A Lady Who Lunches
November 11, 2003

Oh, me. People, I am full of love today! I'm turning thirty in seven days, my delicious friends Ace and Sep are coming up to San Francisco for a Food-a-Thon and quite possibly a Bake-Off, I'm busy editing and testing recipes for an exciting but unborn food magazine, I will be reading one of my recaps at The Make Out Room for Writers with Drinks in January, and last week's Enterprise gave me hope that the franchise isn't dead. Yet.

Anyway, onto this week's Food Muse. Or do you prefer Foodmeration? Let's think about that one. Yesterday, I was considering whether to make triangles or rectangles out of my Coronation Chicken Salad sandwich with cucumber when crust-edged memories came back to me. There was a time when I was very specific about what shapes my sandwich should be cut, and it all hinged on the kind of sandwich. Being a little kid with little kid's hands, my mother always cut the sandwiches into four pieces. So it was either four squares or four isosceles triangles and, save for the following rule, the choice between a Four Square Sandwich and a Four Isosceles Triangle Sandwich really depended on my mood. Some days I felt that the Four Isosceles Triangle would taste better and other days nothing but a Four Square Sandwich would satisfy me.

Grilled cheese, my favorite sandwich to this day, was a Four Square Sandwich. It could never be a Four Isosceles Triangle sandwich because two sides of crust were needed as breakers to keep the insides from rushing out in a molten mass of Kraft singles. As I got older, my tastes became more enterprising, and I would request slices of onions, dill pickles, tomatoes, or bacon slipped inside. However, so as not to compromise the pure taste of formulated cheese, all these additions had to stand alone in the sandwich. I was as emphatic as a five-year-old could be about the precision of her favorite sandwich, and I just wouldn't stand for any crazy combinations. The one time I let myself be persuaded into combining pickles and onions resulted in my extreme disapproval. The double-stuffing didn't allow for the cheese to melt sufficiently! I think my abject adoration of this particular sandwich would disgust Shack to no end, but someday he may see the light.

Tuna -- not Tuna Salad, which implies such additions as celery, pickles, etc. -- was my next favorite sandwich. It was a sandwich that could be a Four Square Sandwich or a Four Isosceles Triangle Sandwich, depending on my caprice. What was most crucial about this sandwich was that my father had to be the one to prepare the tuna. As I've mentioned before, there were a very few things my father prepared -- french fries, french toast, eggnog with Vernor's -- and he did them all very well. The best thing he did was teach me how I could like tuna. He drained all water or oil from the tuna and let our cats lap it up from a dish on the floor. After dumping the two cans into an orange or blue plastic bowl, Dad would hack the tuna flakes to a fine paste. The key was not to use a fork, which would keep the tuna in largish chunks I'd gag over, it was to use a knife. See, the knife yielded a finer grain. Dad also knew how to add exactly the right amount of mayonnaise so neither the tuna nor the strangely jiggly egg and vinegar product dominated in taste.

For awhile I went through an egg salad phase. However, although I call it "egg salad" it still didn't have anything other than chopped hard cooked egg in it. This was a moody sandwich for me because I had to be in the right mood to want it. Some days I loved it. Other days I was repulsed by it. This was another lunch that toggled the Four Square Sandwich or Four Isosceles Triangle line.

The sandwich of my childhood that grosses my husband out the most is bologna. I discovered this weird aversion of his when I got a hankering, bought a pack of bologna and offered to make us both sandwiches. My bologna sandwich parameters are very simple: spread both sides of bread with yellow mustard -- has to be French's; Grey Poupon would start another bloody revolution if it touched Oscar Meyer -- lay down one slice of bologna. Cover with the other slice of bread. Eat.

I was also not a fan of adulterated peanut butter. I point-blank refused all jams, jellies, preserves, and honey, and it wasn't until later in life that I appreciated how the sweetness of the jam can beautifully offset the saltiness of the peanut butter. Spread those two things on toast and add two slices of crunchy bacon and a cup of Earl Grey, and you have my ideal breakfast. But the jam must be raspberry or strawberry (shun the apricot and grape!) with none of those wiggly chunks of fruit -- they set my teeth on edge. And I still maintain an embargo against honey.

Although my sandwich tastes obviously tended toward the minimalist side, there was a sandwich my mother made that gave me intense food envy. She called it the "Super Duper Sandwich." It was sort of a take on the Dagwood but on a slightly smaller scale. Even today, the exact contents of that sandwich are unknown. I tried in vain to make it myself but it never tasted as good as when my mother made it. It could fall under that adage that food always seems to taste better when someone other than yourself makes it -- something my father was wont to say when, left to fend for himself for weekend lunches, he stuck his nose over my mother's plate -- but I put it down to my mother's mysterious ingredients. I know it had lettuce, onions and pickles. It couldn't have had tomatoes, because I refused to eat those in sandwiches until Wagner's California Cheese Burger seduced me. It would have had some sort of sandwich meat and some sort of cheese, probably sharp cheddar. I once carefully made a sandwich comprising all those ingredients. It was a disappointment.

Now for sandwich sides, there was a variety. My favorite was to combine tuna with Fritos because I would use the little corn curls to dig the tuna out of the cut side of the sandwich. After that, I enjoyed opening my bologna or tuna sandwiches, carefully lining up the Fritos, and relishing the satisfying crunch that resulted. Apple slices went especially well with the grilled cheese but orange sections got weirdly dry if you didn't eat them at the beginning of the meal.

School lunches, because they were eaten hours after they were prepared, had to go a long way to be satisfying. In my grade school days, I went through a long line of lunchboxes. Of the soon-to-be-outlawed-as-potential-weapons metal variety, there was the black Star Wars one, the red Peanuts one, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, The Super Friends. I had a weird limp plastic one -- unlike all the other hard plastic ones -- that had Wonder Woman on it. Of the more traditional plastic lunch boxes we had Garfield and The Smurfs. If that seems like a lot of lunchboxes, consider that it was both my older sister and myself clamoring after my mother to buy us each a new one from Target every year along with all our new notebooks, pens, pencils and other such back-to-school school treasures. I swear, though, no matter how many times my mother cleaned them, those thermoses had the smell of old milk. Not necessarily rotten milk, just old milk.

Inevitably, I outgrew the lunchbox scene, which has now come back to be part of the new corporate hipster movement. I'm pretty sure I tired lunchboxes at the exact same time my older sister did -- she was three years older and I was always trying to catch up. We went from carting lunchboxes with their own thermos to brown bags and juice boxes. We begged in vain for Capri Suns, and my mother gave in exactly twice. I'm not sure what she objected to, the complete lack of any real fruit juice or how flashy their silver packages were. Maybe they just weren't respectable. To be honest, though, the few times we were allowed the trollopy Capri Suns we didn't have that much success with them. You always had to put juice drinks in the freezer the night before so the drink would be a temperature other than blood warm at lunch. Capri Suns didn't thaw fast enough so you were left turning your mouth inside out as you tried to suck liquid refreshment out of what ended up being a packaged snow cone. Sort of frustrating when you need relief from all the bread and peanut butter sticking up your mouth. The other problem Capri Suns presented was how impossible it was to joust that damn trimmed-on-the-bias straw into what was pretty much just a fancy, slick envelope. There was supposed to be a teeny-tiny-microscopic "soft spot" that was easier to pierce than the rest. The problem was getting your aim precise when you were winding up a thrust with sufficient power to breach the thing. And woe were the over-zealous ones who murdered their Capri Suns with multiple stab wounds! The fruit punch poured like blood all over the cafeteria table. Mom ended up sticking to traditional juice boxes, mainly Minute Maid and frequently Five Alive. However, after taking them out of the freezer, the boxes had to be wrapped in a plastic sandwich baggie so that as they thawed throughout the day, they wouldn't soak the bottom of the bag, resulting in a full Lunch Launch.

When my mother made our lunches, she knew this. She also knew that a complete and satisfying lunch meant: a juice box; fruit of some kind -- cut up (or sectioned) and secured in a baggie; a sandwich, also baggied; a mini bag of crunchy stuff -- Doritos being most preferable, Fritos respectable, and potato chips fairly objectionable; and finally, a few cookies or some pre-packedged item from the dessert cart. There were a few times that my mother was unable -- for one reason or another -- to make our lunches. This is where Dad took over. Dad's lunches had a personality all their own. They were spare and no-nonsense. He usually forgot the baggie for the juice box but that was okay as he also had forgotten to put the juice box in the freezer. Then there was the piece of fruit -- whole and not bagged -- and the sandwich, uncut. Dad also didn't necessarily consider the delicate balance of juice box, fruit, sandwich, cookie, chips and we often got our sandwiches with the added bonus of a big fruit dent or juice box crease in the middle of it.

As I got older, I started making my own lunches and I tried hard to skip the fruit part but often substituted baby carrots. Juice boxes turned into pop (yes, "pop", I am from Minnesota!) from the hallway machines and sandwiches fell completely by the wayside. I went through a Lunchables phase but that didn't last very long with their rubbery cheeses and oddly moist meats that looked as though they had been cookie cuttered into shape. It was at this time that I did invent my famous "Onion Cheese," though. Like all great discoveries, it came to me quite by mistake. I had sliced up some purple onions for something and then, without cleaning the knife, immediately cut some pieces of cheddar. The next day, there was a faint but unmistakable sent of onion on my cheese pieces, and I could not work out how that happened. When it finally hit me, I went out of my way to duplicate the phenomenon. With no intention of using the pieces, I'd carelessly hack up an onion just to transfer the oils from the knife to the cheese. It became such a hit at the sixth grade lunch table that some of my friends started copying me. The Swan even tried to one-up me by adding chunks of onion to her baggie of cheese. Between you and me? It was overkill. Only the hint of onion was needed to make Onion Cheese, otherwise, you were just eating onions. And cheese. ANYONE can do that!

Man, my lunches are so boring now.

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