The Thinking 

The Purloined Lunch

April 12, 2010


Twenty years ago, I began making my husband lunch every day, a bag lunch though I rarely packaged it in the traditional brown bag.

Women have made lunches for their husbands for eons, long before there were factories or corporate campuses or high-rise office buildings. Farm wives heaped the table at noontime. Men in India carried their tiffin in metal holders to keep it warm, a practice which has possibly declined due to the large-scale departure of Indian women for the office themselves. Making lunch for a working man is as old as time. It seems a mundane and perfectly ordinary thing to do.

But, it isn’t a mundane and ordinary thing to do anymore. It seems beset with political overtones. I knew that making lunch for my husband everyday would not win me the esteem of others.

Every week, I would pick up six pounds of chicken bones from a poultry vendor, take them home and make broth, a practice I continue more or less today. I would then make soup, which is healthy, cheap and interesting, and various other simple dishes or I would recycle leftovers. Sandwiches are generally dull and heavy, but I have gone that route sometimes too.

These meals have been cheaper and healthier than anything my husband could buy. He has been appreciative and they have also been one small form of compensation. I am not as bad as Mrs. Joe, the immortal character of Dickens’ Great Expectations, who beat her husband over the head with a riding crop nicknamed “Tickler.”  But like most women, I am a congenital nag. Marriage is the great humiliator. Sooner or later, in the bogs of marital interaction, we run across the sinkholes in our own personalities, the places which resist leveling. When we can’t fix something about ourselves, we can offer something in return. Something like lunch. I can’t say that in that department I am as bad as Mrs. Joe either. She had what her brother Pip called a “trenchant” way of slicing bread for the afternoon meal:

First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her bib – where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into our mouths. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making plaister – using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust. Then, she gave the knife a small smart wipe on the edge of the plaister, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf: which she finally, before separating from the loaf hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one and I the other.

Poor Mrs. Joe. She had no choice but to spend her life tenderly serving those she loved. Imagine what she would have been like if she could only have worked as a human resources manager, tickling employees all the live long day. Surely, she would have been infinitely more charming.

As I said, I always knew making lunch would not win me accolades or esteem from others. That’s why when I first started the practice, I asked my husband to please eat his lunch discreetly. “Can you go off into one of the empty offices?” I asked. I was sure his coworkers would not think more highly of me or of him with the discovery of these homemade lunches. I don’t deny there was some vanity in this request.  A homemaker faces contradictory accusations. On the one hand, she is elitist, living in a way others can’t afford. This may be true even if she is not rich and has given up many material things to be a homemaker. At the same time, she is a loser, lacking in ambition, foisting martyrdom on her husband, and guilty of a mindless existence. Why risk these charges unless necessary?

My husband said, “Sure, sure.” He would eat discreetly.

That was fine, but over the years there were disturbing signs that our agreement was breaking down. He mentioned eating lunch with a colleague one day and that the man was astonished to see him unpack a sandwich with lettuce in a separate plastic bag.

 “Look at that,” the man said in amazement. “She packs your lettuce in a separate bag so the bread won’t get soggy!”

“So that’s why she does that!” my husband laughed. The practice had mystified him. 

Another colleague ate lunch by my husband’s side for several months while they worked on a special project. The man would pull out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while my husband would unpack his pedestrian feast and then eat with unabashed gusto, like a French peasant dining on wild boar and fresh bread at the edge of his fields. His co-worker made pointed remarks about his hedonism. These observations made their way back to me.

On another occasion, a coworker rummaged through the lunch in the office refrigerator. My husband went to retrieve it and found the bag partly emptied and a trail of almond crumbs outside the refrigerator. These were his almonds. He confronted his colleague.

“Paul,” he said angrily. “Have you been eating my lunch?”

Paul was a perennial scrounger and everybody knew it.  “I thought anything in the refrigerator was for everybody,” he said, lying through his teeth. 

Then one day my husband was unexpectedly out of the office and had left his lunch behind. He is a kind and considerate man, and so with no thought to our agreement, he telephoned a coworker and said, “Rich, I can’t eat my lunch today. Do you want it?”

Rich, who ate subs and pizzas everyday, was flabbergasted. “Are you sure?” he said.

“Absolutely,” said my husband. “Go ahead.”

Rich took the lunch out of the refrigerator and unwrapped it. Apparently, the man had never seen a simple, wholesome homemade lunch before. He carefully spread the contents of the bag out on a desk.

“Hey, everybody,” he then shouted out. “Come here. You gotta see this.”

People emerged from distant cubicles and cluttered niches, from the back alleys and dead ends of a large corporate office. A small crowd gathered around the desk.

“Do you believe this?” Rich said in amazement. He pointed out the Asian cucumber salad and the pesto pasta and whatever else was there. Rich was not making fun of it. He was just genuinely impressed. I don’t know how the others reacted, whether derision or envy passed through their heads. But clearly the gig was up for me.

I call this a “purloined lunch” but technically it was a donated lunch. It’s difficult to get people interested in lunch in a philosophical way and so I added this excitement.  Almost everyone thinks they’re above serious meditation on the subject, although most people do like to talk about the fine points with their closest friends and family. I know a man who dines with clients in some of the fanciest restaurants in Washington., D.C. a couple of times a week and comes home to recount the bacchanalian details to his wife. My husband once met a man who ate chickpeas cold out of a can everyday. He is a scientist at a prestigious university and he holds up his can and brags about how he is above the sort of niggling, petty concern for food that troubles lesser beings.

Lunch is not an important thing. I admit that. But day after day after, week after week, year after year, lunches add up. That’s really the only philosophical thing I have to say about them. Through sheer repetition, they create some cumulative reality.  They may add up to the same thing, stated over and over again, until the point is finally conveyed.



                                                     — Comments —


Jake Jacobsen writes:

What a beautiful and odd tale but let me disagree with one small detail, you say…

“Lunch is not an important thing”

In actuality food is one of the simplest and most wholesome ways we love one another in this world. The fact that you feel the need to denigrate this obvious and overt expression of love is much more disturbing to me than many other ways Communism has poisoned the discourse among normal human beings just trying to get along as fallen sinful beings.

Laura writes:

Don’t be so literal. : – )

If I truly thought it was an unimportant thing, would I have toiled at these lunches? Food conveys our dreams and our innermost feelings.

Niki writes:

Your tale of lunches made with love reminds me of an account told by a graduating senior at my church twenty years ago or so. She said that each day during her elementary and secondary school, her mother had made delicious Greek lunches for her, and either her mother or father had handwritten a little note and placed it into each day’s lunchbag. She read several of the short, loving notes. She had saved every one. 

Shared food and loving attention: This is what is of most importance to us in the years when we first enter this world and when we are preparing to depart. Although we might not recognize it, this is also the best part of all of those years inbetween. Our Lord Jesus told us as much in His words and deeds. 

Thank you for your beautiful words. They help more people in more ways than you may realize.

John P. writes:

While I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, your delightful post about making lunch made me sad (and hungry.) It reminded me of how much true civilisation we have lost. My mother made me lunch when I was in school through High School but without the level of culinary imagination you display – turkey sandwich and a apple – but she did it religiously.

No one has ever made lunch for me as an adult man. I always ate well at lunch, lots of Italian, Japanese and Greek food but at 10-15 dollars a pop, that was for the old high-rolling 90’s and is not an option now.

On a happier note, there seem to be a lot of stay at home mum’s in my neighbourhood of Edmonton, AB. I’m working from home these days and to avoid cabin fever I frequent a local cafe with wifi internet. I see them here often, almost always with a toddler and a baby. So maybe something is changing, at least in the upper part of the middle class. Not sure if they’re making lunch but it wouldn’t surprise me.

We can hope.

Laura writes:

Purchased lunches can really add up. Let’s say you spend $15 a day, which really isn’t unrealistic anymore. That’s $300 a month.

Then also, I think there’s more of a tendency to overeat. Another good thing about a wife making lunch is she can vary the menu with what she is making for dinner. Variety is key to human health and happiness.

Fitzgerald writes:

Ladies, do NOT understimate the power of the message this communicates to a man!! My ex-wife refused to serve me for years before she left. This was a very clear message. Something as simple as just offering to refill a glass communicates many, many deeply profound things to human beings.
A very wise man taught me several key things about human relationships. First always practice gratitude, even if you don’t feel it’s deserved. Secondly, the details don’t matter, BUT THEY MEAN EVERYTHING! Making lunch may seem a small thing, even it it’s just a PBJ, and an orange, but the message it communicates is profound. Cultural metaphors abound around children making special meals, not always very tasty, for parents on important days. Demonstrable messaging!
The last supper is not an accident. Christ feeding us from his body is the ultimate form of humility. We are what we eat. But deeper than this, being fed by someone communicates love at a deep and abiding level.Many mystics (not exclusively Christian) and Church Fathers expound on the vital importance of fasting as controlling one’s passons. There is a very common and I believe powerfuly correct syllogism: “If you can’t control what goes into your mouth, you can’t control anything.” Food is basic, primal, necessary, but also laden with rich, abiding metaphors. These should not be ignored.
Laura, your husband is very blessed to have you as a spouse, even if you suffer from the female propensity to nag congentially. On this point, I assert that one key path for growth and domestic happiness is for women to work very hard at controlling this impulse. Men must also work at being present emotionally and attentive, equally difficult for most men. Pick your battles ladies, submit if you can quietly and humbly, use the opportunities for communicating to your spouse congenially when he is open for constructive criticism, but most of all if you keep quiet about something, do not nurse resentments. Resentments are relationship killers! One last point, don’t set men up for premediated resentments.

Laura writes:

Thank you.

It’s so true what you say about serving. A woman refusing to serve food to a man or expressing resentment about it is a very bad sign in a marriage. It always disturbs me when I see this. It’s important to go through the motions of loving each other. These gestures create an everyday form for our vows.

In my experience, a man will never ask a woman to serve him. Similarly, a woman will never say to a man, “I want you to be more manly. I want you to show you are protecting me.” Men and women hesitate to ask for these essential things, probably out of fear that it will insult the other person on some deep level.

Therese writes:

Actually I have found a few rare instances of a husband asking his wife to serve him and a few rare instances of a wife asking her husband for protection. Both instances were in dying marriages when the spouse doing the asking was wanting to preserve and grow the marriage while the delinquent spouse did not. When a man has to ask for a sandwich and the wife refuses to make one, or when the wife is under attack from family members for mutual decisions made by the couple and the husband refuses to stand up for their decisions, desperation sets in. The asking is a plea for the spouse to fulfill their role in the marriage. Commitments are worked out in the details – a sandwich, protection from intruding relatives. The details, which may seem small in themselves, reflect the working out of the principles already in place.



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