Friday, January 10, 2014

Lunch

Someone among your Friday morning coffee group, perhaps hopeful of raising the plane of conversation to a more reflective level, but perhaps in the merest curiosity asked a simple question.

The moment you heard the question, you were yanked back in time to your single-digit years, which had been spent at the time in and about Los Angeles.

In the process of regaining your spatial and temporal equilibrium, you began to recognize how the answer to that simple, speculative question, had placed a profound effect on your life.

"What,"  the question began, "is your favorite meal of the day?"

The first leg of your journey back in time was to the faint yellow school benches of your grammar school, Hancock Park Elementary School, 408 South Fairfax Avenue.  These benches were to you more like pews at some fantastic ritual ground, where the potential for adventures and excitements beyond your boyish dreams glinted in the noon sunlight, as inviting as the Hollywood Hills to the immediate north.

Depending on times of the year and the aching clarity of the pre-smog Los Angeles light, you chose your bench with deliberation.  This was dependent on whether, on this day, you'd brought lunch from home.  Hungry as you were, and it seemed you were always burning a high flame of hunger, you knew enough to savor the moment of discovery when you plunged into the brown bag.  More often than not, there were two sandwiches, wrapped with care in Cut-Rite wax paper, a small container of crunch vegetables such as celery or carrot, some possibility of fruit such as pear, apple, or banana, and with luck, a slice of your mother's Dutch apple cake or the stickier, and thus more preferable, pineapple upside down cake.  

On the rarest of occasions, the sandwiches were the same, but even when this was so, the magic of discovery had elevated whatever the type of sandwich to dramatic intensity.  Your mother knew her way around the sandwich, understanding the mechanics of crispness with leaves of Romaine lettuce, or undercoating the bread with a tawny mustard, resorting on other occasions to appropriate garnishes of cheese or homemade mayonnaise.  

In retrospect, you pause now, as you seemed to have done earlier in the day, when either your mother or father poked a head into your room to remind you of breakfast being on the table while you sat, a leg crossed, one sock partially on, as you were fixed in a stare of contemplation of some vision or other.  This retrospective pause reminds you of the possibilities for the discovery of some unexpected variation, say a small red box of Sun-Maid raisins, or a pouch of almonds, or your favorites, unshelled pine nuts.  You now prefer the shelled pine nuts, but then, well, the shells, cracked with your teeth, made marvelous missiles, far better than spit wads. 

The subtext of these wondrous lunches was your awareness that these times were the tail end of the Great Depression and your own assessment that the fact of one of the sandwiches being peanut butter had a meaning all its own, including an omen for a dinner that evening of creamed tuna or salmon on toast rather than the likes of fish or chicken or another great favorite, lamb chops.

On days when there was no bag lunch, you stopped by the Principal's office to report your destination, a block northward on Fairfax to Third Street, and what was then a more modest version of the Farmer's Market now in its place.  Your stipend on those days was twenty-five cents, in relative terms a king's ransom, at least a boy's treasure.  Hot dog, ten cents.  Hamburger, ten cents.  One venture at the tuna salad was enough; you could do better at home.  The lady at the fish-and-chip place gave you three pieces for fifteen cents, leaving five cents for milk or lemonade, and five for an ice cream concoction that you favored more for the lid of the cup, with its photograph of an airplane or a Western motion picture actor.

There were varieties of places to sit, stands to chose from, and the near hypnotic pull of the mixing bowl at McGee's, where peanut butter was ground before your eyes.  

On such days, you ventured experiments, ranking your choices against your mother's cooking, finding your way into foreign cuisines and combinations that allowed you to imagine you were in other worlds at other times.

These days, you are often out on the town at lunch time, aware now, with this insight of reminiscence of a sense of restlessness, a desire to wander from place to place until you find the right restaurant, then manage to spend time with the menu, unaware of your reaching back into the past for surprise.

Often when you had Sally in your life, the restlessness was not so intense; the focus was The Italian Market on De la Guerra for the super deluxe torpedo, cut in half, then shared in one of three or four favored parks.  Or perhaps the albacore tuna on a French roll at The Habit, also cut in half.  Gelsons's Market had a nice take away chicken haunch, and the tacos de lengua at El Sitio on Salinas, the Reyes Mercado on Carpinteria, for their torta de carnitas, or, of course, if we were in LA, the brisket at Art's Deli on Ventura Boulevard.

Hands down, lunch.

Much of the sense of adventure came from those pre-teen lunches in L.A., including the adventures of your father taking you to 1001 Alameda Street and Phillippe's for the French Dip lamb, or your mother, surprising you by appearing at Hancock Park Elementary School at about eleven thirty to take you to "a doctor's appointment," which meant another magical brown bag, to be eaten during an afternoon matinee at Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Anyone for lunch?



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