When I was about 8, we came stateside from Germany. Up until that point, I attended school in the basement of WWII barracks buildings at Wiesbaden. I walked to and from school and walked home for lunch, with my mom. By the age of four, I was proficient using chopsticks and while I don’t remember specific dishes we ate, but I can assume that my comfort with traditional Japanese foods now can be attributed to the normalcy of it in my diet at that age.
So my life as a third grader in the United States meant adjusting to a much larger school of multiple grades, big playground spaces and eating lunch at school, away from my mom. This school was a typical suburban elementary school with a library and a cafeteria. Lunch was served on thick plastic trays with stainless utensils and boxes of milk. I didn’t like milk, but I really wanted the little carton that fit in it’s own little section of the tray. I remember the first lunch I saw, me with my little plastic box and a thermos and all those trays full of something warm. The tray gave you access to a condiment table. If you brought your lunch, you didn’t get to walk by that table, you got seated immediately near the door, with the other “bringers”.
There were a few things growing up with a first generation immigrant mom that required some convincing to change. Lunch, denim jeans, tennis (running) shoes, bologna. Mom didn’t understand my argument about lunch, but I was determined to eat off a tray and I had my eye on the “forgot lunch money” offerings. It was a half sandwich of perfectly spread peanut butter on white bread, cut into a big triangle and a little box of milk. So, if I accidently, oopsy, uhm…forgot my lunch…..I could get that sandwich and little box. And if I brought a nickel (there was an endless supply of nickels when my dad came home and emptied his pockets…he put his change in a bank shaped like a mailbox) , I could upgrade to the half sandwich with yellow cheese. The cheese was always perfectly square to the bread. I loved the square perfectness of it all.
I “forgot” my lunch. A lot.
After a while, I managed to get mom to buy me a card and everytime I used the card the lunch lady at the door would punch out one of the corners. Buying a tray of food meant I discovered foods like chili, spinach (the popeye sort), canned beets (omg that’s another story for another day) and little mounds of dressing (stuffing?) with turkey and mashed potatoes. My first tray was chili. The oblong section of the tray was full of hot chili with beans. One of the squares had spinach and the other beets. And the little box of milk. I think the lunch lady realized this was new territory for me, because why else would she direct me to the condiment table? I poured a cruet of something brown all over my tray. Maybe I thought it was shoyu. It was apple cider vinegar. To this day, I have to have ACV on my chili.
I made bento box lunches for my kids with as much enthusiasm and dedication as I remembered my mom doing. My kids were different, though. They were so proud to tell me they were trading their home crafted food goods for hot dogs and chocolate milk. They learned to barter. That’s OK, too.