Everybody’s Grandmother

“Everyday I’m serving 500 meals! Everybody’s gonna love the orange chicken tomorrow…”

– Ms. Ruby Sims

The school lunch calendar lived front and center on my family’s fridge when I was growing up and it was the only way to mark time that mattered to me. The school lunch calendar always gave me something to look forward to. Sure, it might be creamed turkey day today, but there was always another chicken nugget and mashed potato day right around the corner. 

As a lifelong “hot lunch” kid, I remember with fondness the wafting smell of lunch preparation snaking around the hallways of my elementary school. It was a smell of anticipation and of the comfort, consistency, and community to come. I always felt school lunch got a bad reputation. In cartoons and movies, I watched in horror as characters were robotically served sludge by nameless women in an assembly line. That wasn’t the school lunch experience I knew. Lunch was the best part of the day and the cafeteria staff was a big part of that. 

That’s why I was so thrilled to meet Ms. Ruby Sims, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School’s beloved lunch lady. Ms. Ruby has a warmth and playfulness that instantly makes you feel a sense of belonging within the school community. This welcoming energy meant a lot to me as I had recently moved to Portland and begun working with King School third grader LayLay Crane through the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) mentorship program. On a dreary Monday morning LayLay and I sat down to chat with Ms. Ruby, but inside the Cafetorium on grilled cheese and tomato soup day it was just as cozy as I remembered. 

Ms. Ruby during lunch service at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. Portland, OR, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

LayLay: What jobs have you had?

Ms. Ruby: Okay, how much time do you have? I’ve been in food service for about 30 years, but in different aspects. I’ve managed restaurants and worked at coffee shops and bakeries. I was a police officer when I was in my mid 20s in Dayton, Ohio for about three years, but then I got out of it and started pursuing my passion, which is really cooking.

LayLay: What’s your favorite food to make?

Ms. Ruby: My specialty is baked goods. I love creating cakes. My grandchildren have put me to the test making cakes. They’ll come up with a flavor and challenge me to make it, so I love doing that. I’ve been baking probably since I was like 12.

Clara Harlow: Wow, what are some of the flavors your grandkids have come up with?

Ms. Ruby: One flavor was strawberries and cream because I preserve and make my own strawberry filling. I make a silver white cake with cream cheese frosting and strawberry filling – that’s my Strawberry Queen. I have a Blackberry Dream too. That’s a good cake for a wedding or something. I start with a silver white cake and I preserve the blackberries. I cook them and then I put them through a sieve to take all the seeds out so it’s a satiny kind of feeling. Then that goes in between the cakes with cream cheese frosting because that’s my favorite.
Clara: Yeah me too.

Cafetorium at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. Portland, OR, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

LayLay: What’s your favorite part about working at King School?

Ms. Ruby: My very favorite part is lunch service. I get to see all the kids coming through the line and everybody recognizes me and I can act silly if I want to, like sing along in the line or sing “Happy Birthday” if it’s a kid’s birthday. Have I sung “Happy Birthday” to you yet? When’s your birthday LayLay?

LayLay: October 19. 

Ms. Ruby: Oh, I missed it, I missed it!

LayLay: Well, when I was in KSMoCA on my birthday, I did tell basically everybody in the cafeteria that it was my birthday and you said Happy birthday. 

Ms. Ruby: Oh, okay. 

Clara: And you know, you have a half birthday coming up. 

LayLay: I do?

Clara: Yeah, in April

Ms. Ruby: Well okay, we might be doing something for that half birthday!

LayLay: Yeah, that sounds good. 

Paper doll drawing of Ms. Ruby by LayLay. Portland, OR, 2024. 

Ms. Ruby: Yeah I just love seeing all the kids and getting them excited about trying new vegetables. We have a new vegetable that we put out every month called the Harvest of the Month. This month we’re doing root vegetables. So we had carrots, turnips, rutabaga and sweet potatoes roasted together. I thought it was good but you know, I couldn’t get the kids to try that. 

LayLay: I remember the brussel sprouts.

Ms. Ruby: Oh the brussel sprouts, those are coming. 

LayLay: I like the flavor, but they were too soggy. 

Ms. Ruby: Oh, were they? I like to make mine crispy, but you must have lunch later in the day, huh? 

LayLay: What’s your family like?

Ms. Ruby: I’m the eighth child out of 11 children, so it’s a large family. I was born in Tennessee and then we moved to Ohio. When I was like 33 I moved out here. My family is so large I kind of needed a break. I needed to spread my wings and get away from family a little bit, but I miss them a lot. Lots of cousins. And then I have two children and I have five grandchildren.

LayLay: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Ms. Ruby: So when I was in school, I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to go into business and have a tall fashion shop because I experienced a lot of problems with the new fashions that were coming out that were too short for me, so I started sewing. All through eighth grade and high school, I made my own clothes. 

Clara: Wow that’s so cool. 

Ms. Ruby: I want to get back into that with my grandchildren after I retire this year. I want to get back into some of the things that we used to love to do.

LayLay: Okay, who’s your favorite to work with in the cafeteria? 

Ms. Ruby: Oh there are so many, I wish I could pick all of them!

LayLay: You could, you could pick all of them.

Ms. Ruby: I like my staff that I’m working with now, but Shavonte is my absolute favorite. She’s in there right now making grilled cheese sandwiches for us to have for lunch today. She’s the one who serves the hot foods when you come in, she’s the first one that you see. Take a look in there, she’s making sandwiches right now, and then you’ll know who Shavonte is. 

[LayLay leaves to go meet Shavonte]

Clara: So you grew up in Dayton, Ohio? My dad used to go there for work when I was little. He works for the National Park Service and they had a Wright Brothers site in Dayton, Ohio. I think they grew up there. 

Ms. Ruby: Let me tell you something, I was a park ranger before I was a police officer. 

Clara: Oh really? 

Ms. Ruby: Yes. I worked as a park ranger before I was a police officer. Then they were kind of phasing out the park rangers and that’s how I got into being a police. 

Clara: Oh, you have had a lot of jobs! 

Ms. Ruby: I’m not gonna be without employment. You know, I’m very creative and good at coming up with things to do. 

[LayLay comes back from the lunch line]

Ms. Ruby: Did you meet her? Did you introduce yourself?

LayLay: No, I just told her you said she’s your favorite and asked if she felt special and she said a little bit.

Ms. Ruby: It’s a lot of work sometimes, so it’s hard to feel special in it. There is a lot of work, but she is the absolute best. I mean, she gets it done and we’re friends.

LayLay interviewing Ms. Ruby. Portland, OR, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

LayLay: How much food do you make in a day here? 

Ms. Ruby: Oh my goodness, that’s a good question. Let’s see, we serve three meals a day because we do after school meals, about 200 breakfasts, 240 lunches, and 60 after school meals. So how much is that? 

LayLay: 200 plus 240, so 440. 

Ms. Ruby: Plus 60 for after school.

LayLay: 500!

Ms. Ruby: So, everyday I’m serving 500 meals! Everybody’s gonna love the orange chicken tomorrow…

Clara: Is that the most popular food at the school? 

Ms. Ruby: Orange chicken and popcorn chicken.

LayLay: My friend says you grab the chicken from Panda Express and put it on a plate and you make the rice.

Ms. Ruby: No, I don’t grab anything from anywhere else. I put our lasagna together and make like 10 pans of that. I don’t get anything from a restaurant, not even the pizzas. We make pizzas every Thursday. A lot of them, it takes about 30 pizzas to feed the whole school. 

Ms. Ruby in action during lunch service at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. Portland, OR, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

LayLay: So who’s your favorite custodian?

Ms. Ruby Sims: I think Earl is my favorite custodian. I’ve known Earl for the longest and he’s so personable and he likes my baked goods. He’s always asking for cookies. I make treats sometimes and bring him some. 

LayLay: Okay, who’s your second favorite custodian?

Ms. Ruby: Well, he’s not here anymore. You probably don’t remember him, they called him Mr. Steve and he retired. He was at King school for about 35 years.

Clara: Wow, how long have you been at King School?

Ms. Ruby: I’ve been here for 13 years. 

Clara: Whoa!

Ms. Ruby: Yeah, yeah and I’m glad I’m here because I love this school.

Clara: What do you love about it?

Ms. Ruby: I love interacting with the kids, it’s just so fulfilling when they strike up a conversation with me or want to know about something and just getting to be silly with them. You know, being everybody’s grandmother. 

Ms. Ruby Sims (she/her) is the Nutrition Service Lead at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. She’s worked at King School for 13 years and will retire at the end of the 2023 – 2024 school year. She looks forward to the many more baking and sewing projects with her grandkids to come. 

Malaya “LayLay” Crane (she/her) is in Ms. Moog’s 3rd grade class at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Northeast Portland. She likes basketball, the color pink, and her favorite school lunch is orange chicken. She was Clara’s mentee at the King School of Contemporary Art in Winter 2024. 

Clara Harlow (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and preschool teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work operates as an invitation into themes of intimacy, play, and alternative ways of measuring time through experiential events and interactive objects. You can most likely find her at the local swimming pool or making pigs in a blanket for her next themed party.

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