‘What’s that in your lunchbox?’
Over the last six months I’ve interviewed thirty people, from all round Tasmania, about their unfolding relationship to food across a life. When I first set it up I felt confident that it would be an interesting project. But secretly I worried that it might be a bit ho-hum. Chefs, growers, producers, writers, farmers – a fisherman, a baker, two farmers market organisers, two cooking school founders, and a canteen lady. I spoke to them all, hoping but not expecting them to dig deep and tell me how their life – thus far – has gone. As it turned out, twenty-seven of my thirty subjects did.
I opened each interview by asking them about their first memory of food. Not the first photo in which they appeared smeared in birthday cake. But the first thing they could remember about food. One remembered stealing mint teabags and climbing a tree to suck them in secret. Another remembered her mother on the verandah, her apron full of persimmons, spooning out the rich jelly to her five children on a spoon. For another it was the smell of burnt toast wafting up the stairs, a sure sign that his father was on breakfast duty.
With the gate of memory open, the next thing that almost half of my subjects spoke about – in lurid detail – was their school lunchbox. ‘What’s that yucky stuff?’ asked a local girl from Guam, spying a tub of yoghurt in the lunchbox of the new girl from California with hippie parents. The new girl who, nearly thirty years later, is an architect and designer with a passion for Alice-in-Wonderland inspired feasts in which no dish served up to scores of guests is as it seems.
With others it was the other way round. The chef who now runs the restaurant that gets the most gongs in Tasmania was drawn to the lunchboxes of his Lebanese friends in inner Sydney. ‘I was fascinated by their lunches – a cannon of flat bread filled with what I thought at the time was birdseed paste, but which turned out to be Tahini. Occasionally I’d do a swap and’ – he grins – ‘they’d go off and buy a meat pie instead’.
For one the lunchbox was the straw that broke the camel’s back – in terms of adolescent rebellion. A man who, with his two Greek brothers, runs a successful chain of food stores, came home one day in such a rage of embarrassment at the stuffed octopus that stank out his lunchbox, that he threw the whole box as high as he could on to the roof of his house. These days, of course, trays of calamari, olives and stuffed vine leaves have pride of place in his deli cabinet.
So what is the moral of all these stories? A lesson in multiculturalism? Perhaps. A hint of an inverse relation between the smelliness of your lunchbox and a successful career in food? Again, perhaps. But it might be something much simpler. It might be that our earliest memories of food are among our most vivid. They’re a tangible expression of our growing awareness of our place in the wider scheme of things. How we deal with our differences with others – our unlikeness to them – frames our sense of ourselves well after our lunchboxes have started partially degrading in some municipal landfill.
And me, what do I remember of my own school lunchbox? Easy. A fritz and sauce sandwich, with lumps of butter cracking through the wholemeal bread. And, most days, an apple.