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Chew on This Hot-Lunch Program

FERGIE was a despot, all right, but he was a good one to have around. I thought about Fergie while I was reading a letter to the editor about school lunches. Somebody found fault with the school lunches, and the lady who prepares them rallied to her own defense, which is a good place to start.

She said changes have been made in specifications to reduce fat, sugar, and sodium. She said schools in Maine are now doing ``computer nutritional analyses of menus,'' and by this time I was thinking very much about Fergie. Then she said the purpose of the lunch program is to provide meals the youngsters will accept and ``which will keep the federal subsidy coming in.'' Fergie was a benevolent despot and may have been the first sponsor of educational nourishment in Maine. His situation was unusual.

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Maine still has many up-state townships that are ``wild land.'' Some have no residents and are under state control. The one Fergie lived in had seven families, which was enough to give it the status of a ``plantation,'' but not quite a ``town.''

The heft of the property was owned by nonresident landholders who would log off every 50 years or so. A few cottages and camps were on the lake shore, all owned by folks ``from away.'' This nonresident property accounted for the taxes, which the resident taxpayers avoided by a strategem. The residents all paid taxes, but each resident taxpayer held a paid position in the plantation government that, in effect, refunded him. Some of the town positions called for little time and effort, and in fact the duties of the Scenery Inspector and the Woodchuck Warden were never clearly defined. Fergie was the superintendent of schools. And Fergie was a friend of education with a capital E. So the school in Fergie's plantation, thanks to nonresident taxes, was never in want, and whatever Miss Brody, the teacher, wished she got at once by a suggestion to Fergie.

The school was on the hill looking down over the lake, and since Fergie had added this, that, and the other, the building was completely up-to-date. It was the first building in town to have electricity and got all new green blackboards the first year green was invented. Then one day Fergie was reading a schoolteacher magazine and he found out about hot school lunches. They were the up-coming sophistication. Fergie spoke to Miss Brody, and hot lunches were put into the plans for next year.

During the summer vacation, Fergie hired his three brothers to remodel the school, and a kitchen and dining room were added. Orders were placed for equipment of the hotel and restaurant kind, so the school had better than even the Lakeshore Inn, which could handle 50 guests during fishing season. School opened on Tuesday after Labor Day, and hot school lunches would commence on Thursday.

Please consider that this was a remote Maine wilderness plantation, and not exactly geared to some things. Children in those forest families learn to cook at an early age and are not unacquainted with food. In fact, Alcide, the Benoit boy, who was 12, had worked for two summers at the Lakeshore Inn as pastry cook. So that morning each of Miss Brody's 11 pupils arrived with a packbasket of ingredients for the school-lunch program. Marvin Gilman had a venison roast that his mother felt would ``go some old good.'' His sister, Prudie, had everything, including buttermilk, to make her grandmother's hot biscuits. And so on. Miss Brody had promised a steamed plum pudding and ice cream. She terminated classes at 10:30, and the first hot-lunch program in the State of Maine went into session.

Fergie, understanding that a visitor in school always changes the mood, wisely stayed away until about 3:30, when he came to see how the hot lunches had made out. He found the kitchen cleaned up, the food put away, and the pupils in the darkened dining room watching a geography motion picture about the Florida swamps.

As he let light in through the open door, he was shushed by the children with fingers to lips, and they pointed to the classroom. Fergie found Miss Brody sound asleep in the armchair at her desk, head on her arm, comfortable in the relaxation of a post-nutritional nap. At Fergie's approach she roused to say, ``Can I get you some steamed pudding?'' Should I add that this was long before we knew about computer analysis of nutritional menus? Or that Fergie had a good-sized slice?

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