When I trace my interest in food, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it all started. As I’ve mentioned before, my love affair specifically with organic, natural, locally-grown products began in my early 20s.
But truthfully, if I were to dig a little deeper, my deep and complicated relationship with food started earlier.
I had quite a few food influences when I was growing up. My stepfather is Hungarian and his family lived in Switzerland and France before finally settling in the US. He knows his way around a plate of food like no other, jumping at the chance to order tripe and sweetbreads when we dine out. When I was 16, he taught me to appreciate a real French baguette, and wouldn’t let me travel to Paris on a family vacation until I learned to eat Brie cheese with the rind.
Like me, my mother was – and is to this day – an avid cookbook collector. I grew up watching her pull thick volumes off the shelves to whip up a batch of pancakes or find inspiration for a new stir fry.
Food traditions run deep.
But I think that my relationship with food goes back even earlier. My gut (no pun intended) tells me that it was in Elementary school when I was finally introduced to that shareable, swappable, social pecking order-inducing meal of all meals: school lunch.
I attended a French immersion school from Preschool to 7th Grade, and by all accounts, it was a formative experience. On the one hand, it was great to be able to learn a second language. But on the other hand, I struggled in this bilingual atmosphere.
At sports meets, while the other girls’ schools had funky, choreographed Bring It On-worthy routines, our skinny and awkward team would follow halfheartedly with our own chant “Ques-que-c’est que ci! Ques-que-c’est que ca! TFS, TFS, ra, ra ra!”
The mortification didn’t end there. Even after I transferred to an all-girls English school, I was haunted by my former education.
Girls snickered when I’d raise my hand and confidently answer that the area of a circle is Pee-R-squared. In chemistry, I was clueless about the English words for the equipment, embarrassed to ask my classmates where I could find “un becher” (a beaker) or le Bec Bunsen (self explanatory).
BUT, what I do take from that French episode was a healthy respect for a proper school lunch. Because a school body full of real, authentic French and Belgian kids, was parented by a slew of very real, very authentic French and Belgian mothers.
Every day those kids would bring to school sweet lunch bags filled with sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper, little chocolates in shiny foil. I felt resentment, jealousy, betrayal? I, too, wanted those French lunches. The delicate sandwiches. And of course, the CHOCOLATE.
It was with those lunches in mind that I set about packing Lauren’s first school lunch last year. I tried to imitate the casual-chic look of those long ago meals, the sandwiches pressed together with a little meat and a little cheese, the diced fruit, the goodies.
“How was your lunch today sweetie?” I asked when I met her at the gate after her first day. No questions about her teacher, her friends. Those could wait. I had to hear the reaction to lunch first.
“Mom, Mrs. B said we can’t bring candy to school.”
And that was it. The nail in the coffin on my school lunch memories.
Goodbye French lunches, I won’t be needing you anymore. My kids now get an NYC public school-provided lunch. They’re healthy, they’re easy, and you know what? My kids like them just fine.