Lunch-Box Learning: Stepping away from Consumer Food Culture

These carrots would not be up to par for typical school lunches, according to Anne Lammot’s “School Lunches”, a chapter in her book Bird by Bird. This chapter discusses the exhibition of elementary and high school lunches in America, along with how to use such  detailed experiences–and their nuances from one person to the next–to start thinking through writing. According to Lamott, “[c]ode carrots had to look machine extruded, absolutely uniform, none longer than the length of the sandwich” (37).  The carrots on this plate, therefore, are in extreme violation of school lunch code, as is this entire plate of food (granted, this is my brunch from today, not something I ate in grammar school).

Although Lammot’s description of the phenomenon of social stratification exhibited via ingredients as they emerge from a brown paper bag rings true for a vast majority of American children’s experiences, reflecting on my own experience makes me realize that I accidentally attained early autonomy in regards to food practices. At the ripe young age of seven, while sitting in the kitchen with my mother, I mustered up enough courage to say, “I want to make my own lunches to take to school.” My mother, probably unsurprised by my desire for autonomy (I had recently also told her she was no longer allowed to check my homework; that I would prefer to suffer for my own mistakes), happily yielded the lunch-making responsibility.

The autonomy was glorious: I now had the upper hand on the strange social scene of school lunches and I could eat whatever my taste buds desired. In retrospect, it’s strange thinking that our taste buds seem to come second in the social equation that Lamott so intricately describes. The value that food takes on in situations like these is one far from its original purpose: to nourish. Instead of friends coming together at lunch to try each other’s nourishing, tasty treats, we end up looking around to see whose food takes on the most commodified form, signifying that we’re each doing alright, or better: more than alright.

At the time, I subscribed to this social game between children, making amazing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, throwing in an apple or two, having the finger-shaped carrots that were in the fridge. While I knew how to make sandwiches at that age, I didn’t know how to do much else. More importantly, I still didn’t have autonomy over the grocery shopping list (I may or may not have been plotting that as my next move from the moment I attained my lunch-box autonomy). So I had to make due with what I had. I had to learn to make the ingredients in the fridge match both what I wanted to eat and what the other kids would see as acceptable.

Around this time, I started asking my mom to teach me how to cook (side-note: I didn’t know until this year that my mom never really knew much about cooking until she was married; learning this blew my mind, since I’ve always thought of her as a great cook). If I remember correctly, the first thing she taught me to make was scrambled eggs; I sat on a stool next to the stove while I pushed the eggs around the pan. After some years, and more and more learning, I could craft something special from whatever was in the fridge. Essentially, my plan to take over the grocery shopping list no longer mattered. If there were some grape tomatoes in the fridge, I’d see how they do in a pasta sauce; when there was a mango, I learned how to slice it around the strange, oval seed. This process wasn’t easy: there were many flops involved; it took one friend a few years to trust my cooking again, after I made her some detestable pasta with a cream sauce derived from ranch dressing and a number of other esoteric ingredients.

What came out of this was something far greater than learning how to please the other kids at school with what emerged from a brown paper bag: rather, I learned cooking adaptability. In time, I was learning what flavors go together, how to chop various vegetables, what cooking method to use to get specific flavors and textures, and which spices go together. These tricks still help me at times when I’m hungry and too tired to go to the grocery store, making due with what’s left over in the fridge. And although I’ve gone through a few financial crises in my day, with these tendencies towards food creativity, I’ve never had to derail my drive towards flavorful food when I have less cash in my pocket. While I may have appeased my friends at school and still made food that was acceptable to me, I gained an awareness of what was going on behind that brown paper bag exhibition and began to ask a more important question: “Why?”

This awareness has pushed me to detest the concept of “food trends,” along with most packaged foods, since they’re not necessarily what my mind and body want for satisfaction. Furthermore, they can easily be unsustainable. Even the idea of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, should rarely be mapped out, in my opinion. One of my first college apartment experiences involved shocking my roommate by cooking up some salmon at ten o’clock in the morning, and to this day, I’m still proud of that salmon. Meals should involve an intermingling between food cravings and availability, and a practice of care can help fuse the two together.

This approach to food has allowed me to maintain a love for flavor and nourishment that grows beyond food marketing, food packaging, and that whole nutrition fact mumbo-jumbo. Lammot’s lunch box phenomenon is one brief illumination of how a consumer-based food society has become greatly removed from a piece of daily ritual that once was a means for survival. If we know our food, we’ll learn how to survive. If we share that knowledge with each other, a stronger social bond can be borne through food. Conversely, if we listen to what a market tells us to eat, we’ll never know how to survive, and we’ll never even know if we’re getting what we want.

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