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April 21, 2008 12:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I make elementary school spaghetti sauce?

Remember school cafeteria spaghetti? The noodles were skinny and underdone in places, and the sauce was thick and full of some sort of cheap meat ground very fine. Anything it touched was left coated with strange orange grease that stained worse than Cheetos. Tomatoes were probably involved, but no identifiable parts ever appeared, and they seemed to be less a base than a seasoning.

I have all kinds of recipes for spaghetti sauce, but they all have the same problem: they're designed to be good. How can I recreate the horrible old school lunches I remember so well?
posted by darksasami to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The "sauce" in Beefaroni is exactly like the public school spaghetti sauce I remember. To me, the distinguishing characteristic is its sweetness - you might try making sauce with a healthy dose of corn syrup, or even ketchup (shudder).
posted by peachfuzz at 12:33 PM on April 21, 2008

Oh I loved that spaghetti too! Especially when they would give you that big wedge of crappy neon-orange cheddar cheese that you could dunk into the greasy sauce. It was heaven on earth.

That stuff was canned. I used to watch the hair-netted caf ladies dump it into those huge aluminum vats every Wednesday (spaghetti day!) morning. Have you tried beefaroni and that kind of thing? It's pretty similar in taste. I would start with the more expensive canned stuff and then work my way down to the absolute cheapest, most vile stuff on the shelves....the cans that the store pays you to take home. Have fun tasting!
posted by iconomy at 12:39 PM on April 21, 2008

As an aficionado of pasta, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest a corn syrup base, tomato sauce, and salt. Maybe a bit of oregano. I agree with finding the absolute cheapest spaghetti sauce on supermarket shelves and looking at the ingredients, because here you're getting into the pinnacle of cost-cutting, and that path is likely where you'll find what got piped into the school cafeterias.
posted by mr. creosote at 12:43 PM on April 21, 2008

I think iconomy is on the right track. You should not be looking for a recipe, you should be looking for a supplier.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:50 PM on April 21, 2008

You should see if you can get some foodservice supplies from a company like Sysco. I guarantee that spaghetti sauce you crave was poured out of a honkin' big can.
posted by gnutron at 12:52 PM on April 21, 2008

This pdf might be enlightening. It looks like a recipe book for a k-12 cafeteria. It looks like you may need to find the pasta sauce in bulk from Aramark.
posted by Grither at 12:56 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recall my mom making a spaghetti sauce that was something like a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a bunch of ground beef, all mixed together. It's not quite the same as cafeteria spaghetti sauce, but it was perversely delicious. It might appeal to you, but it might not. Other than that, finding a foodservice supplier that'll sell to you sounds like your best bet.

(I myself have fond memories of the doughy room-temperature breadtangles of pizza they served every Wednesday at my elementary school.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:28 PM on April 21, 2008

Echoing iconomy... I think the cheapest can of spaghetti sauce would do. Chef-boy-are-dee (sp) or Hunts or whatever.
posted by internal at 1:35 PM on April 21, 2008

Well, none of the cheap spaghetti sauces I've tried from stores is anything like the stuff I'm talking about. For starters, it wasn't sweet at all. It was more salty and sour, and somewhat more "meat" than sauce.

The big suppliers seem like a good idea, but I haven't been able to find out how to buy any of their supplies if you're not actually a school district. Do I have to know somebody on the inside?
posted by darksasami at 1:52 PM on April 21, 2008

Sysco products are sold at Smart and Final, a bulk discount store that is not unlike Costco but does not require a membership card.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:02 PM on April 21, 2008

If there are Gordons in your state, they've got retail outlets. Dunno about spaghetti sauce in particular, but if you need a #10 can of beets or a five-pound bag of sausage gravy they're totally the place to go.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:16 PM on April 21, 2008

If I were making this at home I would use the cheapest ground beef available and for the love of god, do not strain any fat off before adding it to the tomato sauce. Make it a half/half ratio - half meat and half sauce. Start it in the AM, simmer it all the doo dah day on low, and eat it at dinner time. To make your servings, put some of the sauce in a separate pot and add cooked spaghetti to it, and simmer that on low for about 20 minutes. Serve with a side of cheese wedge and a salad comprised solely of wilted, rusty iceberg lettuce. Applesauce for dessert. A carton of milk.
posted by iconomy at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Iconomy - don't forget the bread heels that were painted with oleo.
posted by plinth at 4:32 PM on April 21, 2008

Wow, you guys got a cheese wedge? We just got Texas toast. Good thing I love me some Texas toast or else I'd be feeling robbed right now.

Anyway, if you want to get that authentic tomato-esque flavor sans any indication of tomato, use only canned tomato paste and sauce to make the sauce-- no actual tomatoes. Seasoning=only salt, pepper, and oregano. Maybe corn syrup, but if you remember it having no sweetness, you can omit.

Cook the noodles for way too long and don't stir enough so they get soft and stuck together.

As an alternative to homemade, or if you can't find Sysco stuff, you could buy the most generic meat sauce you can find in a tin can at the grocery store. Some stores even have the isle that's just the products in the cans with the black and white label that just says "MEAT SAUCE" or "GREEN BEANS," etc.

Good luck!
posted by fructose at 4:34 PM on April 21, 2008

"spaghetti sauce that was something like a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a bunch of ground beef, all mixed together"


My answer is- cheap, over-ground beef, a can of tomato sauce, a can of water, a dash of "Italian Seasoning" and boil it all day.
posted by gjc at 7:30 PM on April 21, 2008

When I worked in the cafeteria in elementary school passing out milk, I remember the lunch lady putting a can of pureed squash in the spaghetti sauce. She asked me not to tell, cause then the students wouldn't eat it.

It was good, squash and all!
posted by FergieBelle at 3:10 PM on April 22, 2008

Okay, so I admit it: I was skeptical when I got these answers. But today I cooked up a pound of 27% fat ground beef, threw in a can each of generic tomato paste and sauce, added too much garlic salt and Costco house brand Italian seasoning, and let it simmer all day. We never had cheese wedges, so I served it with slightly undercooked garlic bread from the grocery store.

It was damn near perfect.
posted by darksasami at 8:03 PM on May 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

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