Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Defense of the Food-Borne Illness

I just saw a report that says that 90% of the perishable food in our kids’ packed school lunches get to temperatures high enough to induce food-borne illness.

You don’t say?

I could have told you that.  That’s why, like every other good mom in America, I buy an insulated lunch bag every year for child #2—child #1 is almost an adult and usually purchases her own lunch so she’s on her own—which inevitably gets misplaced around November 15th, only to reappear around February 1st, between which dates we’ve already purchased a brand new insulated lunch bag.  Or two.

This, like many other reports that come out, always give me a chuckle and begs the question:  how did those of us born before the year 2000 survive to adulthood?

Here are some things that we used to do as children:

1.     Ride in cars without seatbelts.
2.     Not ride in car seats.
3.     Play stickball in the middle of the street only moving when a car approached.
4.     Lay out in the sun (ok, that’s a bad one and something that almost killed me—glad we don’t do that anymore!).
5.     Eat lunches that had been prepared either the night before or in the morning, shoved into a brown paper bag, and carted around in the overheated school building until it was time for lunch.  Said lunch was consumed with a warm carton of milk that cost ten cents.

Consuming a warm—and in this case, I mean “not good kind of warm”—lunch day after day at a barely clean lunch table surrounded by other children eating the same was a routine back in the day.  I can trace my hatred of onions back to one particularly gross offering of egg salad mushed into two slices of Wonder white bread into which my mother—in a fit of pique obviously brought on by watching Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet”—had the idea to spice things up by chopping up little pieces of white onion and putting them into the egg salad.  Call me crazy, but when I bite into something that is supposed to be smooth, don’t mix things up and put something crunchy in there.  Ever since that day, I amuse/bore/offend anyone I’m dining out with (I’m looking at you, Northern half of Evelyn David) when I ask my intrepid server, “Does your ___________________ have onions in it?”  Northern half of Evelyn David is now so used to this that before I prepare to order a chicken salad on rye with lettuce and tomato at our favorite Kosher deli, Epstein’s, she pats my hand gently and says, “Remember.  There are no onions in the chicken salad.”

But back to my original question:  How did we survive?  And beyond that, what are we supposed to do, now that we know that all of the lunch food our kids are eating is probably contaminated?  I’m drawing the line at sending the kid to school with a Playmate cooler and since he walks, it probably isn’t realistic to put ice packs in his lunch; he’s weighed down enough as is with massive tomes of fantasy books for “free reading time.”  There are just so many days in a row you can eat peanut butter and jelly before you start to go mad and I refuse to send him with those prepackaged lunches that contain more nitrates than anyone could ever consume in a lifetime, let alone during a twenty-minute recess.  Sure, they’re safe…for now.  But who knows what they’ll do to your internal organs down the road?

Like with most topics/revelations that inconvenience me, I’m choosing to ignore this and continue to send child #2 to school with a lunch in an insulated bag.  I could always do what my mother did for as many years as I brought lunch to school:  on Sunday, she would purchase two pounds of baloney (and I refuse to write “bologna” because it’s not pronounced that way so I’m not spelling it that way), two loaves of the aforementioned Wonder white bread, two boxes of Devil Dogs, and put my grandmother to work.  Grandmother would make twenty baloney sandwiches on white bread, put them in plastic bags and stick them into the freezer, where the Devil Dogs already resided.  In the morning, each of the four of us would come down for breakfast and right before departure, grab one frozen sandwich and one Devil Dog from the freezer. We had already been given our dimes for the lukewarm milk, so we were ready to go!  By lunchtime, depending on the weather, your sandwich was somewhere between semi-frozen and overheated to the point of almost being a baloney Panini, its flatness only rivaled by the steam coming out from between the two slices of bread. 

I’d like to say that it was a little slice of culinary heaven, but I can’t.  It was horrible.  I can’t imagine giving my kids something like it.  But to my mother’s credit, it was brilliant.  No more making lunches at seven in the morning.  No more wondering if one of the four kids needed something different; everyone got the same thing.  It was budgeting and time management at its finest.  But whenever one of my siblings or I think about taking a shortcut without kids and stress about doing so, we can always comfort ourselves with the fact that we’ve never sent any of our children off to school with a previously frozen baloney sandwich made by our septuagenarian mother after Sunday Mass.

Food-borne illness be damned, I think we need to harken back to the days when everyone pulled a flattened pbj, or a onion-speckled egg salad sandwich, or a cryogenically frozen baloney sandwich out of their Partridge Family lunchbox and wouldn’t think anything of shoving the whole thing in their mouth while talking about the latest “Planet of the Apes’” movie and washing it down with ten cent warm milk.  Because those, my friends, were the good old days.  Not only did we not know what food-borne illness was, we wouldn’t have thought of bringing an insulated lunch bag to school, for fear of a schoolyard beat down. Who needs an insulated bag when you’ve got a frozen sandwich?

Tell me, Stiletto faithful, do you have any tricks for keeping your kids’ lunches fresh and tasty?  Or like me, and my mother before me, do you think your kids will be fine with whatever they pull forth at the noon hour?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. If you like, I could check out some other restaurants and compile a list of safe places that don't put onions in their salads :-)

    I went to a Jewish parochial school which provided a hot lunch. That way, they knew what you were eating was Kosher. Trust me when I tell you that it was as inedible as those frozen baloney sandwiches you were scarfing down. In fact, when I went to public school in seventh grade, I couldn't wait to pack a lunch -- hold the sandwich, pass the TastyKake (the Baltimore version of Devil Dogs).
    My head sometimes feels like it could explode with all the safety information we now have to keep in mind when raising our kids (or babysitting our grandkids!). Peanut butter? Can't even touch the stuff until they are past two years old.
    Perhaps the only saving grace to school lunches is to remember that the kids are out of the house and eating them somewhere else. That leaves you 8 hours a day to work on the new Murder 101 mystery!!!

    Marian (who actually likes a little onion now and then)

  2. These new "rule" always make me laugh--and I have a hunch that may be the reason kids nowadays get sick so easy, they aren't exposed to all the things we are. Sack lunches were my staple all through school and I always had 1/2 baloney sandwich and 1/2 PBJ sandwich. (Sis got the other half.) An apple, 2 cookies, and a carrot.Nothing to drink, water out of the fountain was good enough for us. My own kids didn't fare much better, though I changed the fruit, 3 cookies, but I too made sandwiches ahead of time and froze them. Yes, they complained.


  3. We usually ate the hot lunch in the cafeteria - and most days it was pretty good. I don't know if that was a Southern thing in the 60s and 70s - but the cafeteria cooks were well known and respected in the community - and their reputation was important to them. They baked hot yeast rolls or cornbread every day. You could smell the bread baking all morning. I loved the Shepherd Pie. Fried chicken. Pinto beans and ham. Not that many salads back then unless you count Jello. Grin. Chocolate sheet cake. Strawberry shortcake. Peach cobblers. And of course the carton of milk. 35 cents for the meal. 10 cents for the milk. For a nickle more you could have chocolate milk.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  4. Oh, Maggie, you're bringing back old memories of my Partridge Family lunchbox (yes, of course, I had one!) and bologna sandwiches on white bread with a bag of Fritos, a banana, and a Ding Dong. Orange Hi-C in my thermos. The perfect lunch as far as I was concerned! (I don't think crunchy stuff should be in egg salad, tuna salad, or chicken salad either!) My mom's theory is that we're much tougher than the generations to come because we ate things that weren't sterile, didn't have antibacterial hand lotions and wipes, we played in the dirt, and swam in muddy rivers. I'm a little worried for kids who grow up with everything sanitized (like, my cousin's kids, cough cough!). So much pressure on parents these days!

  5. My mother packed my lunches for years (often leftovers) that were so good my friends wanted to share. Just a paper bag with sandwich, fruit and cookies. Meanwhile, I lusted over the cafeteria food-best mac and cheese with tomatoes, no onion-ever! Also, no food illnesses. My kids also played outside for hours, nothing like today, but so much has changed, not necessarily for the better.

  6. Mags, I learned this trick from hiking and bike riding: freeze a not too full plastic bottle of water, even a small one, and wrap a paper napkin around it and then put it in the insulated lunch sack. By lunch it'll be pretty well thawed and drinkable (water is good for us) and will keep a pretty adequate chill temp going!

    I do this sometimes for long work days at a research library, too and it works pretty well.

  7. Maggie I saw that article too! I thought, great and right before school starts, let's get everyone freaked out about something new. I've been sending my son to school with an insulated lunch bag for years but now he wants to eat hot lunch at school. Hot lunch scared the wits out of me in my school days...god only knows what was in it. But I guess things have evolved though maybe not for the better. I asked my son what fruit they offer and as of yesterday there hasn't been one. Today it was oranges which they don't have time to peel in the short time they are given to eat. So, I try to load him up with fruit and veggies at home and hope for the best at school.

  8. I still put my sandwich (not always boloney, but sometimes) in the freezer the night before, and pull it out before heading to work in the morning. Old habits die hard. But, I don't eat Devil Dogs anymore, as much as I miss them. Thanks for the laugh today :)


  9. My tot isn't old enough to eat lunch at school, but I'm taking notes for the day he is. I will say that I ate the brown bag lunch almost every day from the time I entered 1st grade until I entered junior high. I never got sick from the food. Go fig.

  10. very cool post! thanks a lot for sharing!!!!!

  11. Boy, this really struck a nerve! Colleen (my sister), I can't believe you still freeze your lunches! You don't have to, you know. But I guess where you live, it probably is a good idea. Joelle, keep rocking it old school with your tot; he'll be fine. And the rest of you who ate lukewarm lunches, I'm glad we're all still here to talk about it! Maggie