Every morning, I pack my three children lunches that are full of the kinds of things I dreamed of finding in my lunch when I was a kid.
What kind of lunches did I wish for when I was a little kid in school? Oh, nothing special. Just the usual non-traumatic kind that wouldn't cost me thousands of dollars in therapy as an adult.
I'll bet that for most of you out there, when I mention "school lunch" you cock your head to the side and smile a wistful memory smile. Say "school lunch" to me and I head for the bed, piling up the blankets--only my nose peeking out so I can breathe. I'll also bet that other kids wanted to trade lunches with you, right?
You probably remember yourself, back in second grade, sitting at the long lunchroom table across from friends (have to interrupt here--what was that like?) chattering away while pulling out the contents of what your very American parent had packed for you. Such a sweet, happy memory; reminiscing about swapping lunches makes you smile and doesn’t conjure up a knot in your stomach, does it?
What you had in your school day lunch is a piece to the puzzle that we grow up to be. My lunches, my first-generation American lunches, can only be described with the word “PANIC.” I’d watch American children around me reach into their bags and pull out amazing items like I had seen on TV. Angels would sing as they'd fish out Little Debbie snack cakes, shiny bags of potato chips, factory pressed fruit pies.
My South American lunches were from another planet, in sight and smell. The grip of anxiety that came when I'd open my thermos and release the kraken of my lentil and rice soup with garlic and cumin. "Yo, anyone wanna trade with me?" I don't think so. The School Lunch Trade–when the contents of my lunch shouted out who, and what and where I came from. Oh, to be part of the consumer crowd, the land of processed cheese food and deli meats, the gooey blob of Hostess Snowballs, the Sunny-D with 10 percent juice.
Hey! Who wants to trade me their bologna and mayo on Wonder white bread for a big fat slice of musky goat cheese and guava jelly! Look! My Abuela threw in a chunk of mango on top for extra Latino measure.
You could hear the squeals of non-delight that came from the American children as they watched me carefully stack a cube of white cheese on top of a cube of guava on top of a cube of mango … mmm mmm, that’s good eatin’, right there.
What are you eating?? Eww …
Mmm … mmm ... mmm ... mmm and mmm. This? This is a delicious guava jelly and goat cheese breadless sandwich. Yum Yum. I’d trade with you but I just want it all for myself.
And so I’d rehearse my script, thinking I could fool the kids into thinking I was glad that they never asked me to trade with them. At noon every day, I’d mentally practice my words. Yup, I would convince them that the lunch I had was just too good to give up to anybody. I knew the lunches my Colombian Abuela would have packed for me would be red hot up on that ethnicity scale. The possibilities of what I'd find inside my lunch box made my scalp prickle: would she have thrown in a peeled, diced platano? Chopped avocados? Maybe a papaya? Could I be lucky enough for a thermos full of the Colombian signature dish, Calentado?
I would almost faint from the combination of late morning hunger and forgetting to breathe as my heart pounded over what was in my clearance-shelf padded white Monkees lunchbox. The minutes ticked closer and closer to the big reveal. My lunch time plan was always the same: Sit down, lay out a spot, and present the contents as a thing of beauty. Everyone at the table would know that their palettes weren’t sophisticated enough to trade their lunch for mine.
The fantasy of this scenario played out daily.
I wanted to be part of the fun, to be in on the food trading, to hear other children go oooh and lick their lips when they'd see what I was packin'. But this was the late 1960′s, and cultural diversity was just not part of the landscape. Especially not in a parochial school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This memory is from so long ago, but still feels like the day before yesterday. When I pack my children’s lunches today, I tell them of my Abuela’s slices of white goat cheese with a generous slab of guava jelly atop, garnished with tropical fruit, then sprinkled with pomegranate.
They ask me if that’s why I’m so weird.
It might be.
Can’t be 100 percent positive, but probably.
That which doesn’t kill us, makes us funnier, I tell them. Which means I should be getting my own special on Comedy Central any day now.