On the ground floor of the PIO building in the Instituti Filipini, I am waiting patiently in line for dinner, not completely sure if I am hungry at all. The unrecognizable smells of cooked vegetables and tomato sauce permeate the air, finding its way to my nostrils, and putting me off from any desire to eat what the cooks serve to me.
The line starts to inch forward, like the movement of a centipede, and I give a big sigh: Another meal in an Italian school cafeteria.
Reluctantly, I grab a tray and a thin, gray paper place mat. I select my glass cup for water, and my silverware. Tonight, I decide to skip the bread rolls because finding a soft one is like searching for Waldo. I set my tray on the stainless steel shelf and turn to face the jolly old man who waits to serve me flavorless pasta. He is dressed in a gray short-sleeved shirt, white apron, and a white cap tied over his grey, balding hair.
Kindly, I ask for “Pasta con pomodoro,”
“Buonissimo,” he replies laughing as he darts the bowl away from my hands as I try to claim it. He reminds me of a caring and loving grandfather playing airplane with a grandchild. It works. He gets a smile out of me, and my mood is lifted for the next phase of the cafeteria line: The meat and vegetables section.
I have always looked at this section of the line as the most questionable. The meat is always unusual colors, making it hard to guess what kind it is.
“Could I please have the turkey?”
“I will have the hot dogs, then. Thank you!”
And that is how I ended up eating hot dogs and fries.
I sat down and further examined the food that I ended up with, only half wanting. First, there is farfalle pasta, which looks like little bow ties, with tomato sauce placed absent-mindedly on top. My hot dogs are pale as flesh that has not seen sun in 20 years, leading me to believe they are most likely not all natural meat. The only part of my meal I can count on to taste enjoyable are my steakhouse style fries, which I proceed to cover with salt.
I pick up my fork and take a chunk off of the hot dog. I decide it is best not to examine the piece before putting it in my mouth. Adding a dab of dark yellow mustard, I plop the hot dog in my mouth and chew. The taste is there, reminding me of summer barbecues eating Ball Park Franks; however, the consistency is a total miss. It is soft and mushy on the inside, as if it was over cooked. What did I expect? Hot dogs are an American pastime, so I should not have had high expectations. I finish the hot dogs anyway. Moving on, I try the pasta and tomato sauce. The sauce is thick, assuring it is freshly made. The pasta is served al dente; however, the noodles are oily, giving the whole dish a liquid consistency. The sauce is somewhat low on flavor, so, once again, I dump more salt on top, chuckling to myself about the sharp increase in iodine to my daily diet.