Sunday, March 05, 2006

The sweet science

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These kids today. They're so high-tech I was worried that they didn't get into good old-fashioned food fights anymore. Some day soon, I'm sure, Verizon will figure out a way to have a food fight by cell phone, but for now it's still low-tech, fistfuls of mediocre cooking hurled through the air.

I was put in mind of food fights, and indeed the Food Wars of the early 1980s, by a story I read about Indiana's Chesterton Middle School. Last week, the eighth-grade class had a food fight so spectacularly destructive that it made national news. Chew on that for a second while I repeat it. A cafeteria food fight made national news.

"The fight involved as many as 50 people," reads the Associated Press story, with the vague numbers so common when the fog of war descends. "The school suspended between six and 10 students for two or three days for launching the day's menu of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and milk into the air."

Those were excellent choices. Mashed potatoes are your Toyota of food-fight food, a bit bland, but always dependable; and chicken-fried steak is what we food-fight aficionados call a "collateral weapon," in that the meat provides the heft necessary to cause damage to anyone directly hit and then the breading sprays everyone else nearby on contact.

But what made the food fight so memorable is that the kids were forced to pay up to $1,000 in damages to clean up afterward. They damaged ceiling tiles. That's the kind of food fight a kid never really recovers from.

A good food fight -- I mean a really good one -- is a marvelous thing to behold. It transcends gender and class. It turns an ordinary meal into an extraordinary meal, once you discover that a slice of pizza can be spun like a Frisbee for distances of 15 feet or more with the right wrist English.

A food fight's beauty is in its spontaneity. Most start by accident, a stray pea that bounces off a spork into someone's eye. There is the inevitable retaliation and escalation of arms. Negotiation is no use. Somebody sounds the war cry -- "FOOD FIGHT!" -- and les jeux sont commences.

Not all situations are the same. I'm looking at you older people here. This is just a kid thing. Try this at the Capital Grille someday and see how far you get.

The best food fights need just a little planning. Simply get your friends together and say, "Hi-ho and chirrup, chums! What say we liven up lunch this afternoon?" Next step: get everyone on the same page. "At exactly 12:24, we roll," you say. And then you realize nobody wears a watch. So you go back to the spontaneity thing.

But the minimal planning is necessary so you have your food fight on a day when there's actually decent food to throw. Few things are more embarrassing than starting a food fight with salad.

Sloppy Joe day is a good day. It is perhaps the most noxious of food-fight prdnance -- the kind that stains. It's also easily overloaded into a spoon and catapulted, and depending on the consistency can even be flung by hand.

Other good weapons of choice include your burger patties, your pizza, your shepherd's pie -- that little doozy saved my skin in the November Massacre of Seventh Grade -- the aforementioned mashed potatoes and plastic cups of fruit salad. The latter is particularly good at dispersing shrapnel over a wide swath of territory. Plus, it's wet.

Bad weapons: Lasagne is so messy you usually end up a victim of the blowback. Cookies are not a good idea. Too hard -- they cause bloody noses if you don't aim with caution, and generally you’re just firing at will in all directions. Creamed corn is utterly useless. Creamed anything, actually, pretty much sucks. Regular corn niblets are rather a nuisance, although they can be devastating if spiked into mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob is used only by bullies and the truly mean.

Would you mind terribly if an old war hero showed you how we did it in the old days?

It was fourth grade. Small School. It was March -- a day much like any other, but for the overwhelming political tension charging the air like the 12th hole at Pebble Beach just before a retired investment broker is struck by lightning. All of us, from kindergarten to fifth grade, were cheerlessly hoisting sporkfuls of underheated gruel under the eye of the largely ceremonial authority -- substitute teachers, lunchladies, the principal.

Suddenly, and without provocation, little Ermenegilde Cardoza was hit with a softball-sized clot of American chop suey directly to the facial area. Standing proudly 20 feet away with a spoon -- an actual metal spoon he'd pinched from home, just for this -- was Leon Trotsky Oliveira, 6-foot-4 and lavishly bearded, the only Azorean kid whose parents emigrated from Siberia.

Leon soon found himself peppered by an onslaught of sugar snap peas, the pods breaking upon his spiked leather jacket like a swarm of locusts. He fell buried under them, and from there history makes no more mention of him.

What followed was the most wasteful expense of meat and drink I've seen. Trays were upended, hungry stomachs forgotten as food of all colors and textures flew into the air. Slices of bread passing overhead obscured the fluorescent lights. Macaroni whistled as it traveled by at great speed, making unpleasant sculpture as it caught in the hair of small, roaring children. Pudgy faces became streaked with gravy and tomato sauce, dotted with hunks of near-meat. The doors flew open and teachers -- grown men and women -- fled with peach segments like leeches covering their clothes.

Some of the more proper girls screamed with excitement as they found a trough of apple brown betty and dumped it over eight first-graders at a time. A boy with a peanut allergy succumbed to a homemade PB&J and was carried off the field as a second-grader careened into them with an entire cooked chicken jammed on her head.

I had been pitching cauliflower at anything that moved until flak from a chourico roll flew in my eye and I ducked under the table to cry it out. Just before I passed out from the pain, I saw that my best friend, George W. Barboza, had somehow gotten suspended inside a giant vat of Jell-O. He later ate his way out -- didn't take much effort at all. But to this day, the guy can’t eat dessert of any kind. Apple crisp, pudding, ice cream -- anything soft that comes in a bowl. Some hurts just never heal.

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