I look back and notice that I haven’t written more than 3 entries last year, which is both sad and shocking for Little Reiko’s Diary. So much had happened, so much laughs and craziness were not written about and already a year has flown by. Not to mention, we are back in winter and Jack Frost has bitch slapped us left and right with the Polar Vortex paddles.
Well if it isn’t another new year already.
So what have I been up to lately, you ask. I’ve been fortunately busy all year working freelance and meeting all sorts of people, working on all types of projects that were very interesting to say the least. With the rising of rent and living costs in NYC, I have realized that food cost has taken a hike up as well, and each lunch average could easily cost $14 – $20 if you’re not careful what you’re buying. Hence I started packing my own lunch – or bento… if you will.
I DREAM OF BENTOS
As I child growing up, the first memories of bentos was that of the aluminum type that my sister took with her to her school picnic. It was a small oval aluminum type box, filled with rice and some bite size entrees like sausages and little sweet omlettes (tamago-yaki). I don’t remember what my mother packed in it – all I remember was that I was fascinated and envious of her lunch box. I was only two years old then, but that’s when I remember I was fascinated with lunch boxes.
MY MOTHER’S LUNCH IN KINDERGARTEN:
When it came time for me to take my lunch, I remember we were in Dublin, Ireland – in an all Irish Catholic school with nuns in black and white habits. You can’t get any more Catholic than that. We were given little pencil boxes that had a little pocket with a snap on it, that housed a few coins to buy lunch at school. Not sure if I ever used it though, being that I couldn’t speak a word of English then. But I do remember our mother giving my sister and I lunches to take with us, along with a thermos that at the time, had glass lining. It would be filled with piping hot sweet milk tea (so NOT kid friendly!!) and I would drop the thermos accidentally and go home with a flask full of shattered glass.
I was very slow at eating and would often times spend the entire lunch time and still not finish it. My sister – being in another building across from our little annex, would come over to help me finish eating. Then when the school bell rang, I would go out to play when every one else would come back in. I used to get into trouble a lot with the nuns because of this, but…. that’s another story I will share another time.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL LUNCH:
We were in New Zealand when I was in Elementary school. An all girls’ school, complete with uniforms of skirt, ties and vests. Lunch during this time of my life was equally interesting, because my mother – having learned the ways of serving sandwiches for ladies’s tea, had gotten into packing our lunches the same way. The crusts carefully cut off, they would be packed as finger sandwiches – little small rectangular ones with cucumber and mayonnaise, or ham and lettuce with mustard and mayo, sometimes tomato sandwiches (flavored with salt and pepper).
Tomato sandwiches – especially with those with seeds still in – will often end up soggy by lunch time and inedible. I loved the ham sandwiches, with bite of the English mustard tweaking your nose, or the cucumber sandwiches. By this time though, we weren’t given hot sweet milk teas but now we had fruit juices in these flat plastic flasks – much like what you’d see whiskey in but these were colorful and plastic. I would often times freeze juice in these for summer and take it to lunch with me, though sadly the juice only melted a third of the way, leaving me quite thirsty after lunch.
Other days the school kids would order savory meat pies or toasted cream of corn sandwiches from a pub across the street, which would then be distributed to those who put in their lunch orders. My mother would also pack us toasted cream of corn or curry sandwiches, which always ended up cold, flat and soggy by lunch time, but I still ate it because I loved corn anyways.
Lunch was interesting back then.
GRADE SCHOOL AND JUNIOR HIGH LUNCHES:
By grade school, my sister and I were attending an American schools for the first time. This is where I experience the first school lunch served on a plastic partitioned tray, with menus such as sloppy joes, hungarian goulash, open faced turkey sandwiches. Fruit salad would be the usual dessert though at times if you were lucky, we got ice cream sandwiches. My mother would pack lunches for us once in a while now, since we had the cafeteria, but this time lunch came in a large plain aluminum box with a plastic case that looked like a book from the outside. Inside she’d pack us huge rice balls (onigiri) covered in black nori (or seaweed). It wasn’t the cute rice balls you’d see in the gourmet magazines, but two honking big triangular black onigiris sitting with some yellow daikon pickles.
Now… I love my mom’s onigiri’s, don’t get me wrong. Just that it’s not the kind of attention you want to bring to yourself being the new kid in school and you’re surrounded by kids who’ve never seen anything other than sloppy joes, hot dogs and hungarian goulash. Often times I’d cringe when I open the bento box only to discover she had packed rice balls and I would be subjected to the curious cries of “OOOOOOHHH what’s that BLACK THING?”. I would carefully explain to the kids around me and then subsequently be met with “EUUUUWWWW SEEAAAWEED!!! EUUUWWWWW!!! You EAT THAT THING?”. You get tough growing up in an environment like this.
My sister however, never had this treatment or scrutiny in the same school, being that her side of life consisted of a special privilege to the “high school side of the cafeteria” which served hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries and freshly popped popcorn. She would treat me once in a while and when I held that popcorn box, it was like heaven – I couldn’t get enough of it.
I spent my high school years in a dormitory, sharing a small tiny room with four bunk beds, four desks (two on each side) and one small wooden closet for each. The dormitory was positioned 100 yards from the school and unfortunately all our windows faced the school. The school cafeteria served us three meals for 6 days a week and the food was much like that of prison cuisine – bulk food ladled out in plastic bowls. Kids who were commuters would come in with their home made bentos, and while you had the alternative option of buying sandwiches and ready made rice balls, I would always watch with awe and envy of those who would bring adorable bentos that their mothers had packed for them that morning.
One day I decided that I too, will pack my own lunch. So I got myself a plastic container with which I would save half of my dinner (or otherwise fake it to the cafeteria guys that I was taking extra dinner back for a sick room mate) and use the extra food to pack for the next day’s lunch. It wasn’t a pretty, but the excitement was there just knowing that I had a special lunch packed for myself that day.
FAST FORWARD TO PRESENT DAY:
So…. On occasion thereafter I would pack my own lunch with a cute little Japanese bento box, but the effort wouldn’t last that long because preparing these things takes time and effort. However, as I started doing freelance and with the cost of take out food getting higher and higher, I realized that it was probably better to start packing my own lunch – and my hubby’s.
For the first two times I packed my hubby’s lunch, I realized that the bento box was too small for him and left him hungry. So then we got him a larger size box (for men), though that has now presented new challenges for me, as what he can eat and likes to eat limits what I can put into his box – filling it requires some planning.
Usually this planning requires me to go raid one of the few Japanese supermarkets over the weekend and filling up the cart with as much frozen food as one could carry. I sometimes wonder if this obsession about making one’s own bento is really less about being cost effective and it’s me pursuing a childhood dream of having cute home made bentos that my mother couldn’t make. However, I can’t express enough how special it feels to open up the little box filled with goods – even if it’s something you packed that morning so you know what’s inside.
As of late, I hear that moms nowadays in Japan go all out bat shit crazy over their bento making for their children. I am seeing loads of photos of character designed bentos for their little ones – who… if I remember correctly at 4 years old – won’t remember what the hell you ate because you were too busy playing with other kids. However, if I was in elementary school and I got these lunches from my mom, I think I would have had different memories and feelings about bringing lunch to school. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had this obsession like I did….
Then again, it must have been my inner “turkey” already speaking to me at the tender age of 2 years old that started this obsession.
Happy New Year folks,
Little “Chef” Reiko and the ever hungry Turkey.