Bag Lunch

 

My mother is one of those women who sort of forgets to eat. I, on the other hand, would be more likely to forget to put pants on before leaving the house. In all the school years that I lived with my mother, she packed me a lunch exactly once. I really have to stress here, in my mothers defense, that I would not have been appreciative or deserving of bag lunches, no matter how carefully prepared. By the time I was in the tenth grade I had developed a mid day addiction to anything salty and lived almost solely on small bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, bought with the dollar in change that I swiped from my mothers tiny purse as I bounded down the stairs to catch the bus (which I mostly missed) on the way out the front door. This was both my breakfast and lunch system, designed to allow as much time as possible for the all consuming task of blow-drying my hair into an enormous mass and cementing its shape with a sticky cloud of Aqua Net. I used so much hairspray in high school that my chemistry teacher, Mr. Jones, put my name on a list of flammable solutions that hung on the science room wall and instructed my lab partners to never ever allow me to approach the bunson burners. Actually, I don't think I was even allowed to hold that little metal sparky thing that was used to light them. This was a brief and awkward phase, brought on by having lived during my junior high years in Santa Cruz, California, (which at that time was neck deep in the Valley Girl phenomenon and a sea of opalescent lip gloss and eye make-up) before returning to rural Vermont. Eventually, I readjusted to the frozen north and was dressing for survival by the time I went to college. Unfortunately, it was not soon enough to spare me from the Facts of Life themed pastel horror that is my senior picture. 

Anyway, you can imagine my surprise on the one day that my mother made me lunch. It was a single piece of pale leftover barbequed chicken wrapped in an emptied plastic bread bag, and she drove forty miles to deliver it. It wasn't, after all, something I would have left the house with by choice. She dropped it off with the school secretary, Mrs Leonard, who announced over the loudspeaker during my applied geometry class that I should come down to the office because there was something waiting for me. She did not even try to disguise her disgusted joy as she handed it to me with two fingers. I should mention that neither I or my mother were strangers to the school office, and that Mrs Leonard and I actually liked each other very much, even though we both did some pretty awful things to each other, and exchanged  evil little moments like this one regularly. If there was a reason or a logical explanation for this sudden fit of maternal care on the part of my mother, I don't remember what it was. I do remember walking away from that office and from a snickering Mrs Leonard clutching my naked little piece of chicken (I feigned glee, as though they had obviously misunderstood that it were somehow a special piece of chicken, but none of us were fooled) with the acute awareness that A) my unusual mother and our unusual way of life held the compensatory promise of an unusual future that my classmates could not even imagine, and B) I had to carry that freakin piece of slimy chicken all the way to the end of the hall before I would be able to throw it away without Mrs leonard seeing me do it.

Now, if you are thinking "Wow, that must have been your most embarrassing moment ever", you are wrong. That distinction, barring anything else that I may have blocked out completely, belongs to the time that my mother picked me up for a doctors appointment in the middle of a snowy day in front of the school and in plain sight, through every classroom window, of the entire student body of Enosburg Falls High School. Our car, at the time, was a rusty Datsun with a random starting problem that, according to the mechanic called Bucket Bob who we bought it from, was best remedied by crawling or sliding underneath the car, lying flat on your back, and using the end of a 9 inch steel wrench to connect (via conducting metal) two bolts that were somewhere on the cars undercarriage. Somehow, this caused the ignition to ignite and the engine to turn over. 

To make sliding under her car easier, my mother kept a bright red plastic sled in the backseat. It actually worked very well and by mid-winter she was sliding in and out from under the car with the efficiency and grace of a mechanic from a Midas commercial. I must give credit where it is due, however, and tell you that the sled was Bucket Bobs idea. He pointed out that cold weather would likely exacerbate the starting problem, so the sled was a foolproof solution. “nine times outa ten, theres gonna be snow on the ground, so get yourself a sled!” I remember he said this with a tone of “of course.” and “why didn’t you think of that on your own?” I don't know why this was so acceptable to us, exactly. I think a new starter would probably have been another, better, solution, but since I was the one who had caused my mothers other, better car to be wrecked, which is how we ended up at Bucket Bob's shop with only $650 to buy another one, I kept my mouth shut. The bright red plastic sled cost us $11.99 at the Ace Hardware store. We paid for it with a pile of change that included no less than thirty pennies, all counted out with mittened hands.

Every time we got into that car I would pray that it would start without incident, and almost every time it did. But not that time. I sat there in the passenger seat, with my giant bangs smashed between my forehead and the Datsuns drooping ceiling, staring straight ahead through the filthy winter windshield and feeling hundreds of eyes on us. I can imagine how it must have looked from the classrooms above. Our little rusty car sitting in the school bus bay surrounded by dirty snowbanks, my mothers work boot clad feet poking out from underneath the front end. I heard later that a ninth grader sitting in math class had looked out the window and screamed, thinking that I had run her over (I don't know how I could have managed that, since I was obviously sitting in the passenger seat, but it did get me a respectful nod or two as I passed through the seniors smoking section on my way to 1st period the next morning) and unfortunately drawing a crowd at the window just in time to see my mother shoot out from underneath the car on her little red sled, pick herself up, toss the sled into the back seat, and drive away. 

Anyway, I digress. While I like to think of myself as a very good cook (my diet is largely organic and local now, I haven’t had a sour cream and onion potato chip for a very long time), lunch has never really been my thing. In fact, its sort of amazing that I was able to get organized enough to develop a crippling addiction to coffee, considering my general lack of daytime meal planning. Thankfully, I work at home, making lunch an easy routine of reheating leftovers or putting butter on something. TC, on the other hand, goes to work every day in one of those massive office buildings on Park Avenue. If during his lunch hour he was so inclined to, say, buy a new tuxedo, tennis racquet, or Maserati, he is in a very convenient neighborhood. Likewise, if he would prefer to stand in line with four hundred other nervous financial industry employees for an eleven dollar take-away salad that may or may not be the one he actually ordered and then fight off an exceptionally competitively minded crowd for a sticky table already populated by strangers who are all trying to convince their bosses that they are still at their desks via their blackberries... well, you get the idea. He actually tells me that none of these things is the worst part. The worst part is walking past the Maserati dealership on the way back to the office.

So, traumatic history be damned, I decided to try packing bag lunches for TC. As with most things, I initially went completely overboard. For the first two weeks, I baked fresh bread. Heres what you should never have at home if thats where you work: freshly baked bread. After eating an entire loaf while it was still warm minus the two slices I used for TC's sandwiches in one afternoon, I decided to start buying it from the bakery down the street. All told, I experimented with maybe ten different sandwiches and five versions of my already quite good soft peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (whole grain flour, raw cane sugar, and protein rich peanuts make this the best possible afternoon sugar fix) and took copious notes during the process. I am happy to report that I have it down to a rather simple and affordable science: One shopping list, four unique and delicious sandwiches, and some pretty amazing cookies. I got things moving so quickly by the last week of the month, I even had time to illustrate the lunch bags. And, even though I spend way too much money on groceries in general, we balanced the books last night and found that we had saved about $200. And just in case anyone wants to give it a shot, I packed it up for you here. I am only sorry that I cannot deliver it by hand to your secretary.

click here to download all four sandwich recipes plus the cookie recipe

click here to download or print a shopping list (for everything, even the cookies!)

click here if you just want the cookie recipe. I don't mind. In fact, if you make just one of the things from this post, it should be the cookies.

Oh, and if you are looking for some really great cooking blogs, here are my three favorites: my dear friend Domenica, Smitten Kitchen (some great sandwich and budget meal ideas), and Delicious Days.