded near the intersection of Broad and High Streets, I learned that its first floor space once housed Marzetti’s Restaurant — and its signature creation, Johnny Marzetti.

Really?  Who knew that, for more than 30 years now, I’ve worked less than a block away from the birthplace of one of the most hated school cafeteria offerings of my childhood?

johnny-marzetti-2It’s hard to imagine that Johnny Marzetti was actually created by any human being, much less somebody in middle-of-the-road Columbus, Ohio.  I never ate the Johnny Marzetti created by the former Marzetti’s Restaurant, but the dish served under that name by the hair-netted cafeteria staff of the Akron-area schools seemed like it must have been concocted by the devil — or perhaps was the residue of nuclear detonation tests on the island of Bimini.

Inevitably tepid, baked to a concrete brick-like consistency with a sharp-edged crust, flavored with tooth-curling, industrial strength tomato sauce purchased in garbage can-sized drums, shot through with suspiciously chewy ersatz meat by-products, and plopped on to your tray with a resounding thwack, Johnny Marzetti was always greeted with a groan by the kids at Rankin Elementary and Eastview Junior High.  And when, as was inevitably the case, the rigid pile of Johnny Marzetti went largely unconsumed and was returned at the tray drop-off at the end of lunch period, it was carefully scraped into a container — presumably to be recycled for another lunch next week, or perhaps used as mortar on the foundation of the school addition being constructed next door.

Johnny Marzetti — along with the other dish that my sister Cath and I loathed and called “hairy fatty chicken” — was largely responsible for converting me into a dedicated bring your own sack lunch student.  Why expose yourself to the possibility of picking at that inert pink mound of glop when you could have a PB and J made by Mom, with an apple and a Twinkie, too?  In its own demonic way, the Johnny Marzetti served by school cafeterias made us all appreciate the loving cooking efforts of our mothers.

That location being rehabbed at 16 East Broad Street now carries a lot of baggage for me.  I wonder if a restaurant will ultimately start up in that space — and if so, I wonder if I’ll have the guts to overcome the ghosts of Johnny Marzetti and try it.

Missing Out On The Greatest School Lunch Of All

The revised guidelines of the National School Lunch Program seek to limit carbohydrates, sodium, and calories in the lunches that schools serve to the growing children of America.  Some school districts are finding, however, that kids think the new lunches, well, kind of suck and aren’t buying them.  That exercise of the right to put your money where your mouth wants to be is threatening the financial viability of some school lunch programs, so schools are dropping out of the NSLP.

The Superintendent of the Baldwinsville School District in central New York, for example, says that the revised NSLP guidelines required the school to stop serving a popular lunch option:  grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Wait . . . what?  If that is the kind of result the guidelines produce, no wonder kids are voting with their wallets and telling the federal government to stick it.  In fact, if the British government had tried to tax that ever-popular bit of lunchtime fare in addition to tea, it’s fair to say that kids would be learning about the Boston Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup Party in American History class.

For decades now, every American kid has known that grilled cheese and tomato soup is one of the greatest school lunches ever.  Of course, it is the definitive winter comfort food meal, as I’ve pointed out before.  But it is also a celebrated school lunch option, even if it’s not made in quite the same way Mom makes it at home.  Why?  Because even if the tomato soup is made with water rather rather than milk, and the sandwich is made with spreadable “cheese food” rather than Velveeta slices, the result is still recognizable as grilled cheese and tomato soup. 

That reassuring reality put grilled cheese and tomato soup far ahead of some of the unrecognizable grayish pink slop that the school cafeteria served when I was a kid.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup was always preferable to whatever the hell went into Johnny Marzetti, a kind of bastardized quasi-Italian option made with odds and ends that had an indefinable mushy, glue-like consistency.  Johnny Marzetti taught schoolkids of my generation one immutable rule of lunch lines:  never eat anything that was served with a scoop and plopped onto your plate with a loud and disgusting sucking sound.  It’s a valuable life lesson, but one you only need to learn once.

So I’m not surprised that schoolkids are rebelling and insisting that they get their grilled cheese and tomato soup back.  In fact, it’s kind of nice to know that kids are willing to stand up for their rights.  You’ve got to draw a line somewhere, and grilled cheese and tomato soup is a pretty good place to start.