I remember having a lunchbox, when I was little. I suppose that I probably had several, and I have a dim memory of the first one being a simple, bright red rectangle that opened sideways and didn't have a beverage containment device. It was just a big empty rectangle that you could put your sandwich, cookie and banana in. I graduated, as it were, to a "proper" or domed-style lunchbox when I was in first or second grade. It met a sorry end when it was kicked apart by a bus stop bully. I was angry about the loss of my lunchbox, but not because I was particularly fond of it. It was more of an outrage that someone would deliberately destroy something of mine for no reason that rankled. I think the event made me a little cynical, a little ahead of schedule.
From there, I moved on the lunch carrier of choice amongst teenagers - the brown paper bag. I felt conspicuously grown-up with my brown paper bag, despite the fact that I had to use the same brown bag over the course of a week (unless it became too damaged), and that my father - an actual grown-up who took a lunch every day - took a domed lunchbox to work. By Thursday, my brown bag was usually getting a little on the wrinkly and misshapen side, and by Friday it was usually with some relief that I could toss it out. The brown bag was not a particularly sturdy vehicle: my sandwich would often get crushed against my apple, bleeding peanut butter into a corner of its baggie, but I didn't care. The older kids who brought lunch to school (as opposed to those who lived close enough to go home for lunch) all used paper bags, and therefore I was pleased to be part of their ranks, even in this insignificant way. I probably looked down my nose a little at my classmates with their plastic Holly Hobbie or superhero themed lunchboxes. Certainly, it was much harder for even the most innocent-faced bully to pretend to have accidentally damaged a bag clutched in someone's hand than a box sitting on the ground. That particular problem was solved, if not the underlying problem of mean kids, which is eternal.
After a while, once I became a teenager, no one used lunchboxes at all. Too babyish. With high school conveniently next to the local mall, there was a wealth of places to spend my babysitting money at noon on the days that I didn't feel like a sandwich lunch. Thus began the hemorrhage of disposable income, I suppose - heavily salted french fries at the Party Stop (or, less frequently, from Ernie & Gwen's Drive In, where the fries were crinkle cut and came with gravy), or meat pies or sausage rolls at Henry's Bakery, after which my friends and I would build clever sculptures out of our foam trays and plastic forks. Occasionally, lunch would be an entire giant bag of popcorn twists, a salty, greasy extruded snack that should by all rights be self-limiting due to the nausea you feel if you eat the whole bag. However, teens are durable creatures, and, apparently they crave salt something fierce. I really needed look no further for causes of my teenage skin blemishes than the utter crap I was eating on the sly away from my mother's table. On a related note, I should feel a pang of sympathy for the cat when he sneaks something he oughtn't to have and covertly gobbles it down. While my lunches were bought and paid for instead of stolen from an unguarded plate, they were still highly guilt-ridden affairs.
By university, I certainly wasn't going back to the lunchbox. No, the style of the time was small backpacks which broadly functioned as portable lockers - loaded down with texts, binders, extra clothes, and, of course, lunch. In my first year, I took my lunch to school every single day. I had little choice, for all the many, many grazing grounds on campus; my tiny budget simply would not allow for any unplanned expenditure. It was a good lesson in self-control, I suppose, and it was of little or no concern to me that I took a lunch instead of buying one. I could do the math, and now that I was in charge of extremely finite resources, it was very easy to see how a single impulsive purchase could be better spent enriching an entire week's worth of lunches if more carefully spent. No, my carefully packed lunches were crammed into the top of my backpack, which was then slung over one shoulder, naturally, and would have to languish unrefrigerated until lunch time.
What exactly went into my lunches, from elementary school through university, was much the same formula, if differing in the detail. Some sort of sandwich, some sort of baked good (almost always homemade), and some sort of fruit. I learned that sealed packets of sandwich meat, the kind already hanging on the supermarket's refrigerated shelves, went funny-coloured much more quickly, once opened, than the (more) freshly cut heaps of meat at the deli counter. Every week I would pick up a small amount of one or two different deli meats (usually whatever was on sale), and my sandwiches would alternate between them, with various cheese and vegetables as seemed most suitable or affordable at the time. If the meat still managed to spoil before the end of the week, I would boil up an egg and make an egg salad sandwich. Occasionally, leftover chicken from dinner would make its way into a sandwich - as a salad or otherwise - but for the most part, leftovers from dinner would be dinner the next night, not lunch the next day. Without easy access to a microwave, or even a toaster oven, there weren't really many options for a filling lunch that did not involve heavy thermal containers (with the attendant breakage and spillage issues), or the old faithful sandwich. After first year, I was working while studying and could occasionally kick up my heels culinarily to enjoy the occasional pastry or on-campus lunch, and eventually, beer at the notorious campus pub, the Pit. The packed lunch still ruled most of the week, though, because finances were still tight, and by now I was too well versed in the cost-benefit ratio to allow for much mad spending at lunchtime or after school.
Once into the working world, I shed the backpack pretty quickly, in an attempt to look at least somewhat professional. Lunch was then relegated back to a brown paper bag, usually crammed into a briefcase, a handbag, a carry-all, or purse. Since most of my workplaces have had some sort of fridge and microwave, a whole host of other options became available to me, and for the most part I abandoned the humble sandwich as a packed lunch. It's not that I dislike sandwiches - on the whole, I like them very much, and enjoy a pretty wide variety of fillings and breads to make them from. It's that I don't like sandwiches that have languished, the lettuce becoming darkly bruised and failing to keep the tomato on its own side, away from sogging out the bread. I don't like biting into bread that has a chill from the fridge, and I don't like avocado that has discoloured to the exact shade of evil. One can easily get around this by packing items separately and assembling them on location, but that makes for a much bulkier, more precarious lunch to toe about, and is really only feasible if there is access to at least some basic kitchen tools.
Lunch, like any other meal, requires a little imagination to keep it interesting. Lunch on the go, especially if you want to keep down the expense (and dangerous temptations) of lunching out, requires even more imagination, and appropriate hardware makes it easier to manage. I'm starting to think about carrying a lunch box, again. The classic shape doesn't really work that well with my tendency to use leftovers as lunch, but there are many more options of shape, material, and style available than when I was a kid. I don't think I'll be looking for a Holly Hobbie (or Kim Possible, or whoever the kids like these days) lunchbox any time soon. There are a wealth of alternatives these, days, though, including the much-hyped Laptop Lunch System (a sort of Bento box set up), but I'm seriously eyeing the stackable Indian Tiffin Boxes (specially designed for toting lunches!). Durable, reusable, adorable, yet neither silly nor old fashioned, and many of them are made from stainless steel, which makes them pretty much kick-proof, just in case I ever face that little problem again.
Welcome to Always in the Kitchen. The art for the site was developed by Julie McGalliard, who sorted out my barely coherent ramblings about what I wanted, and developed both the art and technical components for the entire site.
I'm still bringing some of the older pages into the "new" format, but I confess it is taking rather a long time. Let me know if you find any broken links, or if the site is acting weird.
Always In the Kitchen
© 2003 — 2008 Dawna L. Read