Nothing heralds the end of summer more than kids heading back to school. Even if you don’t have children you can’t fail to notice a certain September smell in the air, a softer, more golden light in the mornings. And for parents this also indicates an abrupt about-face in terms of routines that have gradually ebbed away in the warm relaxed glow of the holidays. Regular bed and bath times will have to be re-established and unfortunately for many, a gruelling return to the daily ritual of packing lunches.
Of all tasks, I have always reserved a special kind of loathing for packing lunches even though I suspect that I have done it well over the years. For people like myself, the pizza day committee at school could name their price and I would still be happy to pay in order to obtain that special Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free feeling and an extra few minutes in bed.
Nowadays of course the packed lunch has been raised to new heights – entire books are devoted to the art of a portable lunch ranging from variety to vegan to the strictly economical. There’s even a bit of a Bento box movement afoot whereby tiny morsels are arranged in all manner of pleasing shapes: carrots become butterflies, cucumber wisps are folded concertina style and a wee spoonful of rice shines with a dab of sweet sauce. I often wonder, how many mummies sigh when these works of art return home untouched? Or perhaps I am alone in having had children who would rather trade with others in order to obtain that very special kind of cheese that can only be spread with a little red stick. Making lunches is certainly not for those who are easily discouraged.
My own history with school lunches has stayed with me all my life, having survived the fate of living through a pre-Jamie Oliver Britain and the colourful experiences supplied by the ladle toting “Dinner Ladies” on staff. These forbidding women — possibly trained by the Gestapo — would offer up a tall, quivering slice of bacon and egg pie whose fatty, undercooked bacon was the pink of a cat’s tongue. I also recall the especially dreaded Brussels sprouts, a previously green vegetable which had been boiled for so long it now resembled cat sick and was distributed onto our plates with the kind of deft wrist action usually reserved for the ketchup bottle. If we had been served ‘Turkey Twizzlers,’ Jamie, it would have been a very happy day indeed…
I’d like to report that on the last day of class, I cleaned out my children’s backpacks thoroughly, sluiced them with hot, soapy water and then line-dried them in the lavender-scented summer air so that they would be all ready in September. I’d like to report this – but unfortunately, it would be a vile untruth.
The reality is that many times I have unzipped those backpacks on Labour Day evening and encountered that sweet, sickly smell of decay sometimes associated with the Black Death. I’ve seen hard-as-golf-ball mandarin oranges and a sticky clutch of ugly, random teaspoons that may have recently been used at a prison facility where only strawberry yoghurt is served. In the side pocket – always a danger zone – a dark, ominous smear turns out to be thankfully nothing more than road-kill raisins. But there’s also a thin, brittle circle of what appears to be electric blue shag carpet. I still don’t know what this is and it haunts my dreams.
I recall once after a processed meat scare turning to my crockpot for reassurance. By night, I poached whole organic chickens so that I could fill soft Kaiser buns with cubes of tender, herb-scented meat, shaved celery and a thin drizzle of mayonnaise. Ever desperate for recognition, I asked my eldest how his lunches were. “Not bad,” he said thoughtfully. “But Robbie says he likes the ham way better.”
SUE SUTHERLAND WOOD is a freelance writer who lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.