We would all line up in single file outside of a zinc roof shanty on the property of our private school. We would kick dirt at each other, wrestle and laugh as the line moved closer. The sweet smell of corn empanadas bubbling in oil was intoxicating. At the end of the line I would hand the lunch lady $10 bolivares and choose between beef empanadas, cheese empanadas or arepas (fried corn cakes - a Venezuelan staple) with fried plantains, and black beans. On Fridays we got creole chicken stew on white rice and you could wash it down with an ice-cold “Chicha” (think of a rice pudding milkshake). We all sat along a white parapet underneath bamboo and banana trees, swinging our feet playfully while we enjoyed our lunch in the warm sun. Those who did not buy their lunch enjoyed gourmet boxed lunches prepared by their moms or housekeepers. Hot thermos stuffed with seafood paella, potato gnocchi, lasagna, shredded beef in tomato caper sauce and beef tongue in wild mushroom sauce with parsley, garlic and mashed potato were not unusual. Most of my school mates were of European descent — as are many Venezuelans — and most had housekeepers or moms who were very good cooks. Our schoolyard lunch hour could rival any modern day fine food show. We were very happy kids, we were all friends, we all played together and we instituted a very intricate food swapping system to add further spice to our already-eclectic selection of lunch items.
My family moved to Toronto when I was 8 years old. My first week in the 3rd grade was rough to say the least. I didn’t speak English. The other kids did not speak Spanish. I sat by myself in a lunch room and did my best to be invisible. The kids eyed me suspiciously from a distance. There was no sunshine. There were no banana plants. There wasn’t much laughter. The building, with it’s antiseptic smell, seemed cold and impersonal. I found it interesting that they all pulled out the same exact peanut butter and jelly sandwich, out of the same exact brown paper bag and drank the same exact boxed juice. A few had cans of soda. For a moment I wondered if they were robots or android children from some not too distant future. I warily spun the top off my hot food thermos and quietly began to eat my Hungarian style paprika chicken with spaetzle dumplings. It didn’t take long after the name-calling and insults about my food stinking for me to start bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with boxed juice in a paper bag. Not because I liked them, but so that the kids would leave me alone during lunch. I missed my three course lunches, but it was better than being called names and better than having Cheetos thrown at me. Canadian kids were different — actually, they were all the same, and they loathed anything that was different. My saving grace that month was my implementation of “jail house rules” briefly mentioned to me by my cool uncle Luis before I left for Canada — after being punched in the stomach and ridiculed in front of everybody by the school bully I proceded to choke him to within an inch of his life. Things turned around for me after that and I started to make friends.
Today, as a dad, this life experience has become very valuable. And I’m happy to share with you a little guide for your kids’ school lunches. Let’s keep the “jail house rules” to ourselves.
Unless your kid goes to private school — where they would be more likely to bring a more diverse variety of lunch items or eat at a good cafeteria — they are probably part of a public school lunch-bag-syndicate, or paper-bag-militia, equipped with quarters for the vending machine. So in hopes of not getting them extricated by their comrades for having something healthy, smelly or different, I will give you a list of foods that will meet their nutritional needs without forcing them into the 12:15 witness protection program.