Let's do lunch

Editorial Notebook

May 08, 2004|By Jean E. Thompson

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, the lunch hour echoed with the sounds of the steel-sided lunchbox, now glorified as a collectible in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Encased there like artifacts or jewels are the barn-shaped working-class pail and the picture-stamped square school lunchboxes we remember.

Some of these are in "mint condition" -- never dented, never lost and recovered, never used as a booster seat or crudded up with crumbs and curdled milk. Some sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The longer we stare, the deeper we're lost in reverie, for the truly priceless lunchboxes are those enshrined in memories, not museum glass.

Today's vinyl bag and Lunchables generation simply wouldn't understand: Their soft-sided lunch whispers, announced by the beep of a microwave or the rip of a Velcro-style fastener. The top of a metal lunchbox, slammed with gusto, set adults' teeth on edge and satisfied a juvenile need for attention. Whaddja bring today? PB&J. Want half? (Wham!) The music and utility went out of a lunchbox when its top warped and hinges no longer lined up quite right.

We remember the drubbing we'd get for style faux pas; that probably still happens. Big baby still carrying Casper the Friendly Ghost? It was the worst in the lean times, when everyone knew you were carrying last year's rust-pocked box or a hand-me-down.

Mom said it's what's inside that counts. Of course: That's why we jockeyed for a seat on the lunch bench far from the kid with the daring palate: Today's special, liverwurst and cheese whip with ketchup on white bread. The coolest lunch contained the most junk: Ho Hos, potato chips, grape Kool-Aid, home-baked cookies.

We took pity on the unfortunate who'd left his box baking on the sidewalk in the sun, and the impetuous one who'd forgotten how easily the glass-lined Thermos shattered.

Almost always, the lunchboxes bore images of characters from TV shows, as they do now. But for many of us, the family TV was a black-and-white, so the lunchbox revealed what we didn't know: the color of a favorite actor's eyes or a cartoon dog's fur. The highlights of a kid's day were associated with those two boxes: the plugged-in one on which we watched Julia, or later, The Jetsons, The Monkees or Mission: Impossible, and the one that became our lunchtime prop. The sides and corners of the lunchbox bore the scars of its many stunt roles as a fake karate-chop board, footstool, bomb, bug-catcher, bully-basher, drum.

Only later, as world travelers, would we realize other cultures didn't share our lunchbox fantasies. They had their own.

In Bombay, bicycle-riding couriers called dabbawallah daily deliver thousands of hot lunches packed in color-coded tiffin -- aluminum canisters -- from the hands of mothers in the kitchen to family members across town in offices and schools. Rerouted at train stations, jostled on the street, Mom's curry and roti reliably reach their owners.

In Russia, schools and workplaces provide subsidized cafeterias, so most people don't pack lunch, the main meal of the day. But more than one Russian businessman has opened his executive leather briefcase at the end of a long meeting on the road to reveal it is stocked with garlicky sausages, a loaf of bread, a bottle or two of vodka.

The Japanese have a lunchbox, too, but it's an elegant wooden serving piece with multiple compartments, in which care is taken to display the meal of seafood and rice most attractively.

But those many years ago we were ignorant of the global lunch: We knew only the nuns' and parents' reprimands when we left evidence of waste -- for somewhere in the world, a starving child would give all for that uneaten hard-boiled egg. We learned to barter to avoid the guilt. Or to leave the lunchbox in the bottom of the locker until the contents grew moldy and the rust rings began to form.

Lunchboxes: vessels of memory.

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