During my early formative years in elementary, we lived right next door to my school, which meant I went home for lunch. I grew up in a quiet, english speaking suburb on the south shore of Montreal, Quebec. You could only stay at school for lunch if you lived farther away or had no one to go home to. On the rare occasion that my stay-at-home Mom wasn’t available, I remember bringing a brown bag lunch and a written note that I had to stay for the day. All the students would eat at tables in the basement library of our school. Mom always made sure I had the coolest sandwich and dessert for those days. I rarely traded my lunches away.
It was a treat!
Most days, I went home to hot lunches of Heinz Alpha-Gettis, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and crackers, or McCain’s frozen pizza. Some days it was simple (white) toast dipped in tea. I still have all of those little porcelain figurines from Red Rose Tea. On hot days, there would be cool plates of sliced up veggies, Laughing Cow cheese triangles and deli meat rollups. She fed me Ants on a Log – cream cheese spread into celery sticks and topped with raisins – even though I hated it. We later found out I was allergic to celery.
I watched the Flintstones religiously every noon, sitting on the floor at the coffee table in our living room. Mesmerized. I think I remember more Flintstones episodes than any other childhood show. It’s synonymous with lunch.
By the time I was off to high school in Grade 7, it was far enough away (9/10s of a mile) that I had to stay all day. I joined the key-latch kids at the lunch table. In those days, we didn’t have adorable plastic sandwich containers with Disney characters on the top lid. Your sandwich was in a baggie. And that meant that if you got an apple in your lunch, your sandwich would have a round indentation in the middle. I hated that. There is nothing worse than flattened, squished bread. In Grade 9 we had an absolutely WICKED food fight in high school. Since it was a large, regional catchall for Montreal’s English students, the cafeteria was huge. The food fight was EPIC and worthy of a place in the Top 10. I don’t recall the consequences, but it was worth it, I am sure! The entire cafeteria was bombed.
My Mother never let me be that kid … You know, the one who wouldn’t take anything but salami sandwiches to school every day. For thirteen years. (That was my kid). My Mom liked to vary it up. One day I would get a slice of ham and a square of processed cheese in between two lightly buttered slices of bread. Then the next day it would be cucumber and tomatoes, lightly dusted with salt and pepper. I don’t remember anyone complaining about my egg, tuna or salmon sandwiches mixed with Miracle Whip stuff, but I am sure they stank. Peanut butter and jam sammies were allowed inside schools back then. Kraft Smooth PB and Raspberry Jam, please and thank you.
How about potted meat and pickles? The sweet bread and butter pickles. I can’t really tell you what potted meat is, except that it is a tiny can of “meat” with the consistency of pate. Kinda weird. I would love to find some and offer it to my son today to see his reaction. I don’t think I’ve seen a can in 30 years. (Googled and it is still around! Ah nostalgia!)
My favourite sandwich was roasted chicken and apple sauce. I used to pray there would be left over chicken and apple sauce in the house at the same time. Tender slices of chicken made sweeter with apple sauce. Makes for a rather damp but otherwise great sandwich.
My Mom had a sweet tooth. Her motto was always “Eat dessert first!” so I always had goodies. Vachon Ah Caramel! Cakes in their individual plastic wrappers. Coffee Crisp chocolate bars. Slices of Sara Lee brownies (ohhhh they were so rich and gooey!) Homemade roasted pumpkin seeds (the envy of all my classmates!) and Pillsbury cookies. I loved Del Monte Fruit Cup … especially the cherries and pears. I remeber selling my Mom’s home made fudge at a bake sale and someone bought the crumbs left in the pan.
Never fond of pudding or Jell-O back then, I shied away from my Aunty’s Strawberry Jello Mold with sour cream. Yuck! Who was the genius who discovered that?! And I never really liked the cakes from my Easy-Bake oven.
We ate like a typical middle-class white family. White bread. White sugar. White rice. Homogenized Milk. Iceberg lettuce. Canned peas. Frozen fish sticks. Mom was a pretty decent cook, but processed foods were the “soup du jour” in the 70s. The only homemade soup I got was Mom’s Nova Scotia Clam Chowder. Pasta was spaghetti with Ragu thrown into the pot. I never knew I loved fresh asparagus until I tried it in my 20s. My parents both ate it canned. Seeing canned asparagus still evokes flashbacks of the slimy feel and smell.
Whenever my Dad travelled on business, my Mom took the easy route to dinner and slapped a TV dinner down in front of me. My favourite was the turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, mixed peas and carrots, and cranberry cobbler. The meat and potatoes were horrible but I gobbled them down, strangely relishing the tinny flavour which seeped into the food from the aluminium tray.
But oh … Christmas Turkey with Sage & Onion Stuffing still doesn’t taste as good as Mom’s. I have fond recollections of pot-lucks and BBQs in Vermont. Jiffy Pop popcorn popped over the campfire. When I see red & white gingham paper take-out boxes, I think of fried clams at the local fish shack. I could crack my own lobster from its shell by the age of three. Coke came in a glass bottle and contained real sugar. It was a toss-up between Swiss Chalet and St. Hubert Chicken.
The one thing my family and I would not eat was Hamburger Helper.
And there were sandwiches for dinner. Hot dogs in buns. Grilled cheese with Tomato soup. Westerns perfectly browned in an electric frying pan. Real Montreal Smoked Meat on rye with mustard and a dill pickle on the side.
Every other sandwich was stuffed between two slices of white POM bread. My Mom hated brown bread. She would complain bitterly when we visited my sister, who only ate a heavy whole wheat loaf. I grew up to be an artisan bread type. I love crusty breads and 12-grains with seeds. While the standard loaf in my home is 100% whole wheat, bags of plain white bread bring back nostalgic memories of the 70s.
But most of all … I miss my Mom and her homemade fudge.
P.S. This was written as a writing assignment from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You might see some weird shit on my blog as I try to cope with my bed-ridden broken leg. All I can do is read and write!
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