For someone who loves to eat, I dread lunch. This is because lunch and I have never been friends, not even in childhood.
When my sister and I were students at Pine Grove Elementary, we caught the school bus at 8:45, right after we’d finished a huge homemade breakfast. Sometimes Mom baked waffles in the ancient press passed down from her Aunt Catherine. Other mornings she fried French toast and bacon or sausage or dropped spoonfuls of buttermilk batter onto a heavy square griddle for pancakes. These pancakes were human-sized (not those dinner-plate monstrosities you get at some diners), fluffy inside and crispy out, and I was once known to have eaten nine of them. So just a few hours later, when the teacher dismissed us for our 11 a.m. lunchtime at school, I was usually too full of maple syrup and sausage to even think about eating. That was my first problem with lunch.
The second problem? The nasty smells that hung in the air of our school cafetorium like the heavy brown curtains that flanked the stage: the cloying odor of peanut butter and jelly, the smell of my friend Caroline’s fried egg sandwich sticky with ketchup, and Julie’s peanut butter and bananas (or marshmallow fluff— ugh) mashed together on bread. Even the clean, sweet scent of Kelly’s leftover orange peels couldn’t mask the stench of sour milk, overbaked chicken or the olive green vegetables that had faded under the hot light of a heat lamp.
There was also the dilemma of what to eat. Picky me didn’t eat sandwiches or much cold food, and that pretty much canceled the majority of lunch options. Even then, I believed the best sandwich was one just off the grill with cheese melting and bread crisp. Not so easy in a brown paper bag or an orange Flintstones lunch box.
Given all this, I was quite happy to skip lunch, but my mother felt obligated to pack me something. Sometimes it was a thermos full of soup or an apple, peeled and sliced, the edges slowly browning during morning classes. Sometimes, in the spirit of English elevenses, it was a chocolate Tastycake cupcake and a thermos bottle of hot tea. Often though, my lunch was a dry, jumbo-sized, Utz pretzel sheathed in a plastic baggie. A pretzel wasn’t full of sugar, was a decent snack, and was easy to transport— which was very handy because my mother always stressed bringing home any uneaten food rather than throwing it away. Sometimes, if it were a week of especially hearty breakfasts, the same pretzel survived a whole week.
Indeed, the pretzel seemed perfect until the day the first-grade teachers decided to go through our lockers to see which children hadn’t finished their lunch. I have no idea what possessed them to conduct this search and seizure, but the consequences were cruel. The culprits, myself included, were whisked out of storytime and into an adjacent classroom, while the teachers paced the aisles admonishing us to finish our lunch remnants.
We sat there glumly, mentally kicking ourselves for not throwing away that remaining half-sandwich or, in my case, that lonely pretzel. It was Oliver Twist in reverse: “Please, ma’am, I do not want some more.” My pretzel and I glared at each other for a long time until Mrs. A finally gave up. “It’s OK,” I reassured her. “I had nine pancakes for breakfast.”
After the pretzel fiasco, I graduated to Capri Sun juice envelopes and cheese and crackers. Years later, in high school, lunch briefly got interesting when my friends and I were allowed to eat outside the cafeteria on the dirty hallway floor, warrens of dust bunnies being preferable to having to see and smell cafeteria food.
But, like my inability to understand algebra or economic theory, I still can’t get my head around packing a cold meal in the morning that I’m supposed to look forward to eating in the afternoon. And though eating lunch out has yielded some highlights— the greasy grilled cheese and bacon on rye from the International Deli in Towson, the still-life worthy composed salad from a little café near the cathedral in Chartres, France— a girl’s pocketbook (not to mention her figure) can’t afford that luxury every day. So I mostly boycott lunch. If the pangs of hunger overcome me, I nibble on pasta leftovers, yogurt or cheese— but never, never, a pretzel.