Editor's Note: In celebration of National School Lunch Week, The Columbia County News-Times spent a few days in local lunchrooms.
Brookwood Elementary School cafeteria manager Elander Jones arrives at work about 6 each morning while children are nestled all snug in their beds with visions of her cinnamon buns dancing in their heads.
She's joined by Edna Chargois, her cooking partner since 1986, and Flossie Lampkin, whose specialty is working mounds of dough into breadsticks and cinnamon rolls each day. Carlee Thomas and Cheryl Tate, a bus driver who works in the lunchroom in between her bus routes, come in about 10 a.m., just minutes before the second meal of the school day is served.
Together, the women have more than 60 years of combined service, said Jo Marie Lombard, the school nutrition coordinator for the Columbia County School System.
When Jones, Chargois and Lampkin arrive in the morning, they have just two hours before breakfast is served. And, after the last French toast stick is eaten, usually about 9 a.m., they'll have only 90 minutes before lunch begins.
The women cook for about 600 pupils and faculty members each day. At lunchtime there are 31 classes that come in 5-minute intervals from about 10:30 a.m. to 1:20 p.m.
Jones and Chargois transferred this year to Brookwood Elementary from Columbia Middle School. Jones is the daughter of Columbia Middle School lunchroom worker Ernestine Lee, who had 38 years of service before she retired.
"They brought their own stamp with them when they took over this year," Lombard said. "They are very much into customer service and pleasing the faculty, staff and students at the school."
Elton Robert enjoys eating in the Grovetown Elementary school cafeteria with his son John Robert during national School Lunchroom Week.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Jones and Chargois began working together at local restaurants in the mid-1980s. Chargois, a native of Lafayette, La., began working under the wing of Lee in 1991. Jones never worked for her mother, but she was the first person she called when she began working at Riverside Elementary School in 1993.
"I wasn't used to batch cooking, so I called my mom and said, 'How do I make rolls for 600 people?' I learned to make my first batch of rolls over the phone. And they were pretty good," Jones said.
On Tuesday, the 4-foot-tall mixer was in action, churning the yeast dough that would be made into breadsticks and cinnamon rolls. Fifty pounds of flour went into the dough and another 10 pounds was available as bench flour for kneading and rolling it out.
The mixer stopped and Chargois patted out a handful and showed it to Jones.
"Like a baby's bottom," Chargois said of the texture and feel of the dough. "That's how you can tell when it's ready."
By then the dough was growing, oozing over the lip of the mixing bowl. Jones and Lampkin worked fast, rolling it out into breadsticks and cinnamon buns on the lightly floured surface of the metal table, then popping the large trays into the convection ovens to bake.
On the menu for the day was barbecue sandwiches, hotdogs, baked beans, fruit cocktail and cherry crisp. The breadsticks, the cinnamon rolls and the cookies that were baked earlier were just something extra they had to offer.
Cafeteria worker Edna Chargois takes the hot dogs out of the steamer at Brookwood Elementary School.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Then, there was the coleslaw they made and the onions Chargois sauteed for the hotdogs. The breadsticks were brushed with butter that Chargois had flavored with garlic powder, lemon pepper and parsley flakes.
The women are known for the extra care they take, such as the homemade donuts they sometimes make for breakfast.
"Brookwood wouldn't take nothing for them," said Shirley Brown, a custodian who stopped by the kitchen to check on the lunchroom workers' progress. "Y'all came to Brookwood and the whole Brookwood family is happy then."
The women work with the precision of a well-oiled machine. No one is supervising. No one is shouting orders. Each knows what they have to do.
And when 10 a.m. struck, they were in high gear.
"If we didn't work together, none of this would get done," Jones said.
At 10:15 a.m., the first batch of french fries went in the hot grease, Chargois pulled out a tray of barbecue from the stove, stuck a thermometer in and announced, "dead on it!" The meat was 160 degrees and ready to be served.
Thomas and Tate loaded the food into the serving line. At 10:26 a.m. the first kindergarten class lined up at the door.
"Not a minute to spare," said Jones as she scooped out cups of chili for the hotdogs.
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