August 29, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. This week’s entry takes us a long way from American middle schools. Somali Roy, a freelance writer living in Singapore who last wrote for Food & Think about her mother-in-law’s kitchen, takes us to lunch in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
A Wildlife Cafeteria
By Somali Roy
As I squint to proofread the fine lines of advertising copy on my computer screen, a message box pops up: “Lunch?” I look through the glass wall at Jatish, who gives me the perfunctory nod and ambles towards the cafeteria with his stainless steel lunchbox. I scoot off to catch up.
On our way, we grab Seema, our third lunch-mate, and settle down at our standard spot. When the lunch boxes open and the captive smells of mixed spices and herbs waft through the air, bellies grumble and roar here and there. People waiting to buy lunch shift their gaze sheepishly.
The food in our lunch boxes differentiated us, in a way nothing else did. Jatish, being Gujrati, mostly brought thepla, a spicy, whole wheat flatbread accompanied by some chutney. Seema, a Punjabi, had split peas or kidney beans in red curry sauce with paratha. And I, a Bengali plus a sloth, did not bring any regional specialties to the table except some drab looking sandwiches. When Anoop Nair, a strict vegetarian Brahmin from Kerala, cared to join us, we formed a mini India around the table.
This was the routine for the two years I worked in a newly built four-story multiplex in Kolkata. Designed by one of the most prominent architects of the country, this swanky building with its transparent glass façade, English speaking service staff, plush movie theaters and other modern trappings, was surely bulldozing a good number of old and rusty single-screens but was seen as a welcome change by the city’s young, educated, bourgeois crowd that represented the modern and developing Kolkata, a crowded metropolis in east India.
All was good except that the building lacked a cafeteria for its employees. While moviegoers happily stuffed their faces with popcorn, soft drinks and other goodies, we employees had to fend for ourselves. Much to my dislike, I began carrying lunch to office, which was packed by our maid, who was not exactly known for her cooking skills. I joined the petition for a cafeteria soon after examining my lunch box one day: a burned sandwich that had gone soggy from mushy fruits on the side.
Our plea was sanctioned, but until the cafeteria was built in line with the design and decor of the rest of the building, a makeshift arrangement took shape on the terrace. Four poles were lodged at the four corners, and a musty, threadbare cloth was mounted as a cover. A much-needed coffee machine appeared, a dozen white plastic chairs and tables hop-scotched across the floor and a temporary cooking area was set up at the far end with necessary accoutrements.
As most employees were local, the lunch menu was typically Bengali, with little or no variation to the permanent rice, lentils and spicy fish curry, much to the disappointment of others. Though a purebred Bengali, I too denounced the menu—rice makes me soporific, especially in the afternoons, and fish isn’t a favorite. Looking at the bright side, I am glad I escaped being mocked as “Fishy Bong,” as the fish-eating Bengalis were dubbed.
If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as “lunching amid nature and wildlife.” Crows, sparrows and cats that pecked at leftovers or begged for food often greeted us with their cawing and purring. When the cloth ceiling leaked at places during monsoons, we huddled together around dry spots. On scorching summer afternoons we gobbled everything in seconds and rushed into air-conditioning, and dust storms made us take shelter behind a semi-constructed brick wall.
Yet we came, every single day, climbing two flights of stairs, crossing over half a dozen pipes and passing by loud and trembling generators to have our lunch, talk about our day, complain about the system, lament over the workload, gossip about the latest love affairs. This transient, tent-like cafeteria was tacky, morbid, far from the real deal but we went there because it added color to our plain vanilla workdays.
May 6, 2011
Once a week, an email chain of epic proportions germinates in my inbox: it’s a regular call to brunch, followed by a scramble to figure out where we’re eating, how many people are in so that reservations can be made, what time we’re eating and whether or not bottomless mimosas are available. No mimosas usually means a change in venue, depending on who’s in. And come Sunday morning there’s a round of phone calls and text messages to rally the oversleeping, hung-over and/or otherwise indisposed members of the group. It’s a complicated affair.
In anticipation of this Sunday, families all across the country will be be going head-t0-head, trying to beat each other out in securing brunch reservations at their favorite dining spots in order to celebrate Mother’s Day. When did people start subjecting themselves to this delicious little slice of Sunday madness?
As is the case with many culinary traditions, the origins are a bit hazy. Some food historians think that the meal has its roots in England’s hunt breakfasts—lavish multi-course meals that featured a smorgasbord of goodies such as chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, fresh fruit and sweets. Others posit that Sunday brunch derives from the practice of Catholics fasting before mass and then sitting down for a large midday meal. And then there are those who look to New York’s abundance of dining spots when it comes to tracing the origins of classic brunch dishes from eggs Benedict to bagels and lox.
What does seem certain is that the word “brunch”—that playful blend of “breakfast” and “lunch”—first appeared in print in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article. In “Brunch: A Plea,” British author Guy Beringer suggested an alternative to the heavy, post-church Sunday meals in favor of lighter fare served late in the morning. ”Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” Beringer says. ”It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
But wherever the initial spark of genius came from, the tradition definitely seems to have caught on in the United States in the 1930s, supposedly because Hollywood stars making transcontinental train trips frequently stopped off in Chicago to enjoy a late morning meal. It was a meal championed by hotels since most restaurants were closed on Sundays and, with church attendance flagging after World War II, people were looking for a new social outlet that also let them sleep in a bit. Restaurants soon hopped on the bandwagon and began offering the decadent spreads of food and signature morning cocktails, such as Bloody Marys, Bellinis and Mimosas.
“Sunday dinner became important because it was the only time people could eat together as a family unit during the week at the onset of urbanization and industrialization, 150 years ago,” according to Stanford University professor Carl Degler in a 1980 Chicago Tribune article on the rise of America’s brunch culture. He also pointed to another social change that might be responsible for why Sunday brunch became so popular here. “After World War II, large numbers of American married women entered the workforce for the first time. [...] Married women needed a relief on Sunday, too, thus the rise in popularity of Sunday brunch eaten out.”
Chefs, however, aren’t a huge fan. After a busy Saturday night, trying to create a menu for a meal that stretches from 11 A.M. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon—finding that right balance between breakfast foods, lunch foods and exotic hybrids of the two—is no small task. And then there’s the issue of dealing with fussy diners.
Will you be celebrating mom by way of a big brunch buffet this Sunday or do you have other Mother’s Day dining traditions you like to keep? Tell us in the comments area below.
October 6, 2009
Math hurts sometimes. Yesterday, I came across a “sandwich calculator” that revealed a painful truth: I could be saving hundreds of dollars a year if I brought homemade sandwiches for lunch, instead of eating out at delis and cafes.
A blogger at Cockeyed.com did the per-sandwich math for various ingredients available at the grocery store: Bread, mayonnaise, mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, lunch meat, cheese, avocados and sprouts. The cheapest option is grilled cheese (though it’s obviously a bit difficult to prepare that one at work), ringing up at just under 50 cents. Peanut butter and jelly costs 64 cents a sandwich, while a processed turkey sandwich with condiments is 93 cents.
But I don’t eat processed lunch meats, I reasoned. I prefer fresh-baked, whole grain breads to the loaves of squishy stuff they sell in supermarkets; I don’t think Kraft singles should actually count as cheese, and there’s virtually no nutritional value in iceberg lettuce. Surely what I would consider a good homemade sandwich wouldn’t be that much cheaper than eating out, would it?
Well, yeah. It would. Let me show you an example. Yesterday I purchased a fresh veggie wrap from a local deli. For $6.00, I got a spinach tortilla wrap filled with a handful of shaved carrots, three leaves of romaine lettuce, two slices of pale tomato, two deli-thin slices of Swiss cheese, and probably about one-quarter of a cucumber, flavored with a sugary honey mustard dressing. Six bucks doesn’t sound like such a bad deal, but if I had purchased similar ingredients at the store—using organic vegetables, and homemade hummus—I could make a week’s worth of lunches at half the cost per wrap, and I bet it would be much tastier and healthier than what the deli offers.
And if I settled for peanut butter and jelly sometimes, I’d save even more. Let’s say I use multigrain bread from my local bakery, where a $4 loaf will yield about six sandwiches, and fresh-ground peanut butter from Whole Foods at $2.59 a pound. I still have some homemade fig jam in the fridge, or I could buy something similar for about $5 and get at least a dozen servings out of it. That still breaks down to barely $1.30 per sandwich!
I do admit, I like the convenience of letting someone else prepare my food sometimes, so I probably won’t give up deli lunches entirely. But I’m going to institute a new rule: Bring lunch from home at least three times a week, and make one of those PB&J. If I can keep that up for a year, I’ll save over $500—enough to enjoy some seriously nice dinners out with my husband, which definitely beats a parade of mediocre lunches alone!
July 2, 2009
Lovin’ those Leftovers
In recent history, leftovers have joined peanut butter sandwiches as staples of lunch. This trend has its roots in a time when Americans used to eat breakfast, dinner and supper, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. Dinner was the main midday meal and supper was always leftovers from dinner.
The Times: The 1980s were called the “Me” decade, and billionaires and moguls were featured on the covers of magazines. President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, ending the Cold War. MTV launched in 1981 and movies like E.T. and Back to the Future were box office hits.
Why it was popular: Even though sushi had available in the United States for a while, this was the decade when noodle houses and Japanese BBQ became very popular, as exotic foods went mainstream, Olver says. Mud pie typified the decade with its rich decadence. In 1985, Coca-Cola changed the formula of its regular cola, but kept its name, Coca-Cola, the same. When Americans overwhelmingly protested the switch, the company released Coca-Cola Classic, made from the original formula. New Coke, or Coca-Cola II, remained on shelves until 1992.
The Times: This was the decade of the Internet, DotCom market and cell phones. President Bill Clinton signed off on the North American Free Trade Agreement and reformed welfare. Fads of the time included boy bands, Beanie Babies and Furbies.
Snackwell brand cookies
Why it was popular: Clearly Canadian was a fruit-flavored soda and was advertised for its health benefits, even though it was nutritionally comparable to drinking other sodas. By this point, virtually all employee lunchrooms had a microwave, which easily cooked frozen foods like Hot Pockets, Olver says.
The Times: The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shocked the nation. The U.S. to sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq under the direction of President George W. Bush. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African-American to be sworn in as president. In pop culture, reality TV dominates the airwaves. Who knows what else will happen — there’s a year and a half left of this decade!
Chinese food, including fried rice
Why it is popular: Leftovers have always been the mainstay of the portable lunch, Olver says. Most people were, and still are, eating what they had the night before for dinner, whether it’s homecooked or take-out.
Now that I’ve explored lunches from the 20th century, I have to ask: What’s in your lunch box?
June 30, 2009
The meals of the 1960s and 1970s had a wide variety of influences. The environmental movement increased the amount of granola and other whole foods consumed, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. Meanwhile, the Kennedys and Julia Childs popularized French cuisine. Even with the culinary experimentation, mainstay sandwiches like peanut butter or tuna were common in lunch boxes.
The Times: The 1960s exploded with cultural changes. The Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation and Vietnam War protests all flourished in this decade. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. Acid rock, psychedelic drugs and folk music were popular.
Iceberg wedge salad
Nutmeg date bars
Why it was popular: The wedge salad could be as simple as a chunk of iceberg lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise and would have been easy to pack, Olver says. The orange-flavored drink Tang didn’t become popular until NASA used it on Gemini flights in 1965 and since then it has been associated with the space program.
The Times: The 1970s were a continuation of the changes in the 1960s. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office because of charges of corruption in 1973 and the next year President Richard Nixon resigned, rather than face impeachment for his involvement in Watergate. The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and the first Gay Pride march was held in New York City, honoring the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Grasshopper pie (mint filling in an Oreo crust)
Why it was popular: Quiche was easily packaged in a lunch. Americans were intrigued by different flavors and textures; They weren’t satisfied with the same food that they had had since the 1950s, Olver says.
Don’t miss the last lunch box blog post coming Thursday!