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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Dietary Decisions

May 20, 2020

My son and daughter just finished a semester of college at home, sitting in our pool house. They had it easy. Once the pandemic hit and all classes were switched to online computer classes, life got much simpler for them. Both finished with good grades and a suntan.

It’s been a treat having them both at home again. We have cooked together, played games together, and sat together on our front porch in the late afternoons until dusk. I never thought the four of us would ever have this much time together, again.

As I was cooking the family breakfast this weekend, I sent up a quick prayer of gratitude, and thanked the Big Guy Upstairs for the blessings our family has received, even during the dark days of this pandemic.

The kids have eaten well during this at-home semester. The menu has been much different than that provided by the meal ticket to their school cafeterias.

I thought back to my years in college and the poor dietary choices I made in those days. I survived mostly on fast food. These days I’d be eating in the school cafeteria every day. But back then I was young and foolish and had a 32-inch waist. There was one particular semester where I was forced to get creative with meals.

College registration in 1980 was a much different process than the online college registration my kids utilize. These days, class schedules and payments are all done online. In my day, we went to the coliseum on campus and waited in long lines to collect punch cards for each course. At the end of registration there was a long line to pay the semester’s fees. One semester
I arrived at the table where all of the fees were to be paid and handed them the check my mother had written for the exact amount owed for tuition and meals.

“This check is too much,” the lady at the table said.

“Well my mom called and was given this amount to cover the cost of tuition and a meal ticket.”

“We don’t do the meal tickets at this table. You have to go over there,” she said pointing to a table with a long line, about 50 feet away.

“But all I have is this one check,” I said.

“That’s OK,” she said. “We’ll take care of that,” and she reached into some type of lock box under the table and counted out five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills into my open palm. “Just take this money over to that table and tell them that you want a meal ticket for the semester.” My eyes lit up, $500.00! I had never held that much money in my hand.

I was a dazed and a little cash-drunk with my newfound riches as I started the slow walk over to the meal ticket table. Looking down at the five crisp $100 bills I began to have an internal conflict. Five hundred dollars is still a lot of money. But in 1980, $500.00 was a WHOLE LOT OF MONEY. I stopped halfway to the meal ticket table and took one final look down at the money and then looked up at the long line waiting to buy a meal ticket. Deep down I knew it would be a foolish decision to walk away, but I was in the middle of a three-year period where I made a lot of foolish decisions. What was one more going to hurt? The lure of cash-in-hand finally got to me, and I walked out of the building.

I went straight to an appliance store and bought a $500.00 color television. For the rest of the semester I had no money with which to eat. That’s when I got creative and ate most of my lunches from the one-dollar kids’ menu at a Bonanza restaurant.

That was also the first semester I started working in the hospitality business. That first job was at a bar located in an area called the Crossroads, 20 miles outside of town. I worked there because it was my hangout, and when I heard that employees got to drink free beer (a terrible idea, by the way) it made perfect sense. I was going to be there anyway. As a customer I was going to be spending money buying beer. As an employee I could make money, still be there, and drink free beer. It seemed like the perfect job to 19-year-old Robert.

They also let us eat the bar food behind the counter. It was typical pub grub such as chips, snack foods, and pickled eggs. Sometimes the beer companies would give us free promotional beer and the manager would let us take the free beer home. I had a deal worked out with a lady who worked the late shift at one of the fast food restaurants in town. At the end of the night restaurants that had extra food sitting out— especially fast food restaurants— would throw the food in the trash at the end of the night.

Author’s Note: What I am about to write is against the universal rules in the restaurant business and should never be done. I do not endorse this procedure by any means. It would be a fireable offense at my restaurant if anyone did it today. Nevertheless, I was young, and stupid, and hungry.

I would put a six pack of the promotional beer in the backseat of the fast-food lady’s car and she would hand me a bag filled with whatever was left at the end of the night at the drive-through window. I would go home and eat whatever was in the grab bag at the time. I was usually fairly hungry because the only thing I had eaten all day was the kid’s meal at the Bonanza restaurant, chips, and beer.

I also lived on college apartment food. Back in those days one could purchase three frozen chicken pot pies for a dollar. I ate them often. At the time they weren’t too bad. I love chicken pot pie, but I haven’t had one of those little frozen ones in a long time.

For the past two months my children have been eating well. He is in his freshman year and she is a fifth-year student after changing her major. Neither is having to live off of the children’s menu at a local restaurant because they made a poor financial decision, and neither is having to barter with fast food employees, exchanging beer for leftover food.

I hate to be the old guy who makes the statement, “These kids don’t know how good they have it these days.” But I am that guy. And it is a true statement. I have no idea whether my kids appreciate it or not. They don’t know any different, and I guess that’s what their mother and I wanted for them.

They both make much better dietary choices than I did at their age. They’ve never had to get creative when it comes to securing a meal. Neither one of them has ever eaten a pickled egg from a gallon jar at a bar. And, so far, they’ve both made better financial decisions than I did. Let’s hope that holds true.


This week’s recipe: Chicken Pot Pie

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