The kid with the stinky lunch
November 15th, 2011
12:15 PM ET
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Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and these next two weeks, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. Catch up on past coverage and stay tuned for the live blog from our Secret Supper in Chicago on Wednesday night starting at 6:00 CT.

When you're all grown up and on your own and have lived a bit of life, it's easier to find peace with your weirdness. All those little and large things that set you apart as a child - your goofy-looking nose, talent for playing bassoon or obsession with the insides of small electronic devices - are what make you the gorgeous, fascinating, resilient adult you are today.

Back then, though, kids may not have been so kind. Conformity is key in formative years - it teaches us all to walk on the right, chew with our mouths closed and remain reasonably clothed in public places. But it can have a cruel edge if wielded by the callow.

Enter the elementary school lunchroom, where a break from the regimen of the day can often descend into food-flinging anarchy. PB&J or bologna sandwiches are the brown bag standard, and anything other than that is regarded as plain old freaky.

Kids from immigrant families are up against a lot, and the pressure to assimilate to their new culture outside the confines of home can be overwhelming. For many it's a matter of retraining speech patterns, learning all new pop culture icons or convincing their parents that really, it's okay to dress down in jeans and sneakers; everybody does. But they can't control what goes into their lunchbox - and other kids take keen notice.

Stella Fayman already felt like a visitor from another planet when she came to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1989, and lunchtime was a whole new universe of discomfort. She says, "I would bring Russian food and the kids would make fun of me and call my delicious homemade meal an 'alien sandwich.' Now as an adult, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is a treat because of how much I used to envy those American kids with their Gushers and perfect little lunchboxes."

It was the smell that gave away Maria Liberati. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Italian food didn't have the same have the same molto delizioso cachet that it does now.

Liberati recalls, "I can remember attempting to find a place in a hidden spot to sit in the lunch room because I usually had an Italian type of panini sandwich dripping with olive oil and oregano or a cold meatball sandwich, and for dessert Italian biscotti and a piece of fruit. Others had the local Tastykakes for dessert. Everybody else would bring in a PB&J or bologna and cheese."

She continued, "Of course my lunches were difficult to hide because you could smell that fragrant tomato sauce or the panini with fresh oregano from a mile away. I would place the lunch bag in the cloak room with my coat and try to cover the brown bag so to mask the fragrance."

Fortunately, the shame faded over time; Liberati is now a noted cookbook author, specializing in Italian recipes.

And again, the smell was a finger pointing straight at Hungarian immigrant Wanda S. Miarecki. In the 1950s, her grandmother would send her to school with a lunch of Limburger cheese sandwiches and a hard boiled egg and possibly sardines or a lard sandwich sprinkled with sugar. Sister Agnes would send Miarecki to sit at the back table in her Catholic school cafeteria and as she notes, "Needless to say, I didn't make any friends."

For humor blogger Alexandra Rosas, the benefits of a traditional health drink were lost in translation. On the Tiki Tiki Blog, she recalls her Colombian grandmother sending her to school in the mid-1960s with a thermos of yerba buena, also known as mate, if she had a stomach ache. Already an outcast, she failed to win any new friends when she answered the class's questions about her beverage with a literal translation, "It's good weed drink!" - which they immediately ran home and told their parents.

Pablo Solomon, now an artist and designer, grew in a multicultural home in Houston, and was bullied every day as a child. Lunch, however, provided a little bit of respite. Though his parents were poor, they got him a Roy Roger's lunch box.

Solomon says, "Because my meals were often foods that the other kids could not recognize, at least they did not beat me up for my lunch. I would have such Mediterranean delicacies as kibba, dolmas, feta cheese, stuffed squash and cabbage - even baklava and huge date cookies. Throw in the occasional tamales, epanadas, sausages, containers of various soups, beans and stews, a variety of homemade breads - and I ate well." It was a comforting little slice of home in the middle of a trying day.

Sandro Gerbini grew up in upstate New York to a father born in Lebanon. From first through third grades lunch was a similarly harrowing experience that turned out to be a cultural bridge to her classmates.

Gerbini recalls, "While the other children brought their white bread, peanut butter and fluff lunches, my sister and I were packed with elaborate Lebanese pita wraps filled with ingredients ranging from hummus, baba ganoush, and Greek yogurt with olive oil, olives, tomatoes and mint. I distinctly remember multiple occasions where I came home to my parents in tears, begging them to pack normal kid lunches for me so that I might be spared the embarrassment of being scrutinized by my typically cruel first and second grade peers."

Luckily, an astute teacher intervened, turning it into a cultural lesson for the class, inviting students to bring in a dish representative of their heritage. Gerbini says, "Most students were either brave, or were trying to appear so before their friends, and ended up trying a bit of everything, sampling cuisine from nearly two dozen different cultures. The event was such a hit that by the next week my formerly odd-ball lunch was suddenly in demand by former skeptics. I began exchanging bits and pieces of my lunch for whatever unusual foods their parents had packed for them and never again was my Lebanese lunch a source of distress for me."

Julia Simens, who has lived on five continents and parlayed her expertise into a book called "Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child" fondly recalls a lesson in cultural pride gleaned from Jesse, a fellow student at her school.

She says, "I peeked over his shoulder to see his packed lunch, a meat stick on fluffy white potatoes. As he ate more and more of his meal we had the conversation that got me to understand the difference between pounded yams and mashed potatoes. I even took a small bite, bland but doable food. When Jess pulled a large piece of meat off and smiled at me while he chewed and chewed. I had to ask him what type of meat he was eating. I never expected to hear 'snail.' When he offered
this BBQ delight I had to decline."

Siemens contined, "I am sure Jesse would take his favorite treat with him ay place on the world that he moved to since it was his favorite and often showed up in his lunch bag."

And Devna Shukla, an Associate Producer for CNN's AC360° digested an important insight in cultural pride in her essay Stall confessions: Life lessons from my lunch box, recounting the tale of finding a kachori in her lunchbox. It was a favorite at home, but in the lunchroom, she was so embarrassed, she ate it in a school bathroom stall. It was the most shameful moment of her life, she says, but she's since grown from it.

Shukla writes, "It struck me that while our country has many obstacles facing us, it seems that we are embracing each ingredient that goes into the melting pot of American culture. I learned such an important lesson from my lunch box, and my kachori. Today I am proud of both my Indian and American roots. If I could go back, I would tell that little girl in the bathroom to be proud of herself and her culture, and eat that kachori with pride – outside the stall."

Do you have any true tales of alienation or acceptance in the school cafeteria? Please share them in the comments below and we'll highlight our favorites in an upcoming post.

soundoff (334 Responses)
  1. Smell the graal

    Unlike the smell of burnt cow smell, or deodorized pig parts glommed together into an unidentifiable mass, these things smell bad?? Strange people. I love real sauerkraut. I will clear a whole field of cabbage at one meal. All of the above sound tasty!

    August 13, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
  2. Floyd Schrodinger

    This article brought back lots of memories, mostly painful. As a child I got hit with a double whammy. I had ethnic food (Polish) sent in my lunch bag AND I was sent to catholic school. My classmates made fun of my food and the nuns encouraged them and told me to stop being weird.

    July 17, 2014 at 7:53 am |
  3. Crown Gold Exchange Ontario Gold Buyer

    Amazing blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it
    from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog stand out.
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    July 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm |
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