France’s Jacques Pepin begged for pork fat to spread on stale, bug-infested bread. Sweden’s Marcus Samuelsson nibbled savory pancakes with lingonberry jam. And San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou went home for lunch, where he ate fresh Moroccan salads, lamb and just-baked bread with his entire family.
Everyone — including some of the world’s most influential chefs — has a school lunch story to tell. Bought or brought, on a tray or in a sack, crusts on or off, the elementary school lunch conjures vivid memories of cafeteria lunch ladies, treat trading and for some, going without.
A new book, “School Lunch: Unpacking our Shared Stories” (Running Press, $25) reveals the compelling stories of famous chefs and everyday folks in their own words, from a Martinez dad whose illustrated lunch bags have gone viral to Padma Lakshmi, who was taunted for bringing “funky Indian food” to her New York City school. There’s even a woman who ate the same thing every day for six years: PB&J, apple, apple juice.
Author and photographer Lucy Schaeffer includes more than 70 voices in this rich collection of interviews, portraits and re-created food images. Schaeffer got the idea for “School Lunch” one night about five years ago, when she was deciding what to pack for her girls and realized that the PB&J staple of her childhood didn’t exactly fly “in the age of nut-free modern parenting.”
After interviewing people from all walks of life, she focused on the elementary school years, because they were the richest and most emotional stories across cultures and time periods. The book features people ages 6 to 93 from 25 countries.
“As a kid, you had no control over what you got, and I think that’s why so many of us remember the details,” says Schaeffer, who lives in New York, during a recent phone call. “Also, (lunch) is truly the social arena for elementary school. It’s the introduction to social dynamics — and to inequities.”
Those are the interviews that left the biggest impression on Schaeffer — stories like Pepin’s, who came of age during World War II, “when no one had money and lunch was terrible.” Or George Forman, the world heavyweight champion and grill master, who grew up so poor, he’d inflate an old greasy paper bag each morning so it looked full and carry it to school just to fit in.
The collection illuminates how far we’ve come — the USDA is giving free meals to all students this school year — and yet how disconnected we are from what was once considered, and still is in many countries, the most important meal of the day.
Inspired by Schaeffer’s book, we asked five Bay Area chefs to recall their school lunch memories. Here is what they ate, in their own words:
Cal Peternell, formerly of The Lede, Chez Panisse
Grew up in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
“I fondly remember peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that, pressed in my bookbag, would marinate the morning away so that at lunchtime bread and filling had become one. But mostly I got lunch at school and while there were likely some good days at the cafeteria, it’s the horrors that still stick in my throat. And nose. The dreaded, gaseous broccoli of course, and something called Salisbury steak which, in case you’re lucky enough not to know, is a pale and grisly hamburger patty covered in snot, often served with equally mucilaginous mashed potatoes. I liked, and still like, the ice cream sandwiches. The way you’d lick up the sides, between the two wafers. The way your fingers would come away with fudgy, cake-y coatings.”
Lito Saldana, Los Moles, 5 Tacos & Beer
Grew up in El Aserradero, Jalisco, Mexico.
“At lunch time, my mother would prepare and bring tacos made from beans, tomatoes, onions, chile de árbol, and fresh, handmade corn tortillas. She would sometimes make tacos de canasta with refried beans and slices of queso fresco that she would make from scratch. When she had extra money, she would prepare a torta. The majority of kids in school would eat tortas with ham, but my Dad would always lecture me that eating processed meats was not beneficial to your health, so most of our meals were vegetarian. I recall sharing food with my schoolmates, especially when my mother would make taco de frijoles.”
Mica Talmor, Pomella
Grew up in Kiryat Bialik, Haifa, Israel.
“In Israel, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. School lunch is more of a morning snack, and we would have a hot lunch when we got back home from school. For the snack, my mom would make us basic sandwiches using Lechem achid (government-subsidized bread), rolls or pita bread, with sliced yellow cheese, sometimes with margarine and hard boiled egg, or sometimes with Hashachar Ha’aole, a chocolate spread. Sometimes she would also add an apple, banana or peach. Removing the crust? Are you kidding me?!?! We didn’t waste food like that.”
Norah Haron, IndoMex, Table at 7
Grew up in Singapore.
“Sandwiches my mom made: kaya toast with butter, butter with sugar, or PB&J with Smucker’s Goober Grape. Bread was always Gardenia White, then she got a little health conscious and started packing whole wheat. NO CRUST. Sometimes, I bought school lunch, like mee rebus, a Malay noodle dish with peanuts and thick sweet potato sauce for 50 cents. Or sometimes rice with a curry of some sort. Back then, the school didn’t provide lunches. School cafeterias were operated by private individuals.”
Bruno Chemel, Baumé
Grew up in Moulins, France.
“Remember, in France, lunch is the main meal of the day. School was closed from noon to 2 p.m. so I was lucky to go back home every day for lunch and eat with my family. My duty was to stop at the bakery and buy fresh baguettes. Our lunch always had one appetizer, like a beet salad or savory pastry such as croque monsieur; one entree, like steak with frites or endives ham béchamel gratin; some cheese, assorted fruits or a tart or pastry, like an eclair. And always bread. My dad’s motto: “No bread, no lunch!”
Do you have a school lunch tale from your childhood to share? Submit it here: