Back when Lunchables were the coveted schoolyard meal, my mother, worried about cost of store-bought ready-made lunches on our health and her pocket, would wake up each morning and pack us something like a labneh and cucumber pita sandwich for first recess, leftovers from the night before for lunch, and a variety of dried Arab-style fruits and nuts as snacks. If we were lucky and Chips Ahoy was on sale that week, we would get a couple of cookies that were crushed under the impact of the Tupperware by the time we were ready to enjoy them.
Once, my mother wrapped a slice of kibbeh, a pizza-shaped slice of delicious ground meat, in aluminum foil and packed it up for lunch. Naturally, a side of yogurt mixed with garlic and cucumbers accompanied the meal. Fruity Dannon cups of sweet yogurt this was not. The Tupperware of yogurt opened mid-day in my backpack so that the smell of raw crushed garlic began to slowly etch itself eternally into the memories of innocent school children. We happened to be learning about the Jewish holocaust that day, and we began to believe that our teacher taking the new hands-on learning curriculum seriously by simulating the gas chamber experience. Had we been vampires, she would have been in real trouble.
It wasn’t until years later that turkey sandwiches started making a mid-day appearance and I have yet to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
A Sweet Escape
One afternoon, on a lonely bench in the schoolyard, I slowly opened the Arabic inscribed plastic bag that my mom packed my lunches in. Rather than the ironically cool Sesame Street lunch boxes or the inconspicuous paper bags the other kids had, I was fatefully born unto parents who didn’t understand that their rational decision-making was making me ‘that kid’ on the playground. Thankfully, this happened in the 1990’s. Had it been post 9/11, I might have been charged with acts of sedition.
Inside the bag was a tupperware of [enter standard Lebanese stew and rice here], raw nuts and a box of juice occupied the creases of my lunch bag. And, on this particular day, two newcomers arrived: a few kids who suddenly wanted to sit at my isolated bench and a bag of dates. Of all the days for these two occurrences to happen, why did it have to be on the same one? Oh, the humanity!
A Pit Stop
With a wide-eyed curiosity, the newcomers stared at my Ziploc bag containing a few brown wrinkly gems before exchanging glances with each other then staring back at me.
“Ewww, what do you mean? It looks like poo…”
“Um, erm, not really. They’re dates, they come from palm trees. They’re really sweet, you want to try one?”
“Are you stupid? Of course not!”
“Come on,” I took a bite, avoiding the pit, “look, they’re good! Here take some.”
Like scientists examining a newly discovered species of Amazonian flora, my audience grabbed the dried fruit and began examining it. First for texture, then smell, then, finally, for taste. I held my breath.
“Actually, it’s kinda good,” the blondest of them shyly whispered to the other two.
“They’re alright, but it’s still looks like poo to me, and that’s weird. She’s weird and her food is weird.”
I’m weird? How am I weird? They eat slimy meat and crackers from small plastic containers (I’m looking at you, Lunchables), they shave their legs before the age of 10, they drink diet Dr. Pepper in elementary school, they’ve been dating since the 4th grade, they shame each other for not wearing bras, they barely know their first cousins and have never even met their second cousins, they yell at things at their parents like, ‘I hate you and I hope you die’! How am I the weird one?
Partly relieved by their reaction, I wondered if they realized I could hear them? I mean, I was sitting just across the lunch table. Finally, satisfied with my complete mortification, they left me alone and went to play handball, or tetherball, or foursquare or whatever other activity that required at least two people and I resumed reading my book in peace.
A Sour Turn
The end-of-lunch bell rang and we all returned to class. I had completely forgotten about my impromptu show-and-tell session at lunch when the MOST POPULAR GIRL IN THE CLASS came up to me and asked me sarcastically if my boyfriend was a piece of poo.
‘What? What do you…’
‘Is your boyfriend a piece of poo? Danielle said you had a date that looked like poo.’
‘It was a dried fruit and fuck Danielle…’ I said enraged but I had no idea where the word came from. I had never cussed like that before, but seriously, fuck Danielle. She was the one that said the date was kinda good but God forbid she admits that to the MOST POPULAR GIRL IN THE CLASS.
As chance would have it, we had a substitute teacher that day who heard me cuss, and sent me straight to the Principal’s office for my offensive language. I was sobbing, hard, and the lunch lady, who happened to be my neighbor, saw me and I couldn’t get it together to explain to her what happened when she asked if I was OK. I was a hot mess!
As luck would have it, this incident occurred a few days after the Principal had personally invited me to an off-campus lunch for getting straight A’s and having perfect attendance (you shouldn’t be as impressed by the straight A’s as you should be with my perfect attendance. I went from a private school in the Middle East to a public school in California which accounts for my stellar report card, but it took a lot of work to obediently go to a place that made me so miserable day after day). After explaining myself through heaving breaths and begging her not to call my mother, she let me off with a warning because, ‘I was a good kid that made a bad choice.”
I’m not sure if my bad choice was in daring to offer dates to the other kids or because I cussed at MOST POPULAR GIRL IN MY CLASS, but I didn’t care! My mother wouldn’t have to know about my little outburst and I could return to my marginal place in the social hierarchy of my 5th grade class relatively unharmed.
Imagine my dismay when a decade or so later I learned that parents started slipping ‘healthy choices’ into their paper lunch bags of their privileged children. You have no idea how much I hate watching a smug 10-year-old dip her carrots into sun-dried tomato hummus.
As for Danielle and Whatsherface, I hope they are either obese and pregnant somewhere living out their California desert version of Honey Boo Boo or indulging regularly in grossly overpriced quinoa salads and pomegranate juice just after leaving their yoga/pilates classes in hopes of looking good for their own piece of shit boyfriends. Either way, I’d be happy knowing they are wasting away their life or their money.
The selection and preparation (and consumption) of food is an effort I take seriously. Making and sharing good food is a wonderful part of life.
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