July 28, 2021–During a year of caution over shared meals, people became more comfortable toting homemade lunches to school, the office, and community get-togethers. Apparently hipsters have even rediscovered the bologna-American-cheese-on-white-bread sandwich. That lunchtime staple is no nouvelle cuisine to those of us who attended country school.
We made and carried our own lunches every day, not out of a sense of irony, but rather so we would not pass out from hunger in study hall. One of my elementary schools did not even have a lunchroom, so we ate sack lunches while sitting cross-legged on the gritty gym-atorium floor.
Growing up in a family with nine kids bussed to three different campuses, it fell to us to pack our own midday meal every morning.
Standard issue in those days were bologna sandwiches: two slices of WonderBread, a disk of wet bologna encircled by the inevitable inedible red string, and a slab of pasteurized process cheese spread, sawed off the end of a 2-pound loaf. Topped with a wilted leaf of iceberg lettuce. We could add any condiment as long as it was ketchup, which thoroughly permeated one of the bread slices, although we learned to spread a film of butter to slow the absorption rate.
It is scary to think an entire generation grew up fueled on that section of the Food Pyramid, sitting at room temperature for four hours.
My first sandwiches were painstakingly wrapped in a thing called “waxed paper,” which, for those unfamiliar with the material, was a roll of paper, coated in wax. A suitable square was torn off along moray-eel-sharp metal teeth. After wiping off the blood, you centered your sandwich, then, like wrapping a Christmas present, folded each corner up and secured it with a flat wooden toothpick. Flat, not round. Wooden, not plastic.
Soon they began selling plastic sandwich bags with Origami-level folding closures. These were an improvement over paper, but the seal was less than hermetical. It was long after I left Mid-Prairie before they invented forensic level, triple closure, color-coded, multi-ply sandwich bags.
Single-serving sizes had yet to be imagined on Madison Avenue, so our chips were a handful grabbed from the big bag of Guy’s Potato Chips (Be Wise; Buy Guy’s), collected in one of the aforementioned sandwich baggies.
You would think us country folk would find a homemade cookie or chunk of chocolate brownie tucked lovingly in our lunch, but a brother reminded me how our dad would buy those store-brand creme cookies, one side vanilla-y, one side chocolate-y. After the Econo-Size sleeve had been open a week, they acquired a stale sogginess. Still, it was better than gagging on a banana with liver spots.
Our baby sister fondly remembers opening her Holly Hobby lunch box to find a genuine Hostess Ding Dong. If any of her older brothers had found such a treasure we knew we had grabbed the wrong lunch box. She was spoiled.
When you did pack something delicious you could score big on the lunch black market. Another sibling recalled one family that brought packets of peanuts their dad picked up at the local tavern. They were traded like prison cigarettes.
Thermos bottles were a luxury, and the technology for storing juice inside cardboard boxes hadn’t been invented by astronauts yet. Sodas came in World War-era cans or bottles, and both required church keys to access the delicious fizzy contents, so we carried no drinks to school, relying on half-pints of milk dutifully dispensed by the custodian in between nips from his hip flask.
I still remember Wednesday was chocolate milk day.
For our family, “brown bagging” was not a euphemism. We used odd-sized grocery bags to transport our bologna sandwiches. I remember once owning a metal lunch box with Zorro monogramming Sergeant Garcia on the lid, but it was a dented hand-me-down and had a tendency to snap open when the cute girls were watching. Plus you had to remember to bring it back home at the end of the day, a responsibility beyond the capabilities of most 10-year-old boys, including this one. Paper bags just had a lower level of complexity, investment, and upkeep.
I don’t know if today’s students still pack lunches. I do know there are endless choices on market shelves of pre-packaged “lunch-ables” that proffer cubed turkey, cubed cheese, and a menagerie of gummy creatures, along with boxed beverages of every flavor, some imaginary (Sharkleberry?).
I embrace the creative options in modern lunch architecture. My favorite grocery aisle is “Meals For One,” where I can indulge my whim for a quick repast evoking cuisine from Szechuan to Mexico to a dinky Iowa diner serving meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and canned corn.
Sometimes, with a chunk of chocolate brownie for dessert.