- For a child whose school lunches told her history, the ones I pack for my kids do not offer any glimpse into our lives.
The pandemic has turned our lives upside down. It is strange what we miss from our past. Many people miss family, friends, travel, concerts, and parties. I miss some of those. I also miss packing school lunches.
I packed routine lunches with no sparkle of creativity. Peanut butter sandwiches with honey and banana slices could be what astronauts eat on a space shuttle, but it found its way into my kids’ lunches weekly. I made these sandwiches with plain store-bought bread. I suffered from a fear of yeast before the pandemic. A strange dread for one who had no trouble with fermenting idlis or making yogurt.
The pandemic helped me overcome this fear. Like countless others, I have been baking all kinds of bread and pizza. But before, I packed unimaginative lunches. Grilled cheese sandwich, quesadilla, leftover pasta, none voiced my Indian upbringing. Even the rare rice dish I packed was plain and bland.
While growing up in India, school lunches were smelly affairs. In the tropical heat, the scent from the aromatic spices assaulted our noses and caused our stomachs to groan before the lunch hour.
My working mother packed rice for my lunch. I carried it in a woven basket with a handle. The basket held a two-tier stainless steel container (dabba), a cloth napkin, and eating utensils. The larger box held rice with sambar, and the smaller one on top contained a sautéed vegetable. Some days, it was rice mixed with kootu (vegetables with lentils) or dal. Yogurt rice played a weekly role. Everything about the vegetarian fare I brought to lunch as a child offered a glimpse into my culture, religion, and heritage.
Our classrooms had wide-open windows to let some air in. A ceiling fan circulated the hot air around as we sat on long benches. A few matrons performed rounds during the lunch hour to make sure we did not waste any food or get into fights.
We would open our lunchboxes and spread the cloth napkins on our laps. Then the buzz of conversation took over. Most days, I would have preferred to read while eating, but I attempted to converse with my classmates. Popular and quiet kids and everyone in between existed in schools back in those days, just like they do now.
A peek into my classmates’ lunch boxes and what they ate told one about their home lives. Rotis, parathas, biryani all told a story without uttering a word.
In middle school, a girl from Delhi who had recently moved to Madras told me how much she loved idlis. She wanted to trade her rotis for my idlis. I would have gladly accepted the trade, but we ate idlis for breakfast, not for lunch. I told her so in all my preteen superiority, not knowing I would be making them for dinner two decades later.
For a child whose school lunches told her history, the ones I have packed my kids did not offer any glimpse into our lives. Maybe I have already missed the boat here with my oldest in college and my youngest in high school. When schools reopen, I want to pack something different for lunch. How do cilantro and tomato chutney sandwiches sound? Or lemon rice? Most likely, my sudden desire would cause my teenager to pack her own lunch. A win either way.
Anna lives in California with her husband and two daughters. She works in technology and thrives in leading a global team to solve real problems. She likes to escape reality by writing historical fiction loosely based on medieval India. You can find her debut novel “Heir to Malla” at annabushi.com