|Photo attribution: Creative Commons License from Equalization Schools; Rebekah Dobrasko|
A version of this article appeared in the September/October issue of Edible Seattle Magazine where I recently got the DREAM JOB of writing a food humor column every month on the back page called "Back of the House"
Miracle Whip is Satan’s sandwich spread.
I know this because on one of only two occasions that I forgot my school lunch, I ate half of Rachel Finkelstein’s tuna fish sandwich. It took a few bites to confirm, but yes, it was undeniable: I was eating tuna laced with the devil’s condiment. I spat out the filth and committed myself to remembering my lunch each and every day.
Forget for a moment the school lunches you see kids with now, packaged in fancy coolers and insulated lunch boxes with mini ice packs, sub compartments, and happy meal-ish toys. In the 70s, you ate locker-hot tuna sandwiches in greasy paper bags, pb & j’s, or you ate nothing.
Nearly as important as what your lunch was, was what your lunch came in. A brown paper bag, folded over twice at the top was my typical attaché. Crucial to the paper bag aesthetic was the tell-tale jelly stain that seeped through its ineffectual plastic baggie before I could even get off the bus. Eventually, peer pressure forced me to beg for a lunch box and I ran with a lemon yellow Partridge Family model. In my mind’s nose I can still smell the inside of my lunch box: a curious mix of wet metal and peanuty tuna. I loved my Partridge Family lunch box until one day Rachel Finkelstein came to school with a shiny new Welcome Back Kotter lunch box. I could have killed for that lunch box.
I hated Rachel Finkelstein and her stupid lunch box.
What you brought for lunch spoke volumes about who you were and carved your place in the elementary school hierarchy. The Crips brought badass contraband like Ho-Hos or Ding Dongs and tried to sell it at a steep markup. The Bloods bullied you until you shared yours for free. The Hippiekids had to chew through bread so hearty they were still masticating it right through 6th period. The Buyers never brought their own lunch and were waiting in the lunch line so long that I was done by the time they sat down. I never got to know the Buyers, because I was a Bringer and we didn’t associate with one another. There were even subsections of the Bringers: those that brought the same thing for lunch for 10 years and those who were more adventurous. A third group, consisting of just Rachel Finkelstein, was the group that thought Miracle Whip was delicious.
If you have kids and you send your precious progeny to school with healthy sack lunches, I’m the kid you hate because I’m showing your darling sweetheart the beauty of layering crushed-up Fritos just so on a peanut butter sandwich followed by the ritualistic, highly sequenced eating of an Oreo cookie. By the time I’m done with your kid, there will be no more hummus and sprouts, no more apple wedges, nary a carrot stick. There will be hot tears and whining demands and uneaten hummus.
One day, perhaps it was a Friday—I can’t remember—oh yeah, now I do—it was Friday September 23, 1979 around 11:46 am; a cold sweat was running down my little back because I remembered that my drippy sack lunch was still sitting on the green vinyl bus seat, lonely, without me. A deep, sad hunger rumbled from my stomach. I would need to go get in line with the Buyers. I was so clearly a Bringer I didn’t know where to stand, how to get a tray, or what to say to the lunch ladies. While waiting in line, I tried to work out what I’d ask for, but I felt so much pressure and kids were laughing and cavorting and grabbing for hot pizza and applesauce and rolls and butter pats and Oh. My. God. Where was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Where was the locker-hot tuna sandwich? I panicked and grabbed blindly at a sloppy joe and some ghastly colored jello with chunks of unidentifiable fruit. I walked with my tray back to the table and glumly set it down, scanning for a Crip I could barter with.
Drinks were a whole other ball of wax. Even the Bringers had to buy their beverages. They came in 3 flavors: chocolate milk (10 cents), whole milk (9 cents), skim milk (8 cents). It was of utmost importance to shake the little cardboard box of milk before purchase, no matter the flavor, to make sure that it wasn’t completely frozen.
The day the chocolate milk price rose to 11 cents was a very dark day in my elementary school’s history. We nearly rioted. Inflated milk prices brought together the Crips, Bloods, Buyers, Bringers, and Hippiekids for one beautiful, fleeting moment. Then Rachel brought out her sandwich with Miracle Whip and we all scattered like roaches back into the safety of our clans.
*The name "Rachel Finkelstein" is entirely made-up to protect the guilty.