Brown-bagging it to school 1950s style

Picture this: a wrinkled brown paper bag with “Susan” written on one side and grease stains onIMG_20150914_161607735[1] the other side. For most of my elementary and junior high school years, 1957-1966, this was my lunch, and the contents were far different from what kids are eating at school now.

I got to thinking about this as I wondered how to cook the pork loin in my freezer. Should I ask a friend for advice or just consult Betty Crocker? If my mom were alive, I could call her, but she probably wouldn’t know. Growing up, we only ate fat-laden pork roasts, ham and bacon. Pork loin?

That led me to thinking about the slices of greasy pork in the sandwiches Mom packed in my lunch bag. Also in my brother’s lunch bag and our father’s steel lunch box. Sometimes it was leather roast beef that I had to rip with my teeth as the white bread around it dissolved under my fingers. And the meat loaf sandwiches, oh my gosh. And baloney we could bite into shapes, our teeth leaving scalloped designs, except where our baby teeth had fallen out. Slathered in Best Foods “real” mayonnaise. None of this low-fat business I’m eating these days.

Fridays were more challenging because we were not allowed to eat meat, and I didn’t like peanut better. Sometimes my sandwich held two slices of yellow cheese slathered with butter. More often, it was oily tuna mixed with ketchup, the grease leaking through the bag.

The sandwich wrapped in waxed paper wasn’t all. Mom tucked in potato chips—regular or barbecue were the only choices then, a few dried apricots, and dessert—homemade cookies or brownies, Ding-Dongs, Ho-Hos, Hostess Cupcakes, or Hershey Bars. Somewhere in there was also a paper napkin and a nickel to buy a carton of milk.

We never had backpacks in those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s. We carried everything in our arms, our lunch bags crackling against our clothes with every step of our saddle shoes.

Mike and I sat with our classmates at long fold-down metal tables in the Cypress School multipurpose room. We didn’t trade; we knew our lunches were the best. We looked forward all morning to eating what was in the bag. We could smell the food from the coat closet or our desks. We devoured our lunches elbow to elbow with our friends and their bag lunches, then wadded up napkins, wrappers and bags and tossed them basketball-style into the big steel trash cans. No recycling back then.

Like most schools, Cypress sold hot lunches. The kids who bought their lunches sat on the other side of the room. We tried it one year. The spaghetti tasted great, but more often, we were served cubes of mystery meat in transparent gravy over a stingy blob of mashed potatoes. No comparison to Mom’s food. Plus we didn’t want to spend half our lunch period waiting in line for old ladies in hair nets to slap that glop onto green plastic plates.

As you might guess, my brother and I were not skinny. Our mother, also not skinny, didn’t stress out about sugar, fat, gluten, lactose, or high fructose corn syrup. But we were healthy. We ate well, and we got lots of exercise, walking to school, playing games at recess and in P.E., always on the move after school on skates, bikes or running in our cheap tennis shoes. Unlike today’s kids glued to phones, tablets and computers, the only screens we paid attention to were the screen doors slamming behind us as we ran out to play.

School lunches have changed a lot. Now moms are posting pictures online of healthy box lunches full of fruits, grains and veggies, sometimes cut into hearts, stars or other designs. The sandwiches do not include big fat slabs of meat oozing grease. And where are the Ding-Dongs and potato chips? Alas, I don’t eat them anymore either.

I’m sure today’s lunches are healthier, but those pork or beef sandwiches, made with leftovers from our meat-and-potato dinners, sure tasted good. In fact, thinking about them is making me hungry.

As for the pork loin in my freezer, I’ll ask Betty Crocker. Unlike everything else, she hasn’t changed a bit.

How about your school lunches? What did you eat? Did you bring lunch from home or buy it? Or did you go without? Not every kid is as lucky as we were. Please share in the comments.

Author: Sue Fagalde Lick

writer/musician California native, Oregon resident Author of Freelancing for Newspapers, Shoes Full of Sand, Azorean Dreams, Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and Up Beaver Creek. Most recently, I have published two poetry chapbooks, Gravel Road Ahead and The Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic. I have published hundreds of articles, plus essays, fiction and poetry. I'm also pretty good at singing and playing guitar and piano.

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