Thursday, January 19, 2006

Laura Ingalls Wilder Carried the Lunch Pail...I Carried a Lunchbox

When I started First Grade in the year 19.... uh...and something... I wore a dress with black patent leather shoes and white socks to Mrs. Castleberry's class, and I carried the fabulous Barbie lunchbox you see top left. It was made out of shiny black plastic, but it had the same design as the one here. I spent many lunchtime hours looking at every detail of Barbie's dresses and imagined my own Barbie waiting for me at home in her little plastic casket--er--carrying case. I hauled my lunch in that box until it was fairly ragged. By then, I was ready for something know... hip and groovy.

So my mom bought me a Monkees lunchbox (as well as one for the middle sister who was only a year behind me in school). I had a serious jones for the Monkees. I watched their show every week. I cut their images out of the back panels of cereal boxes. I listened to their music. I wrote about them in my diary.

The next (and last) lunchbox I carried, before permanently graduating to the brown paper bag, was a plain one in a color I can only describe as "ballet pink". By then I was growing weary of the limitations of the lunch inside a box.

But it's the Monkee's lunchbox I've thought about the most over the years. It made me happy to open it so that the lid folded down like a little airline tray so that I could set out my lunch in an orderly fashion while the back stood up like a tiny cupboard in front of me. Up and down the cafeteria tables you could see everyone else who brought their lunch eating in a similar fashion. Lunchboxes bearing the images of Deputy Dawg, Mickey Mouse and Cinderella. Kids ate from kits that advertised Army men or television shows like Rat Patrol, Combat, Time Tunnel, Batman, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Flipper.

The lunch itself was, however, the most important part. My mother knew the limits of my palate and packed only the things I liked...which must have caused her endless frustration. I literally would have eaten the same thing every day had I not eventually learned to like something other than lunchmeat or jelly.

My comfort food lunch was: a bologna sandwich on white bread with mustard. Fritos. Homemade chocolate chip cookies (or Oreos) and a thermos of Nestle's Strawberry Quick. Sure, I would accept egg salad or ham and cheese. Occasionally, Lays were substituted for the Fritos, though we were a dedicated Frito family and I proudly sported a yellow Frito Bandito eraser on my school pencil for longer than I care to disclose, even though his erasing skills were somewhat questionable.

Blindfold an adult and give him/her a test of smell recognition and First Place would most likely go to an elementary school cafeteria. Five years, 20 years, 40 years down the road...they always smell the same. The smell from the inside of a kid's plastic lunchbox, however, takes a very close second. You can scrub out the inside with soap and water, air it out in the sun and buy your lunch for a week to give it a rest, but the inside of a kid's lunchbox will still smell like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, if that's what's been inside it more often than not.

Back in the day, it wasn't unusual to have one's thermos undergo a system malfunction and the contents within spill all over the inside of your lunch --thus creating a dairy-based funk that was difficult to get rid of. It lingered for weeks. Those were sad days, and the only thing worse than no milk at lunch was when you unwittingly dropped your lunchbox while getting out of the car. This caused the fragile silver/glass lining of the thermos to shatter on command. Unscrewing the lid of the thermos and witnessing the silvery shards of liner pouring into the cup was like having a disco ball throw up in your Strawberry Quick. In short, a tragedy of humanity.

Which leads me to the point of my post. How did you carry your lunch to school? And when the bell rang to go to the cafeteria, what was inside that made your heart soar?


Blogger Ditsy Chick said...

Picky is as picky does and I was the pickiest eater and my mother worked, so I rarely packed a lunch. However, I loved lunch boxes and made her buy me one anyway. I totally don't remember what I bought, probably Care Bears.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post! I had a SheRa lunchbox and my favorite lunctime treat was string cheese, lol.


11:14 PM  
Blogger jess said...

I started out with, believe it or not, a lunch basket. My school leaned heavily on Steiner/Waldorf principles. Peanut butter and honey was my staple. Later, at more boring schools, I had one of those insulated squashy lunchboxes and moved on to lunchmeat and tuna.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I, too, had the Monkees lunchbox. My favorite lunch was a peanut butter sandwich with a thermos of Lipton Chicken Noodle soup. Dip the corner of the sandwich in the soup -- delicious! I like to think it was the kiddie version of Tom Yum Gai.

3:19 AM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

I had a metal (and still have it!!) Holly Hobbie lunch box. I carried it whilst wearing my Gunnie Sax dresses. In it? Campbell's Chicken Noodle in the thermos and ham and cheese or peanut butter NO jelly.

3:39 AM  
Blogger The Gradual Gardener said...

My sister and I actually went home for lunch every day. I believe we were the only kids in the whole school who did this. It was about seven blocks, and we'd walk by ourselves the whole way home & back again.

I hear you on the Monkees. When they had their 50th anniversay tour, I went to see them twice!

4:56 AM  
Anonymous kerribear said...

I had a bright yellow Snoopy lunch kit with matching yellow-bottomed thermos that I carried at least through grade 3, and my mom made the most fantastic fact later in my school career, I had friends based entirely on my mother's lunch-making ability and what scraps I might throw their way. However in my early years, my lunch sandwich of choice was peanut butter and banana. I haven't had one of those in years!

By the way, I really enjoy your writing. Keep it up!

6:08 AM  
Blogger Arabella said...

Aaah, the lunch box. I was a child of the 80's; mine was yellow plastic and decorated with Cabbage Patch Kids. The best treat I ever got in the lunch box was leftover pignoli cookies (food was of central importance to my Italian family). I remember breaking off impossibly small pieces to give my friends a taste, and shunning their offers of trading good stuff, like Chips Ahoy or Hershey's Kisses, for one whole cookie. My response was something like, "Do you know how long my grandmother had to wait in line for these cookies?"

7:20 AM  
Blogger Tink said...

I had to buy my lunches, so I don't have any fond memories of boxes or pails. BUT my dad used to pack me a brown paper sack lunch when I went to the YMCA for day care. I couldn't have been more than 7. I remember I always had the best stuff: cheese and crackers, hostess cakes and lunchables. There was always enough to share because my Dad packed the amount HE would eat and not me. The teachers yelled at him to pack me healthier snacks. But he always replied, "That's what the kid wants. That's what she gets."

8:09 AM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

Anne Lamot would be proud. She always says to write about lunch when you were a kid.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I desperately WANTED a lunchbox but was stuck with a brown paper bag until I was 11 and got a Peanuts lunchbox. EVERYDAY my mom sent a pbj sandwich with an apple dropped onto of it (creating a big jelly bruise on the soft sandwich bread). No chips ever. Ring Dings, Hostess Cupcakes, Drakes Coffeecakes and Suzy Qs were rare and coveted treats, as was any kind of cold cut sandwich. My mom packed six lunches a day in assmbly line fashion. None were tailored to our individual tastes. We all got the kind of jelly my dad liked: strawberry. I wanted grape....She wasn't a creative lunch make and she was forever on a budget.

8:18 AM  
Blogger mE said...

I walked home for lunch when I was little, although I *did* have the same Barbie lunchbox as you and I think I used it at school a couple times. By the time we moved to the suburbs and I bussed to school, I was in 4th grade and too old for a Barbie lunchbox (in my opinion) and had to make do with paper bags. Luckily, I *preferred* my sandwiches squashed...

In the paper bag there was always a white-bread sandwich: either peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and banana, or bologna and Miracle Whip.

Invariably there was either an apple or a banana - luckily I liked my bananas green, as by the time they got to the lunchroom the ripe ones were invariably squashed and slimy. Occasionally there was an Oreo or Chips Ahoy cookie. On the very rare day there was the special treat of a small baggie sparsely populated by a small band of desperate Fritos.

At first my sister and I were given a small Thermos of milk, but after both broke my folks decided it was more economical to get us the tickets for the little milk cartons at the cafeteria. In high school we got the choice of white or chocolate, but in grade and middle school white was the only available choice.

I was really happy when I got to high school and was able to work and pay for the cafeteria lunches. My mom was an excellent cook, but lavished all her care on dinner and we never ate 'Junk Food' at home (thus the rarity of those Fritos - and I think I was the only kid in my school who had never been to McDonalds), so those cafeteria lunches were the closest I got until I was 18 and on my own. The greasy ordinary food of the high school cafeteria seemed quite exotic to me!

Thanks for reminding me of those patent-leather mary janes... it reminded me of my favorite outfit at that time. My grandmother once gave me a red plaid taffeta dress, with a stiff full skirt - I wore it with black patent-leather mary janes, white socks, and a white rabbit fur muff and matching earmuffs. I loved that outfit more than life itself, and felt as glamorous as I've ever felt before or since.


8:21 AM  
Blogger reading said...

You've just made me cry - love it! The lunch box I remember was an Addams Family metal box. And I can smell it right now, sitting at my desk. :)

Speaking of lunch room smells... Last week my sister-in-law took my four year old nephew to the elementary school in their neighborhood. After looking at kindergarten classrooms and seeing five-year-olds play with shaving cream (?!), they were on their way out when suddenly my nephew, who has a notoriously senstitive nose, suddenly put his hand over his mouth and mumbled "What is that smell?" As she hustled him out of the building, my sister-in-law realized what it was. Lunch.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Shrinking Violet said...

When I was 4 and 5 I desperately wanted to go to school with my older siblings. I wanted their lunch boxes. My aunt got me a smaller version of one of their boxes and my mom made my lunch every day. Then, when I got into school, they weren't carrying a lunch box so I really didn't care what I carried. Wonderful post.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

That was great - I love olfactory memories!

Mine was Popeye, and my mom would make 50 sandwiches and stick them in the freezer for us to pull out for our lunches each day. So I always had a soggy freezer-burned balogna sandwich. Every freakin' day. I would have Loved a hot lunch. Weiner wraps and taco salad. But no.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Rock said...

Screw the lunchbox (I had Rat Patrol) - I want to hear more about this lascivious white knee sox, black patent leather shoe school girl outfit. You had the tartan pleated dress right? Tell me you did....

10:33 AM  
Blogger The June Cleaver Diaries said...

Metal Holly Hobbie lunch box for me! In the thermos I had either peach Hi-C or Lipton Noodle soup. Eventually, the smelled one in the same. And some kind of sandwich--- tuna?? Not sure, but I know for a FACT it was on white bread.

And Oreos. Yum. I'm like a crack whore to this day with those.

10:51 AM  
Blogger mama_tulip said...

I had an orange plastic Garfield lunchbox with an orange thermos that had a white cup lid that tucked in the top of the lunchbox lid.

Then these thermal lunch tote bags came out with catchy phrases on them like, "Lunch Time!" and "Good Eats!" came out and we all ditched our bulky plastic boxes for something more...hip.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Al said...

I had a Holly Hobbie lunchbox and then graduated to Beetlejuice. Both were hand-me-downs with the leftover stink from my sister's peanut-butter-and-lettuce sandwiches. I always made my own lunch, so there were no surprises- pb on whole wheat (the j makes it too soggy), a granola bar, and a thermos of milk until in grade six a friend got hold of the thermos and some firecrackers. Silver shards in your Quik is scary? Imagine them exploding towards your head!

11:24 AM  
Blogger theyellowwallpaper said...

Boy, I feel denied. I never brought a lunch to school with me, always opting for cafeteria food. For some reason, this was also the habit of almost all the kids in my class (albeit, we were a small class)

By the time I hit High School, I did bring an unusual snack with me. A big chunk of pepperoni, which I knawed on during study hall. I kid you not.

11:59 AM  
Blogger CISSY said...

I loved lunch in the cafeteria, either packed or bought there. I always thought it tasted good until I actually developed taste buds in high school. One weird thing I remember, and does anyone else remember this -- they made the kids who brought their lunch sit at a different table at one school I attended.

12:21 PM  
Blogger mrspao said...

I had a Holly Hobby lunchbox!

1:26 PM  
Anonymous TB said...

Oh the memories. Right down to the last paragraph with the silvery shards in the milk. I love your writing Wordgirl.

I had a Bionic Woman metal lunchbox with a clasp and a thermos followed by a Strawberry Shortcake plastic box.

My favorite lunch was a Ham and mayonaise sandwich, , fruit roll up and a Little Debbie Star Crunch for dessert.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Brooke said...

Metal "Double Deckers" lunch box here with the requisite sour milk smell permeating throughout.

No, you've never heard of that particular show. No one has.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Dan said...


You are right about the smell of the cafeteria, soon as I read that, I remembered the smell of that food cooking. Weird...

4:06 PM  
Blogger Melanhead said...

Thanks for stirring the childhood memories within!

Nancy Drew was my first tin box, but then I moved on to one of those "tall" lunchboxes. It was a yellow Snoppy one like KerriBear's. Then in 5th grade it was cooler to carry around a disposable mauve-pinkish paper bag.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Plain Jane said...

Do you know I absolutely cannot remember what I had?! This is shameful! I must email my mother right away. I DO remember that I loved tomato soup in my thermos. :) But most often it was Kool-Aid.

"like having a disco ball throw up in your Strawberry Quick" BEST.LINE.EVER.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never did the lunchbox thing,'cause we always bought lunch (thirty five cents). Oh the memories--those wondrous Hairnetted Lunch Ladies made a really terrific chicken chow mein on rice that I distintly remember the aroma of. So good (unlike Chili Day where the chili was thrown out but the fantastic cinnamon roll was devoured). Those days came to an end, though, when The Divorce happened; then it was time to brown-bag it to Save Money. Like Mignon's mother, my sister would make up a ton of bagel sandwiches at a time and throw them in the freezer, but unlike Mignon's soggy freezer-burned balogna sandwiches, these were really, really good, and perfectly thawed by lunchtime. Ah, the memories!

11:22 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Okay, but do you remember K-Tel Music Express albums? My favorite song was "Run Joey Run" and "Chevy Van." I loved this album and the one that followed it with all my 11-year old heart. I think it had to be '76. God, not a lot of peeps remember it but I found it on Ebay and own it now! YAY.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Misfit Hausfrau said...

All I ever wanted was a Wonder Woman lunchbox. Never got it. Instead, I had this ridiculous soft sided lunch bag in the shape of a lion with whiskers. I have no idea where my mom got it, but it was horrific. And not even remotely cool.

I was pretty much asking to get my ass kicked.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Lisa Ann said...

Oh the memories your story has awakened. I had one of those metal rounded lunch boxes, no cartoon characters for me. I was strictly a tuna fish gal or maybe baloney. What I really remember is that my friend Margaret used to bring these delicious lunches, meatloaf sandwiches, eggplant parm etc. Plus, always a big slab of homemade cake. Ymmm.... I was SO jealous.

9:20 AM  

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