Here we are, a few days before Thanksgiving, a holiday we have apparently forgotten exists in our death march toward Christmas. I remember when we used to make fun of the people and stores that put their Christmas stuff up before Thanksgiving. Now we barely shudder when it’s up during back to school.
But I haven’t forgotten you, Thanksgiving. I love your carbs. I love your football. I love your pies. I love your hips. What? Oh wait, that’s something else.
At its heart, Thanksgiving is about a feast taken to a higher art form. The dining room table is the canvas—the succulent bird an anchor at center, cranberry like rubies on the right, mashed potatoes like lush mountains on the left. Perfection of the art has eluded and even maddened many artists. Birds have been burnt. Cranberry sauce has been barfed. Pizzas have been ordered in sworn secrecy.
To pregame Thanksgiving, I decided to make my own feast. Third grade lunch style. I’d re-create an actual elementary school cafeteria lunch, only without hairnets and punk-ass third graders. That’s the age when they get really mean. Really mean.
Up through the 1950s, most American children went home for lunch, with only the lowest of income students provided meals at the schools. School lunches were made in house. Communities sponsored the programs. But by the 1980s, populations and school lunches had outgrown budgets. For the first time, schools turned to outside vendors to provide meals and additional income. Pizza and soft drink companies led the way.
That’s where my generation steps in. We’re Reagan administration babies. We’re immune to rampant, unchecked commercialism and cost-savings greed. In fact, we have a misplaced and unique nostalgia for all of it, even school lunches. We have fond memories of gristly chicken chunks and round plops of taco meat shaped like scoops of ice cream. These were lab-created and politicized foods from a time when Congress tried to list ketchup as a vegetable.
Of those foods, there is one that sticks out most in my mind. Fiestada.
A Fiestada is a Mexican pizza specifically created for school lunch programs. Some of us may remember it fondly; some of us may remember it as cardboard with a pile of vomit on top. It is actually a trademarked entity created by the Schwan Food Company.
For those of us who have been craving a Fiestada since third grade, there has always been the option of buying them directly from the distributor—in cases of ninety six. And believe me, if you look this up on the Internet, there are people out there doing it. The rest of us have our sanity—or don’t have the extra ice chest to store ninety-six shitty Mexican pizzas. One or the other.
But to call it simply a mexican pizza would be wrong. The Fiestada contains multitudes. It contains mysteries—the strange hexagonal shape, the gloomy orange color, even the word itself: a bizarre conglomeration of the words “fiesta” and “tostada.”
My friend Beckner decided to go all DIY and invent his own secret Fiestada recipe, which in a world-exclusive, I’m going to share on the blog. He helped to plan last November’s McRib-Together.
Somehow or another, we decided we were going to re-create a legit school lunch with Fiestada as the main course. But because feasts are an art form, me and Beckner became obsessive about taking this thing to the next level. We’d use sporks. Where the heck do you buy sporks? Hell, we’d rob a Taco Bell for ‘em. We’d eat it on Styrofoam trays. There would be canned peaches! And not only would we have tater tots, but we’d have undercooked, mushy tater tots. Like, we’d put that shit hastily in the oven before it was fully pre-heated. The keyword is haste. We weren’t just preparing a school cafeteria lunch; we were preparing it with the unique flavor of public school lunch lady indignation.
Afterwards, we’d wash it all down with chocolate milk and Good Humor Bars! Oh yeah, and then somehow we got the idea to make Ecto-Cooler on top of it all.
Hi-C Ecto-Cooler was a product tie-in with the cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters back in 1987. Remember that thing I said about misplaced nostalgia and rampant commercialism? Yeah, we’re obsessed with even this, the ghosts of discontinued juice boxes.
It was going be a lot. The wife works late on Thursdays, a ten hour day. We usually have Thursdays marked as “fun dinner night” on the calendar, which means I’m in charge, and by fun, it means we go out to eat. Or I make frozen mozzarella sticks and dump bag salad in a bowl. Fun dinner! Mozzarella sticks are really FUN and completely cancel out the utter sadness of bag salad.
But I had to prepare her for this. I decided it would be best to deliver the news with the impassiveness of a doctor, nothing negative, nothing positive—just cold, clinical, normalcy.
“Beckner’s coming over tomorrow night and we’re making Fiestada.”
“What is that?”
“You know, the mexican pizza that exists only in school cafeterias.”
“We didn’t have that at my school,” she said, skeptically.
“We’ve having tater tots with it,” I said.
Her face was blank as a sheet.
“And we’re eating it with SPORKS!” I added, desperately.
“What the hell is a Fiestada, again?”
Now it’s time to unveil the secret recipe:
First, buy the plainest, cheapest, sketchiest ingredients. Shop at Food Lion, if you must. You’ll need pizza crust, salsa, cheddar cheese, and ground beef.
Here’s my full disclosure: many of you already know I’m a vegetarian. So we substituted with the Morningstar Farms soy version of “ground beef.” You’re totally free to call party foul on me. A true Fiestada experience involves chewing on fatty, gritty, oily meat. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to acknowledge that many cows have died for Fiestadas. Consider it my version of pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey.
First, there’s the crust. You want something thin that doesn’t have much flavor on its own. The Fiestada’s flavors are all about the gloppy toppings—not the crust. Next, spread the salsa across the crust like pizza sauce. Thin, generic salsa works best. The key is to buy not just the cheapest salsa in the store, but the cheapest salsa IN LIFE. Then cook up the dead cow or soy product. Season it with taco seasoning. Generously cover an entire pizza crust. Then dump a whole bag of yellow cheese on that. Seriously, the whole bag. It’ll be liberating! Finally, according to Beckner, the secret is to dice up Roma tomatoes and pile them on top.
Throw it in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the crust is beginning to brown. Meanwhile, you got to start hastily thinking about the tater tots. Rip open the bag, dump ‘em on the pan, and don’t even bother to spread them out evenly!
Most important step – SALT THE LIVING HELL OUT OF THEM.
While our Fiestada and tater tots were cooking, it was time to whip up a batch of Ecto-Cooler.
Even after The Real Ghostbusters cartoon went off the air in 1991, Ecto-Cooler was so enduringly popular that Hi-C continued to make it through 2001. Eventually, it was renamed Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen and Slimer was replaced on the packaging by a similar-looking blob of green lips. In the mid-2000s, it was re-branded again as Crazy Citrus Cooler, up until it was finally put to bed altogether and discontinued in 2007.
A few weeks ago, a recipe for Ecto-Cooler began circulating online on the geek websites, and rumors had that it was for real, tasting exactly like the original.
The recipe is for a gallon:
1 Packet Kool Aid/Flavor Aid Orange
1 Packet Kool Aid/Flavor Aid Tangerine
3/4 Cup Orange Juice (No Pulp)
3/4 Cup Tangerine Juice
1/3 scoop Countrytime Lemonade (Reg or Pink)
1 1/2 Cups Sugar
Green food coloring for color
We substituted Tang for Tangerine Kool-Aid because, well, good luck finding that shit. And for that matter, good luck finding a gallon-sized pitcher. We had to use a half-gallon pitcher and therefore do math. This is where it began to get murky.
Somewhere in that concoction is Ecto-Cooler. It’s absolutely in there. But my math was off. There was an overpowering lemonade slant on it. (UPDATE: After letting it sit in the fridge overnight, it tastes significantly better and like the Ecto-Cooler I remember! Serve CHILLED.)
Note the visible particles of sugar just floating and sparkling in the mixture. I wouldn’t give this to children. It would make them crabwalk horizontally across walls. You’d be better off letting them drink battery acid.
You’ll see the one glass in the photo is not as full as the others—that’s the point at which my wife screamed, “I REALLY DON’T NEED THAT MUCH!”
Finally, it was time to slice the Fiestada, plate the peaches, and hastily serve up a spatula full of limp tater tots:
Thanksgiving, Third Grade Lunch Style. It really did feel like we were eating real school cafeteria food, too. The flaccid Fiestada, the gelled tater tots, the peaches. It was salty and heavy, and began to mix in our stomachs on top of the glass of BRIGHT GREEN sugar water we had just chugged. It was a nostalgic feeling of discomfort, one sporkful at a time. Damn you, idiot spell check, sporkful is a word. It is.
And Christ, there was still dessert:
For authenticity, I insisted we must eat the ice cream bars and chocolate milk immediately after our meal. After all, in the cafeteria, you only get thirty minutes to consume everything. So we did. Ice cream and milk on top of it all. Our nostalgic discomfort shifted to utter disgust. No wonder we begged our parents to buy us Lunchables.
Still, re-creating a school lunch is something I’ve always wanted to try. Food as art. I liked my colors, the neon green and cheddary orange. I liked my textures, the thickness of the milk, the chewiness of the tater tots. Art must inspire strong feelings, and if those feelings are milky and phlegmy, so be it.
This Thanksgiving, may you experience art, whether you’re cooking a masterpiece trying to live up to great artists and grandmothers before you, or whether you’re just admiring a damn pretty pumpkin pie. It’s a feast. It’s a holiday. It’s a drag. It’s a lot of work. It’s just another day. It’s a party. And it’s a damn shame if your football team loses.