All the parenting and food bloggers are writing about school lunches now that the first day either already happened or is around the corner. I feel compelled to share the experiences of an Italian kid packing a lunch for an American school. For starters, while other kids had those little brown bags that you buy in a package, my parents saved the huge brown bags in which you put your groceries for our lunches. No joke. Yes, I was the 6-year-old kid with salami and provolone on Italian bread instead of those PB&Js everyone else had in first grade. But that was just my antipasto. Then, I’d have a thermos with pasta or lasagne or meatballs. I often had some sort of treat, such as a zeppole. Once in a while, my mom, who is Italian by ancestry but born and raised in the States, would give us an American cookie. And we had snacks – a fruit, pretzels, carrot sticks, a granola bar. This was all happening back in the ’80s, when it was still socially acceptable to drink juice, so we had a juice box, too. (Capri Sun, sometimes – shhh, don’t tell anyone!)
There was so much food that we usually could trade for something else and still have plenty of our own meal. Since I was going to school in the melting pot that is Fort Lee, N.J., I had classmates who were Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Latin, etc. Often, I traded homemade pizza for seaweed or rice, matzah or challah bread. And no one ever thought I was weird for my salami or spaghetti. They were just grateful my parents made so much. Lunch actually enticed them to sign up for play dates at our house. Food made my brother, sister, and me pretty popular, in fact. When I went off to work and was still living at home, my parents often made those big brown bag lunches still. I can’t pack groceries without getting misty eyed over roasted red peppers and mozzarella sandwiches, linguine and pesto, and the notes my mom would write to me.
In fact, I was so inspired by these lunches that I used to pack them in more traditional brown bags for my adult, Italian guests, and my husband, who visited and took English courses in nearby New York. As I sent them off to school, I would hand them each their brown bag, which I would personalize with their names and little pictures or stickers. They got a kick out of having American lunches, so it was egg salad, PB&J, homemade macaroni and cheese, various soups and stews in a thermos, etc. Their favorite part of the meal was the carrot sticks because Italians aren’t much for eating raw carrots. It was all new to them. One of them still gives me raw carrots in a bouquet when I’m back in the Boot. Of course, I wrote them encouraging notes and stuffed them in between their goodies in the bag. No bento boxes or sandwiches in the shapes of snakes or anything. It was just good homemade food, usually with stuff from our own garden (because what Italian family doesn’t have one), packed with a whole lotta love. There’s really nothing sweeter.