When I was a girl (in the late 50s, early 60s), my school lunch didn’t look like the other girls’ lunches.
I brought my lunch to school in a hand-me-down boy’s metal Roy Rogers lunch box. The other girls had pretty red plaid metal lunchboxes.
The clasp on my lunch box was worn out. It had the annoying habit of popping open, releasing its contents to the floor. In those days, insulated bottles had glass liners. If you dropped your thermos, you needed to test it by shaking it. If it sounded like a maraca, your bottle was full of shattered glass and you could not drink from it. I broke mine on multiple occasions, sending my mother scrambling for a replacement.
I had my first peanut butter sandwich in first grade. My parents were German immigrants and not familiar with peanut butter, but the other moms assured my mother it was what all American kids ate for lunch.
My parents were also unfamiliar with the concept of eating a sandwich for lunch. In Germany, schools and businesses closed for an hour or more in the middle of the day, and everyone walked home for their main meal. Bread and cold cuts were for Abendessen, a light evening meal.
When the peanut butter ran out, Mom made me jelly sandwiches. But they didn’t look like the other girls’ jelly sandwiches. They had grape jelly on white bread. I had strawberry preserves or pineapple marmalade on rye. My dad was a baker. We didn’t have a lot, but we had plenty of bread. Not “real” bread, but rye bread and hard rolls. The loaves of rye bread tapered to an inch high and two inches wide at the ends. My mother usually made my sandwiches from the ends. How embarrassing.
My sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper. The other girls’ sandwiches were slipped into waxed paper sandwich bags. Mom refused to buy them—too expensive.
One summer my mother bought me a new school box at a sidewalk sale. It was just like the one the most popular girls in my class had the previous year—red vinyl, with six clear pockets on the front to hold cut-out letters to spell your name—and my name had exactly six letters! It couldn’t have been more perfect.
But that was the year my school adopted a new lunch box policy—you couldn’t bring one. Everyone was to bring lunch in a paper bag which would be thrown away. My dream of being like the other girls was shattered.
Now the other girls brought their lunches in crisp brown paper bags. I brought mine in wrinkly blue and white waxed paper bags that said Quality Baked Goods. They were the bags my dad’s bakery rye bread came home in. How humiliating.
The other girls’ sandwiches were now wrapped in Saran Wrap or fancy plastic fold-over top sandwich bags. Mine were slipped inside waxed bags that said Burry’s Scooter Pie on it, saved when the original contents were consumed. My mother recycled way before it was popular.
Bringing a lunch from home was the usual practice at the Catholic elementary school I attended, but one day a week the PTA offered a hot lunch for 40 cents. On hot lunch days, the most exotic smells wafted from the school kitchen, aromas that made my mouth water. All the cool kids ate hot lunch. I was never allowed to buy it. It was too expensive for my family.
One day I missed the bus and had to ride my bike to school. When I walked into the classroom several minutes late, the substitute teacher sweetly asked me, “Would you like to have hot lunch today?” To me, it sounded like an invitation, so I said, “Yes.” Of course I would like to have hot lunch.
When it was time to go to the cafeteria for lunch, the sub reminded the hot lunch students to bring their lunch money. My heart stopped. I didn’t have lunch money. I stayed behind to explain to the teacher that I thought I was being treated to hot lunch. But before I could say a word, she said, “I know—you forgot your lunch money. I’ll lend it to you, and you can pay me back tomorrow.” Even though my bag lunch was still in my book bag, I nodded my head, thanked her, and had my only hot lunch in elementary school. It was ravioli, the first time I ever ate ravioli, and it was delicious. But it was very difficult to explain to my mother why I had to bring 40 cents to school the next day.
Decades later, I took a job in downtown Phoenix. I realized I could have anything I wanted for lunch, even eat out every day. I tried that for a couple of weeks, and then I settled into a comfortable routine. My favorite workday lunch? Leftovers from home. Who would have thought it? But I wish I had some of Dad’s delicious bakery rye bread. And white bread? Never.
When you were a kid, what was your favorite school day lunch? Click the comment link to join the conversation.
I love this nostalgic piece, Andrea. I happened to have the red, plaid lunchbox pictured in your post! I loved it and (unlike the cool kids) used it for several years. At one school I attended they didn’t offer hot lunches. Everyone brought their own. But then on Fridays they started having “Hot Dog Day.” I was so excited! I couldn’t always participate, but often did. And you could also buy chocolate milk on that day rather than the usual white. So special! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.
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Thanks for sharing about Hot Dog Day!
Hi, Andrea! It’s your brother, Bill! Yeah, this post brings back some fond memories for me. You know, speaking for myself, I don’t think I ever realized that I was missing out on anything lunch-wise until certain other kids in class made it their mission to point it out to me. (Over and over, too, I might add.) The sandwiches I remember Mom making most of the time for me were margarine and strawberry preserves, and when we were older I’m sure you also remember the pickle and pimento loaf sandwiches (and sometimes olive loaf, which wasn’t quite as tasty, in my humble opinion). Of course, I remember the bakery bread that Dad used to bring home every day. Hindsight being what it is, why would we ever have wanted store bought white bread? Writing our names on those lunch bags was also just going through the motions. After all, nobody else ever brought such unique ones to school!
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I know! It was so hard writing on that waxy surface. I guess we turned out all right, though. Although my kids complained that their lunches weren’t like the other kids’ and tried desperately to trade them away. I finally made them pack their own lunches.
I attended a private elementary school, and we never had hot lunch when I was a kid. But I certainly get the part about wanting to be like the other girls. My uniforms did had that dull, much-used appearance as opposed to the bright look of brand new. My socks always slipped into my shoes. My hair was a mass of frizz instead of pin-straight like the other girls. Sigh. But guess what? I think I growing up that way led to a compassion I might not otherwise have had.
Fitting in is such a concern in elementary school. And you’re right–experiencing that pressure helps you to empathize and encourage others who are struggling with being “different.”