Taped to the wall and cupboard at Alberton School’s kitchen are some of the handwritten recipes that head cook Connie Dove uses to make meals from scratch for the students: breakfast cookies, banana zucchini muffins, and bread for hamburger buns or hoagie rolls.
Dove has worked at the school kitchen for 26 years, most of that as head cook, serving up meals often made from scratch and sometimes with fresh produce donated by area farms or gardens. Her cinnamon rolls, breakfast scrambles, tuna roll-ups, mac and cheese, and fajitas are a hit.
So, too, is the feast she fixes every Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Some recipes have been passed on from previous cooks — such as the famed maple bars — but many are Dove’s own. Some meals, like tacos, are built for each student as they come through the line.
At the school of about 150 students about 30 miles west of Missoula, Dove and assistant cook Resa Briscoe often greet each student by name, ask them how they’re doing and wish them a nice day as they return their empty trays.
“My lunchroom philosophy is if you’re having just the worst day possible in class, you need to be able to come here and forget about it during lunch and maybe go out with a different attitude,” Dove said. “We try to make that atmosphere, where it’s the least amount of stress possible.”
“A no stress-eating environment, she always says,” Briscoe chimed in.
Students of all ages remarked on the little gestures that make them feel welcomed.
“We get pencils for the month of our birthday,” said Tessa Hoose, 7.
Isabella Earner, 6, added that she likes Dove “because when we have pancakes, she says ‘rocket fuel.’ ”
Although older students are allowed to leave campus for lunch, many choose to eat in the cafeteria.
“Compared to other schools, it’s definitely amazing,” said Gerald Peterson, 18. “It’s always home-cooked rather than packaged. It’s fresh.”
Principal Kyle Fisher said Dove and Briscoe are a big part of making Alberton School what it is.
“They’re huge. They know every kid’s name in the school,” he said. “The kids always come and talk to the cooks when they come back and visit.”
Bethany Shaske, 17, agreed.
“They’re more like family than anything else,” she said.
Great food aside, Sara Knapp, 17, said that’s why she has loved eating at the cafeteria since kindergarten.
“I play indoor hockey in Missoula,” she said. “They’ll ask me, ‘Where’d you go this weekend? How’d you do? Good luck.’ ”
Every morning, Dove helps her father, who for years has had Alzheimer’s, start his day before leaving him with a care assistant. She usually arrives at the school by 6:30 a.m. or maybe a few minutes later if her father needed a little extra help. She makes breakfast with Briscoe, then starts to prep lunch while she serves the morning meal.
On Wednesday, it was many student’s favorite meal of the month — grilled cheese and tomato soup.
“It’s super-cheesy and the soup is so good,” Evan Fehlings, 7, said, dunking the last corner of his buttery sandwich into the soup. He lifted the bowl to drink it dry. “Sometimes they have pancakes for breakfast.”
“They have the best food,” Fehlings and Mikey Powell, 7, said at the same time, continuing to speak in sync. “Jinx! You can’t take it back. You owe me a soda pop.”
Dove said grilled cheese is “the one thing I’d drop off the menu if I could,” noting she “had too many” while studying at a Bible college in Wyoming. Her compromise with the students is to make them once a month.
This week, she built 168 sandwiches, buttering each slice of bread, added slices of cheese and toasting them on the stovetop grill all just a few minutes before students arrived. Briscoe stacked two at a time as she sliced them diagonally before handing them to kids. As each tray ran out, she turned to the warm oven behind her and pulled out a new one.
Some students came back for seconds and Dove negotiated with them.
“Eat your peaches, sweetie,” she told one boy. She told a girl who walked up after him, “Drink all your milk and I’ll say yes.”
Dove, who used to sit on the board of the state’s school nutrition association, said school lunch rooms are discouraged from allowing seconds out of concern that kids will overeat, but many of the Alberton students come from low-income families, some of whom struggle with food insecurity.
About a quarter of children within the district boundaries live below the federal poverty line and about three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfast, a level high enough under federal rules that the district provides free meals to all students.
“If you’re only eating two meals a day, you need more calories for lunch,” Dove said, also noting that “most of our kids are active” because being a small school means most teens are encouraged to play sports just so there are enough people to form a team.
She knows the school and community so well because she grew up in Alberton, graduating in 1975.
“I’m up on the wall,” she said with a chuckle, referencing class photos from the school going back decades. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. I thought that was a profession that was getting very difficult. I never dreamed that I would be back here as a cook.”
She studied three years at the college in Wyoming, worked four years at a nursing home and then a few more on the family ranch before becoming an assistant cook in 1990. By 1995, she ran the Alberton kitchen.
“I promised Resa to make me retire if I ever made minestrone soup out of all the leftovers,” she said with a chuckle, remembering her least favorite school lunch from her childhood. "Then (that would mean) I truly hate the children and you have to make me retire.”