When I was a girl (in the late 50s, early 60s), my school lunch didn’t look like the other girls’ lunches.
The clasp on my lunch box was worn out. It had the annoying habit of popping open, releasing its contents to the floor. In those days, insulated bottles had glass liners. If you dropped your thermos, you needed to test it by shaking it. If it sounded like a maraca, your bottle was full of shattered glass and you could not drink from it. I broke mine on multiple occasions, sending my mother scrambling for a replacement.
I had my first peanut butter sandwich in first grade. My parents were German immigrants and not familiar with peanut butter, but the other moms assured my mother it was what all American kids ate for lunch.
My parents were also unfamiliar with the concept of eating a sandwich for lunch. In Germany, schools and businesses closed for an hour or more in the middle of the day, and everyone walked home for their main meal. Bread and cold cuts were for Abendessen, a light evening meal.
When the peanut butter ran out, Mom made me jelly sandwiches. But they didn’t look like the other girls’ jelly sandwiches. They had grape jelly on white bread. I had strawberry preserves or pineapple marmalade on rye. My dad was a baker. We didn’t have a lot, but we had plenty of bread. Not “real” bread, but rye bread and hard rolls. The loaves of rye bread tapered to an inch high and two inches wide at the ends. My mother usually made my sandwiches from the ends. How embarrassing.
My sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper. The other girls’ sandwiches were slipped into waxed paper sandwich bags. Mom refused to buy them—too expensive.
One summer my mother bought me a new school box at a sidewalk sale. It was just like the one the most popular girls in my class had the previous year—red vinyl, with six clear pockets on the front to hold cut-out letters to spell your name—and my name had exactly six letters! It couldn’t have been more perfect.
But that was the year my school adopted a new lunch box policy—you couldn’t bring one. Everyone was to bring lunch in a paper bag which would be thrown away. My dream of being like the other girls was shattered.
Now the other girls brought their lunches in crisp brown paper bags. I brought mine in wrinkly blue and white waxed paper bags that said Quality Baked Goods. They were the bags my dad’s bakery rye bread came home in. How humiliating.
The other girls’ sandwiches were now wrapped in Saran Wrap or fancy plastic fold-over top sandwich bags. Mine were slipped inside waxed bags that said Burry’s Scooter Pie on it, saved when the original contents were consumed. My mother recycled way before it was popular.
Bringing a lunch from home was the usual practice at the Catholic elementary school I attended, but one day a week the PTA offered a hot lunch for 40 cents. On hot lunch days, the most exotic smells wafted from the school kitchen, aromas that made my mouth water. All the cool kids ate hot lunch. I was never allowed to buy it. It was too expensive for my family.
One day I missed the bus and had to ride my bike to school. When I walked into the classroom several minutes late, the substitute teacher sweetly asked me, “Would you like to have hot lunch today?” To me, it sounded like an invitation, so I said, “Yes.” Of course I would like to have hot lunch.
When it was time to go to the cafeteria for lunch, the sub reminded the hot lunch students to bring their lunch money. My heart stopped. I didn’t have lunch money. I stayed behind to explain to the teacher that I thought I was being treated to hot lunch. But before I could say a word, she said, “I know—you forgot your lunch money. I’ll lend it to you, and you can pay me back tomorrow.” Even though my bag lunch was still in my book bag, I nodded my head, thanked her, and had my only hot lunch in elementary school. It was ravioli, the first time I ever ate ravioli, and it was delicious. But it was very difficult to explain to my mother why I had to bring 40 cents to school the next day.
Decades later, I took a job in downtown Phoenix. I realized I could have anything I wanted for lunch, even eat out every day. I tried that for a couple of weeks, and then I settled into a comfortable routine. My favorite workday lunch? Leftovers from home. Who would have thought it? But I wish I had some of Dad’s delicious bakery rye bread. And white bread? Never.
When you were a kid, what was your favorite school day lunch? Click the comment link to join the conversation.