I was “that” kid, the one who showed up to the school cafeteria with the dripping and stained lunch bag. Even growing up in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood, my lunches of meatball heros and chicken parmesan and sandwiches of mozzarella and roasted peppers were deemed a little strange as the rest of the kids either purchased the hot lunch or brought PB&J. I remember feeling on display for my garlicky “ethnic” food. One day, as I looked across at my friend who brought a beef tongue sandwich, we silently nodded to each other in solidarity and understanding. I understood, in my sophisticated second-grade brain, that my parents felt they were giving me the best lunches a kid could hope for and they certainly weren’t going to waste leftovers.   

To be truthful, I often requested those sandwiches, having temporary lunchroom amnesia, until I was picked on yet again for another monstrous sandwich filled with dripping tomato sauce. So to avoid lunchroom battles and answering the same questions over and over again, I sometimes threw my lunches away hoping a friend would share their bologna sandwich with me.

“What is that?”

“Why don’t you just buy lunch?”

“Why do you eat that?”

Questions like those can make you feel like there is a glaring light shining on you, that you’re different and don’t “fit in.”

I longed to eat chow mein, the rectangular pizzas, fried chicken and hamburgers with fries. I was jealous of how every food group had a perfect segment to hold it and I ached to drink from a container of ice-cold chocolate milk. So I begged. I begged everyday. I contested that it was “unfair” and “torturous” not to let me buy lunch. I think I wore my mom down or maybe it was a particularly busy week, but one morning I was given a dollar bill and told I could buy lunch.

I proudly strutted into my classroom and joined in on the lunch-buying ritual. When asked who was buying lunch, I raised my hand. I picked my entree. I was part of the classroom tally and felt like I belonged.

When we got to the lunchroom, I was put in the lunch line group. It was such a strange and dizzying feeling. We walked through a special door and grabbed a tray. Before I knew it, white rice was heaped on my plate covered with a nondescript, iridescent sauce of some kind and I was paying at the cashier. I walked to my table and sat tray-to-tray with other kids. No one was pointing at my lunch that day or asking any probing questions. I just settled in and joined the conversation.

As I went to dig into my chow mein, it was my turn to ask questions. What are those brown lumps?  Why is it so sticky? Is it always so soft and squishy? I did my best to hide my disappointment and thought that surely the cafeteria was having an off day. The next day was “picnic day” and I ordered a hamburger. I recall it was a weird shade of green-brown. It was rubbery. It didn’t taste right. I thought, “I just can’t give up on my crusade, my parents can’t win.” I tried one more time – pizza Friday. That was the day everyone ordered. Finally, success. Who knew that the prefabricated rectangular pizza could win me over? It had a sweetish tomato sauce that barely covered the squishy dough with a somewhat-crispy bottom. The shredded mozzarella wasn’t completely melted and one corner was not completely defrosted. I didn’t care. That pizza was the epitome. Hooray for school lunches.

Looking back, I realize there was no deep seeded reasoning behind my parents not allowing me to purchase lunch. They knew that I already had a taste for good food and that I was a “foodie” before “foodies” were a thing. The following week of school, I brought in my dripping lunch bag of whatever leftovers my mom had packed, enduring the intense questioning. What made it all surmountable was pizza Fridays, the day I always purchased lunch. So please don’t judge me when you see me in the frozen food aisle buying a box because it tastes perfect.

Lisa Sweet writes about food for the Leavenworth Times. Contact her at foodfreaklvtimes@gmail.com