There were three possible lunches on school days: regular lunchbox lunch; rainy day lunch; and lunch at home.
On regular days, I opened my metal lunchbox (blue lid and bottom, silver-gray between) to find a sandwich neatly wrapped in waxed paper, made with stiff, dense, brown whole wheat bread. It might be peanut butter, or pimiento cheese with lettuce, or maybe a ham slice, also with lettuce. There would be an apple or a tangerine or a banana. And there would be a little packet of dessert: candied prunes, dark, sticky, and wrinkled–tasty, but so embarrassing that I’d have to eat them quickly, out of sight. Other kids, whose sandwiches were made with soft, white Wonder Bread and baloney, and whose dessert was chocolate chip cookies from a package, stared at my lunches and were glad not to be me. I am grateful to my mother for insisting on healthful food, but I do wish she had taken the social dimension into account and given me some junk every now and then.
Rainy day lunch was more or less the same but with one wonderful addition: hot soup in the thermos. We got to eat at our desks in the classroom if it was raining. I would unscrew the red plastic top of my thermos bottle and discover inside either tomato soup or cream of mushroom, both Campbell’s, both delicious. The classroom lights glowed in a special way on those dark noons. An unusual quiet prevailed, monitored by the teacher, sitting at her desk, eating her lunch along with us. It was strange and rather thrilling to see that teachers, too, ate lunch.
And sometimes I went home for lunch, a walk or bike ride of five blocks or so. There at the formica table in the kitchen, my sister and I might have creamed chipped beef on toast, or creamed sweetbreads (I knew what they were, though they had that phony name), or melted cheese sandwiches, or an interesting toasted sandwich made with a special implement–I think it might have been called the Toastite. It was a metal clamshell with handles about 18 inches long. You opened the clamshell, put the bread and the filling in there, closed it up, and held it over one of the burners on the stove until the bread got hot and crispy. Whatever happened to the Toastite?
Jeanne DuPrau is a writer of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She is best known for The City of Ember, a New York Times Children’s Bestseller, and its three companion books, The People of Sparks, The Diamond of Darkhold, and The Prophet of Yonwood. The Ember series is read by children from the age of ten on up and often by adults as well. It was made into a movie starring Bill Murray in 2008. Jeanne is also the author of a young adult novel called Car Trouble, a memoir called The Earth House, several non-fiction books, and various essays, book reviews, and stories.
Such vivid memories. I would have envied you eating lunch at school, despite your embarrassment, because we had to trudge home (and back) for lunch every day. Except once every month or two, the PTA would sponsor a “Hot Dog Day” fundraiser and mothers would come in and make hot dogs. We lived for those days.
The Google tells me that the Toas-Tite is still around. Their slogan is, “We’re So Yesterday”—don’t you love it? I believe they have mostly been replaced by panini makers, which are several times more expensive.
My mother insisted Wonder Bread was only good for getting wet and mopping up broken glass if you didn’t have a sponge! Here’s a high five from another kid who yearned for junk food.
Mmmmm, thermos of soup at your desk at school. Yum.