White Bread Sandwiches and Other Memories of Childhood

What are your memories of childhood? I remember long summer days swimming in the Atlantic Ocean or screaming on the scary rides at Coney Island, and white bread sandwiches. Let me explain …

On cold, wet mornings in January, with the sun barely peeking out of the sky, my sisters and I would set out for school. We would dress in our freshly laundered blue skirts topped with yellow shirts and white bobby socks.

We must have made for quite a sight on the streets of Brooklyn: Four young girls trudging to school in our heavy coats, scarves and gloves, with two startlingly white silk ribbons tied in a bow peeking out from beneath our winter caps.

When the lunch bell rang, I would race to the cafeteria and take my seat among sweaty, chattering fifth graders and the omnipresent smell of Pine Sol. I would place my lunch box on the table as I uttered a short but heartfelt prayer:

“Please God, please!”  Or

“Dear God, I beg you!” Or

“This time, God.  Surely this time!”

My prayers were not in gratitude for the food or in memory of the less fortunate—as my mother would have suggested. All the pleading and supplication came down to this: May there be a white bread sandwich lying in my lunch box nestled between my thermos of milk and a bag of chips. Just like all the other kids.

I would hold my breath and watch as my friends threw open their own lunchboxes. Out came the smelly tuna, the soggy bologna and mayo, the thirst-inducing peanut butter and jelly, and even the dreaded bread and cheese sandwich, which often meant the end of the month was near and money was tight. I would have traded my own lunch for any of those—even the bread and cheese.

But as hard as I prayed, the result was always the same. Inside my little Wonder Woman lunch box was not the sandwich I pined for but an assorted motley crew of plastic bowls and aluminum foil-wrapped concoctions: red rice and beans, fish in a thick tomato sauce, spinach, okra, chicken gizzards, turkey necks, oxtail and pork shoulder or griot. It was the kind of food I savored at home but eschewed in public. It was home food, not school food.

I found it impossible to convince my immigrant mother I needed white bread sandwiches for lunch. I tried. After enduring the casual but devastating taunts of my schoolmates, I would race home from school determined to make my mother understand the importance of sandwiches.

But the aroma of my mother’s cooking would nearly stop me in my tracks: boiled green plantains with a mashed red bean paste, yellow rice mixed with vegetables, dumplings, meatballs, conch in a rich stew. My stomach would growl in traitorous anticipation even as I tried to stand my ground.

“Manman,” I would begin haltingly. “Tomorrow, may I please have a sandwich for lunch?

My mother came from a long line of Haitian women who toiled before coal-fired stoves to prepare hearty meals for their families.  She met my request with a strange mixture of surprise, disgust and hurt.

“Un sandwich?” she said as she ladled hot soup in a bowl and set it on the table. “That is not food. It will slip through your teeth before you can even feel it.”

She would hrrumph a few times then point to a plate piled high with chicken gizzards and greens. “This is food. This will feed you and strengthen you and make you smart. Sandwiches are for motherless children. Do you really want to be like a motherless American child?”

And that was the end of that.

It was impossible to convince my mother of the primacy of sandwiches.  How could I when they were as foreign to her as my ribbon-wearing-rice-and-bean-touting self was to my classmates?  We did not even have a name for sandwich in our own language.  We simply used the English word with a funny French accent.

Sandwiches have a certain mystique for the immigrant child that may be hard for others to grasp. Very simply, it signals belonging. I am not the only one who believes this. The white bread sandwich experience seems to resonate with kids across the immigrant spectrum.

Consider two scenes from the 2002 comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In the first, a geeky young Toula Portokalos—with her thick, black glasses and pigtails—sits alone in a lunch room full of chattering, laughing, white-bread-sandwich-eating classmates. As Toula slowly pulls out her own meal, one of the perfect blonde Mean Girls pounces:

“What’s that?” Mean Girl asks.
“Moussaka,” Toula replies.
“Moose kaka?”

Fast forward two decades, and a now thirty-something Toula stands at the brink of spinsterhood (at least by Greek standards!)  She is living out the dreary life of a waitress in her parents’ restaurant, and she longs for change.

Toula decides she will go back to school.  After the obligatory ugly duckling turns into beautiful swan scene, in which she throws off her glasses in favor of contacts and fashionably curls her dark tresses, Toula finds herself back in a school cafeteria.

Once again, the Beautiful People are seated together at a lunch table, laughing and chatting and eating their sandwiches. But this time, Toula rejects social isolation just as surely as she rejects moussaka for lunch. She sits with the Beautiful People and whips out her own white bread sandwich while chatting and laughing with the best of them.

And so at last, Toula is accepted.  She is one of them.  By the grace of the sandwich, Toula belongs.

Interestingly, for all of its status as cultural icon, sandwiches are themselves mere immigrants to the American experience. They are said to have been invented in the Eighteenth Century by the high-born John Montagu, The Fourth Earl of Sandwich. A profligate gambler, the Earl faced a daunting dilemma: Should he extricate himself from the gaming table just so he could get a bite to eat?

In a fit of inspiration, the Earl decided to remain where he was and have his meal delivered to him instead.  To avoid sullying his cards—and who doesn’t hate dirty cards?—he placed the meat in between several layers of bread. Voila! The sandwich was born.

In modern times, we may well have labeled the Earl an addict and prescribed an intervention or the nearest Gambler’s Anonymous meeting, but the Eighteenth Century apparently was more forgiving. By 1762, when the word first appears in print, the sandwich had become such the rage among the English upper class that the Oxford Companion to Food noted “one was able to observe numerous important contemporaries supping off cold meat ‘or a Sandwich’.”

The sandwich made its way across the Atlantic with a wave of European migration.  Like immigrants the world over, it was forever changed by the experience. Once the exclusive preserve of the upper class, the sandwich quickly became manna for the masses.

Italian dockworkers in Pittsburg piled overwhelming amounts of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions onto an Italian roll topped with a dash of oregano-vinegar dressing and called it a Hoagie. Down and out New Orleaners created the Po’ Boy out of the unlikely pairing of French bread with fried oysters, shrimp, fish, soft-shelled crabs, crawfish, roast beef and gravy, roast pork, meatballs, and smoked sausage. The comic strip “Blondie” inspired the invention of the Dagwood—once described as “a mountainous pile of dissimilar leftovers precariously arranged between two slices of bread.”

From its quintessentially English roots, the sandwich became truly American.

The summer of my fifth grade year, my mother went into the hospital for some tests, and just like that she was gone. One moment, she was standing in front of our stove stirring a big pot of bouillon as she dropped crab legs, yams and hot peppers into the bubbling stew.  The next, we were transporting her corpse back to Haiti to be buried in the family plot.

When fall came, it brought many changes. My sisters and I now trudged to school dressed head to toe in black—black pleated skirts, black silk blouses, black socks and black ribbons in our hair. I now carried a Bionic Woman lunchbox, having switched allegiance from the hopelessly outdated (in my eyes) Wonder Woman.

Nestled within my lunchbox was a white bread and cheese sandwich.

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