Whenever large pans of lasagna are being assembled inside the kitchen of Archbishop Chapelle’s cafeteria, Iceola Butler keeps a watchful eye over a very important matter: The four corners of the lasagna must receive just as much filling as the other parts of the layered entrée.
“If the corners aren’t covered right the girls aren’t going to want that part,” said Butler, head food technician at Chapelle’s cafeteria, who is retiring this May after 50 years at the Metairie high school. “Everyone wants the same amount of meat and cheese,” Butler notes. “So I make sure (the lasagna) all looks the same.”
When Butler arrived at Chapelle in 1964 at age 17, the then 2-year-old campus consisted of the original school building, a small cafeteria and the convent housing the Sisters of Charity. Butler, a resident of Kenner, had heard through the grapevine that the cafeteria needed someone to fill in for a couple of months.
“Two months turned into 50 years,” Butler said. “I registered to vote right here at the school.”
The ensuing half-century gave Butler a front-row view of sweeping changes in school food services. The ovens in those early years resembled pizza ovens; the cafeteria’s large stove featured a smooth iron top heated by a single burner; and the steamer – for the cooking of rice and vegetables – had a “steering wheel” lock.
“We used to make our own hamburger buns, hotdog buns, all from scratch,” Butler said, noting that School Food Services still makes its own dinner rolls on site. “We used to even make ketchup from scratch.”
Another change impacted what held school meals. The cafeteria provided metal utensils and heavy-duty plastic dishes until switching to disposables.
“We had two lunch (services), and in the middle of lunch we had to get in there and get all those dishes washed and ready for the next lunch period,” Butler recalled. “Now we don’t even have dishes to wash, except pans.”
But some things never change.
Butler said one of her favorite parts of the job is when “the girls come running to the cafeteria” in eager anticipation.
“We even have some (graduates) come back to have lunch,” Butler said. “They say, ‘Oh, I can’t get this kind of food in college. I miss this food here.’ (Former Chapelle President) Beth Johnson will come back for the shepherd’s pie.”
Butler said today’s students also adore shepherd’s pie, “any form of chicken” and beef stew.
“Sometimes they ask for double (portions),” Butler said. “When they don’t want the vegetable, I say, ‘Come on, baby. You need your vegetables! If you eat your carrots, in the next year or two you won’t have to wear those glasses.’”
Butler, 67, grew up in Avondale (then part of Waggaman), when that area was “just a little two-street town” studded with cow and horse pastures. Her earliest memories include cooking on a wood-burning stove alongside six sisters and one brother – in a team effort to help their mother, who worked fulltime.
“We did the whole country thing like using the ax to cut down wood (for the stove)” said Butler, who learned to cook by watching her mother make red beans and rice and seafood gumbo.
“By about 12 or 13, I was making custard pudding, rice pudding, tea cakes, smothered pork chops, chicken with brown gravy, spaghetti and meatballs,” Butler said. “Whenever I cook I always put that love into it. I just do it; I don’t follow a recipe.”
Butler, who went on to have five children, 21 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, is known for her three-layer chocolate cake, eggplant casserole and macaroni and cheese, the latter of which she prepares with spaghetti rather than elbow macaroni.
“My kids like when I cook spinach; when I cook spinach the pot is empty!” Butler said. “I do spinach like other people cook the mustard greens. I put pickle tips in it and season it with a little onion, a little bell pepper, butter, salt and pepper.”
During Advent, Butler wraps up homemade sweet potato pies (see recipe on page 9) and 7-Up cakes to give as Christmas gifts to her colleagues and to Chapelle’s cafeteria manager, Fran Becnel.
“This (cafeteria) is a nice place to come to, with friendly people,” Butler said. “Sometimes I would be at home and say, ‘I can’t wait to get back to work.’ You miss the people that you work with. We’re more like family,” she said, sharing a nugget of wisdom gained over 50 years of dedicated employment.
“You never get too old to learn,” Butler said. “To this day, some younger person can come in here and teach me something – and I will listen.”