The Art Of Trading Lunches
“For fuck’s sake, Daddy.” I mumbled with my mouth full. Even 7 year old me knew that lamb with mint sauce on bread was a completely inappropriate school lunch for a 2nd grader.
And as I forced down this unpleasant combo, I was left wondering:
“How did we get here?”
On weekday mornings my family’s roles and responsibilities were clearly defined. My mother did her hair. My older brother messed around with the dogs. And my father, dressed in his freshly pressed shirt, tie and pleated trousers, made our school lunches while I watched the aerobics segment on “Good Morning South Africa”. When it came to food, Dad was rather adventurous, approaching life with a “try everything once” attitude. In fact, unbeknownst to me at the time, my very first food adventure was with my father: It was 1992, during a particularly humid UK summer. Daddy had us traipsing around London’s China Town, popping in and out of restaurants, all of which seemed to have strings of whole roasted ducks hanging in their display windows. And it was this exact sense of culinary exploration which flowed over into his lunch-making duties. Often Daddy’s offerings were well received. However, sometimes things do go wrong – and lunch was certainly no exception. On these unfortunate occasions I needed a contingency plan. So in my formative years, as a means of survival, I set out to broker trade agreements with school friends and associates alike.
The commodity being traded – LUNCH.
I met the lanky and good-natured Sydney in Mrs Janneker’s Grade 2 class – or Sub B as it was called at the time. And when it came to lunch-swop with Syd, timing was key. Wedged between two unusually large pieces of white bread, was a thick slice of cheddar cheese which became soft and gooey as a result of the midday sun. At this time I would swoop in, offering Sydney either a can of Fresca, or my daily R2 allowance. Under the big tree, on a discarded ant hill we sat. He sipped on his Fresca while I ate my semi-melted cheese sandwich. I still see Sydney from time to time – his warm goofy smile always just as big as I remember.
Some time during the 1970s Simin Shams and Bob Parastaran fled the brutally oppressive, theocratic government of Iran for the friendly green pastures of Canada. They tied the knot, and from the marriage came two daughters. A few years later the travel bug struck once more when they packed up and moved to South Africa – East London to be exact. Their eldest daughter, Anisa and I hit it off immediately – and with that I became immersed in the strange and fragrant magic of Persian food.
Simin Shams was a boss at making tah-dig, which is kind of like a big savoury upside down rice cake – infused with saffron and turmeric. However, for Anisa’s school lunches, the glamour of big Persian upside down rice cakes was replaced with the simple wholesomeness of a type of homemade feta, accompanied by diced tomato, in between two slices of whole seed bread. The agreement was simple: in repayment for her lunch, Anisa could use me as cover whenever she needed to. If Anisa needed to see a boy on the down-low, or go to the club, or partake in any other kind of illicit teen activity, she merely needed to tell her parents either one of the following: A) “I’m sleeping over at Lyle’s house.” B) “I’m meeting Lyle at the mall”, or C) “I’m staying late after school to do some math homework with Lyle.” We ran this scam for years – rather successfully I might add. But despite these early warning signs, Anisa did not go on to star in a season of “16 and Pregnant”, or “Teen Mom” – quite the opposite in fact. The chartered accountant turned coffee shop owner now resides in the picturesque Canadian city of Calgary with her husband, raising two beautiful babies. She’s essentially living her very own American sitcom . . . filmed on location in Canada.
Nerissa was short in stature, determined by nature, and completely over the top. So when her butcher father delivered freshly braaied chops to school on most days, nobody batted an eyelid.
In exchange for some choice-cut, A-grade chesanyama I simply had to accompany this teen princess on her various flights of fantasy, or join her on whatever fanciful adventure she was caught up in at the moment. Like the time we bunked school, got high and lay on her grandmother’s kitchen floor, singing Mariah Carey all day. Or that other time she turned me into a homosexual: Mid Std. 9 year, Kim Rayner had a house party where Nerissa introduced me to a boy – who later that evening became my very first kiss. Although the meat kept coming, nothing else was ever the same again after that night. And when my pesky eating disorder kicked in later that year, it was Nerissa’s spicy tender chops I missed the most.
Good Morning South Africa
Like most things in my life, the honest innocence of simple school lunches has since been replaced with quick, easy and more often than not, overpriced alternatives from the Cape Quarter Spar. But, in this glossy new world of expensive convenience I still think back on the traded lunches that filled my tummy, and the friends that shaped my childhood. And for just a brief shining moment I’m a chunky 7 year old again, stomping down the stairs of my parent’s house, slinging my school blazer over the dining room chair and plopping myself down to catch the last few minutes of “Good Morning South Africa”. I would then glance over to the kitchen where Daddy, dressed in his freshly pressed shirt, tie and pleated trousers, scrambled to add the finishing touches to the day’s lunches.
And then suddenly the craving hits: a lamb and mint sauce sandwich would really hit the spot right about now.
Lyle Lackay is a writer. And an aspiring talk show host.