Today's lunch on the go can't compare with '50s ritual

March 29, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

AS AN unrepentant lunch-time snoop, I often survey what my office friends microwave, unwrap and enjoy at their desks. For some reason, the stuff people buy in the cafeteria line never interests me. My rule of lunch is, the more unusual, the better. It was the way I was raised.

As I mentioned recently, the call to my childhood lunch table was simple: "Tea's made!" Those words were spoken by my grandmother, Lily Rose, or her sister, great-aunt Cora. The steaming teapot (the tea had to come from packed loose from the A&P, a chain they endorsed) was the centerpiece of the meal but hardly its most sustaining component.

For a 1950s child, constantly subjected to television's Wonder Bread ads, the lunch hour was an exercise in food exotica and whimsical personal preference.

Lunch was a light meal built around the food whims and desires of those at the table. Except for the children in the household, who were served conventionally, the menu was determined by the eaters. They each maintained a private stash of lunch foods divided between the ice box and pantry. They wrapped these special items with a variety of identifying rubber bands, cords and papers; woe unto anyone who mistakenly, or otherwise, poached the luncheon spread.

As I recall, my grandmother's lunch involved Saltine crackers, which she dipped in her tea. She might also have a little cheese and pick at the previous night's dinner. Her dessert was a swig of Pepsi Cola, often right out of the bottle, no glass necessary.

Aunt Cora strongly endorsed the health benefits of cottage cheese, which she sometimes laced with pineapple preserve, also the A&P house brand. She also liked green olives stuffed with pimentos.

On special occasions, the ladies made date-and-nut bread, heavy on the cream cheese. In this case, there was a consensus, and all shared the same entree.

My mother, nurtured in these eccentric luncheon habits, did them one better. She often made food endorsements at the table. (She also detested hot tea and enjoyed announcing her aversion to it.)

She also praised and consumed certain Baltimore-made products. She had her own treasure - Jordan Stabler & Co. mayonnaise and salty ham spread. If in a good mood, she would share. She was picky about bread and liked the good stuff.

My grandfather, Edward Jacques "Pop" Monaghan, wisely avoided the lunch hour and, though retired, frequently found some pressing business downtown, where he could dine at Horn and Horn on East Baltimore Street. This was allowed, even endorsed, provided he brought home a couple of pints of the firm's homemade coffee and vanilla-flavored ice cream.

There were times when he arrived at lunch time, and when Pop sat down, watch out. He too had his noontime food mania. And it was Limberger cheese.

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