Reflections on Food Roots and National School Lunch Week

I haven’t posted in a few days, I know — I sort of “unplugged” over the long weekend to enjoy some wonderful, exhausting, and practically mandatory Fall activities with J. and the boys.  Between picking apples and pumpkins, visiting with family, jumping in leaf piles, and taking in the spectacular jack-o-lantern show at our local zoo, I haven’t so much as glanced at the computer in four days.  I recommend this type of respite to everyone, every once in a while.

But now I’m back (did you miss me?), and I admit, I’m going to ignore my promise to post about the way the world views our eating habits — or rather, postpone it, until later in the week.  Today I’m moved to talk about other things.  I opened my emails and social networking accounts this morning and realized that it’s National School Lunch Week, so I feel obligated to touch on that…and I had a lovely experience this weekend that has me reflecting not so much on how other people view our food philosophies, but how we got to this place as a family.

Food Roots.  We’ve all got ’em, but it’s not often that I think most of us (including myself) reflect on them to any degree.  My food roots are partially grounded in Scandinavian traditions, and partly in the staunch New England Yankee world.  I’ll admit that I never much thought either of those influences had much to do with the way J. and I eat; I figure most of that has come either from my mom, whose adventurous and generally healthy cooking habits were my primary source of culinary training; or from my own explorations and self-education as an adult.  But this weekend, I shared a meal with some rarely-seen family members, and I realized that there’s a thread that weaves us together, food-wise: common sense.

It went like this: my mother’s brother, who lives in the Midwest and has a jet-setting (literally — he flies elite military jets for a living) existence that takes him around the world regularly, was returning to my folks’ tiny hometown in the Berkshires to attend his high school class reunion.  I hadn’t seen him since before L. was born, so Mom and I decided to throw together an impromptu family reunion of sorts.  We knew Uncle J. was planning to have lunch with The Greats (shorthand for my grandmother’s sisters and assorted attached family members), so we based the whole operation around a potluck get-together at one of the old family homes.  Mom and I planned the menu, relatively speaking, and brought most of the food; some of the Greats contributed dishes; and we had an amazing time catching up over an amazing meal.

The folks around that lunch table were, mainly, elderly Swedes and “adopted Swedes” who married into the family; in heartier health than one might expect given their ages; and still living on or quite near the farmland that once sustained our extended family and the entirety of that small rural community.  L. and P. roamed tomato and squash fields with Uncle J. while the Greats discussed the injustice of plowing the last crops under rather than donating them to the soup kitchens.  When we sat down to eat, the food was simple: we had a baked ham and some roast chicken; a gorgeous tossed salad with at least 6 different vegetables; baked beans; a sweet potato casserole (I gussied it up by adding roasted banana); whole-berry cranberry sauce; and assorted rolls, including some honey-wheat rolls I’d made the day before.  It was the type of meal I’ve grown up expecting at large family gatherings, but I noticed some things I’ve never considered before.  Just about everything on the table was homemade, including the cranberry sauce — whereas most people in our modern world would open cans and take advantage of convenience foods, this family cooks EVERYTHING.  With a choice between white rolls and wheat, almost every one of the Greats took wheat.  There were more vegetables and fruits on each plate than meat and carbs.  And appreciation, enjoyment, and gratitude for the meal and the efforts of each cook dominated the conversation.  These are people who understand what it takes to get food to the table — REALLY understand it, from planting to harvest, from the beginning of raising of animals to the appearance of those animals on the dinner plate.  They scoff at the long list of ingredients on a package of bread; their mother, Nanny, baked fresh bread twice a week.  My late Great Uncle O. baked his bread weekly and taught me the secrets (we remembered him as we broke the wheat rolls, a creation of mine that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t learned the art at his side).  This was a healthy meal in every respect — nutritionally as well as culturally.

These kinds of meals, and the life experience that shaped the cooks, are ingrained in me, and have so much to do with what I believe about food now.  I don’t think about that, ordinarily, but it was a startling moment of clarity that makes sense of how the family dinner has been paramount in the raising of every generation of our clan.  It’s not fanfare and righteousness and wanting to do what the experts think is the “right” thing that has motivated the gatherings around the table; it’s just common sense.  Nobody had to tell the Greats that a home-cooked dinner, of real food, eaten together was the best thing for their children.  They just knew that it was.

Thus inspired, I came home and continued to cook, though I’d spent much of the weekend doing so already.  And in all the cooking, as always, school lunches were created.  I don’t ordinarily talk much about specifically what is in the boys’ lunchboxes, but this week, I think I will; since it’s National School Lunch Week, it seems fitting for me to offer up our family’s version of School Lunch for your scrutiny.

Today’s menu for L.: leftover pan-roasted steak and mashed potatoes (his teachers will heat up lunches, though I try not to send too many that need it).  Alongside, he has kale chips, which I baked up last night; some orange slices; and blueberry applesauce.
For P.: miniature sunflower butter and strawberry preserves sandwiches on homemade pumpkin biscuits; applesauce; kale chips; and a cheese stick (he’s teething, and he likes to gnaw on a cold cheese stick).

Be sure to check out the recipes for the two breads — they’re keepers — and feel free to share what your kids, or kids you know, are eating this week in their lunches.  We should be celebrating School Lunch by elevating our standards.

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