Anne Lamott believes school lunch has nothing to do with nutritional values and everything to do with nurturing your onion skinned self esteem. Anne distills the whole school lunch dilemma in her book Bird By Bird, using these words. “It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone.” This must be why I remember more about my lunch box than geometry.
She explains the firm rules for lunch box contents and the accompanying anxiety she experienced when her dad re-interpreted the menu. He shellacked brown bread with butter, careening from the white bread and mayonnaise standard, stacked too many slices of bologna on top, and finished with frilly lettuce instead of iceberg. These ignorant choices signaled that your parents were weird which meant you were weird too. If your lunch was entirely off the approved menu, you sat in the shadows of the school cafeteria.
Anne distilled the whole school lunch dilemma with these words. “It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone.” She’s so good at her job.
My school lunch experiences were less dramatic and psychologically withering than Anne’s. At her school, I’d be eating alone because my lunchbox insides looked like a French bistro menu and the mistakes left over from a new wave cooking class. I might even be friendless. At my little Catholic girls’ school, the drama dial was turned way down by the nuns. Our classes were so small that it was hard to be mean and get away with it. Plus, we usually ate spread across on a big lawn with room for privacy if needed. I needed it often.
My mom cooked with no directions and ingredients we couldn’t afford. She liked to finish with a bottle of red wine aimed at the pot and and tilted toward a carefree pour. For the most part things turned out OK except when she made my school lunch. Her idea of a good mid-day meal was stunning, even bizarre. She packed my Peanuts lunchbox with a rotation of sandwiches made with frightening ingredients. Foods any normal fourth grader would call gross and consider inedible. On Tuesday, even though I knew what was coming, the tuna sandwich I took out of my hot metal lunchbox looked like a fresh crime scene. Sitting inside a clear plastic bag was lifeless white bread flattened by the weight of water. On a scale of one to ten for bad food smells, the tuna sandwich was a nine by noon.
My mom’s tuna salad recipe included capers, shallots, a generous dose of mayonnaise, and the water in the tuna can. She never managed to drain it so the liquid bled through the bread and coated the Baggie. She also gave me thick slices of goose liver pate with cornichons and fancy crackers. The problems with this particular lunch were the intense smell, which grew like an exponent when you opened the pail, and the very foreign taste. Pate is extremely rich and dense. It’s designed for trained taste buds, not fourth grade tongues.
The pail never lost the scent of the previous day’s menu. It was so disappointing, like seeing the babysitter you don’t like at your doorstep. I couldn’t get used to the smells so I assumed my classmates wouldn’t either. I ate on the grass, sitting a safe distance from the other kids.
My mom joined the nascent health food movement in fifth grade and her school lunch program changed dramatically. There were Tiger’s Milk bars and licorice bark locked inside my Partridge Family lunch pail along with sandwiches made on dark and nutty organic bread. Overall, it was an improvement as far as smell went, but I remained the only kid with freaky contents inside her lunch box. When I got brave enough to eat at the picnic tables with other kids, I kept the lid up so someone sitting across from me couldn’t see what I had in store.
My mom’s eccentricities and enthusiasms manifest in my activities as well. Most of my toys were handmade and expensive. I got a loom for Christmas when I was six. When she signed me up for an activity you could count on it being avant-garde and slightly beyond my reach. Most memorable were the semi-private oil painting lessons I received in fifth grade. The teacher did most of the painting.
When I think of my mom back then, I imagine ducking from her designs and ambitions. Now, her habits seem funny and interesting. Later in life you can add your parents’ intentions to the outcomes. They become whole people with dimensions beyond your point of view. My mom was very far from perfect. She could steal, cheat and lie while balancing beautifully on four-inch heels. Those details remain clear, but I also recognize that someone who made the school lunches my mom did had big dreams for us.