It was a sandwich rotation. Listed in order of preference:
1) Cream cheese with grape jelly
3) Bologna and cheese
4) Peanut butter with orange marmalade
5) Underwood Deviled Ham
1968: I was in first grade. Just beginning my long career as a lunch packer, a brown bagger—except I had a Peanuts lunchbox. My recurring menu was already in place before I started school. I have two older brothers; these are the sandwich choices they made. By the time I came along, the habits were formed. Change was impossible.
We were the stereotypical American suburban family in the sixties: my father had a Government desk job in nearby Washington, DC, and my mom kept house. Housework was more involved back then. No microwaves, no pre-made convenience foods, no daytime TV to occupy the kids. In fact, Shake ‘n Bake had just been invented. Finally, there was an easier way to bread chicken.
In 1968, Underwood had been selling its spicy, ground ham for exactly one hundred years. I’m not certain how it’s expected to be served, but my mom’s take on it was to mix in a generous glob of Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise and spread it on cheap white bread—knock-off Wonder Bread, the real product unnecessarily pricey. Because my mother shared one small can of ham between three kids, we each got what is now known as a schmear. A glazing, barely enough to dampen the bread. Which is good, because Underwood Deviled Ham with Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise made me gag.
In my orderly household, we had food allocations. Really, we had allocations of all sorts of stuff, including TV. On Sunday, my father would dole out 10 poker chips to each of us. A chip was valued at a half-hour of screen-time (although back then, there was only one screen; in our house it was referred to as the Boob-Tube). We needed to prioritize and purchase the shows we wanted to watch. If we blew our stack on afterschool reruns, we would miss out on the good, new programming in the evening—Bewitched, Star Trek, Mission Impossible; and also the bad, new programming—Gomer Pile, Green Acres, the Beverly Hillbillies).
To accommodate our allocations of snack-foods, my mom always bought packages that were easily divisible by three. Pop Tarts (two each); a small, popular pre-sliced coffee cake, the name I can’t conjure up (three pieces each); and Coca Cola (a six-pack of course). I call it Coca Cola because growing up in the DC area, every soft drink was called a coke. “Hey, you want a coke? We have Pepsi, Sprite and Tab.” Up north they called it ‘soda’. A few states to the west they called it ‘pop’. But I didn’t learn any of this until I went off to college. If it was sweet and carbonated, we called it ‘coke’.
Coca Cola was sold in reusable sixteen ounce bottles—quarter-inch thick, green monsters that are forever memorialized by the expression coke-bottle eye-glasses. Because our treats had to last a whole week, my brothers and I typically drank our Cokes in eight-ounce portions. After we all finished our allotment, carefully, on the last day of the week, we took the bottles back to the Grand Union. There must have been a deposit, but since we always swapped out for a fresh six-pack, no money changed hands. The green bottles were bleached a chalky white from multiple sterilizations, and they were usually chipped. True recycling fueled by the inability to cheaply make throwaway bottles. I don’t recall rummaging through the six packs looking for bottles without jagged edges, but I suppose we did. Fatal cuts from a coke bottle seems like the sort of nonsensical thing my mother would worry about.
e.g. In 1970, when we decided to upgrade to a four-bedroom house, our family toured the new construction springing up throughout the Maryland suburbs. Each house we saw had a flaw (busy street, bad color choice, wrong high school), and we kids became bored with looking at houses. When we finally found the house we all loved—probably me most of all because of the powerline-right-of-way next to the house – my mom dismissed it as unacceptable. She heard that powerlines attract alien spaceships.
My grade-school lunch desserts were consistently a giant improvement from my Deviled Ham sandwich. Based on my memory, my brothers and I had either a Ho Ho or a Yodel every single day of grade-school. For the unenlightened, Ho Hos and Yodels are almost identical: a cylinder of chocolate cake rolled with cream filling and covered in milk chocolate. Ho Hos are made by Hostess and Yodels are made by Drake’s. I’m told that Little Debbie’s Swiss Rolls are pretty much the same, but I’ve never had one.
I’m uncertain how it’s possible, but I never even heard of Little Debbie until I went to college. Midway through my sophomore year, I was getting stoned with a group of friends. After the smoking was done and the laughter fits subsided, we were all famished. My friend Jim dug into a high pantry cabinet and returned with boxes of Little Debbie cookies and a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Like Little Debbies, Marshmallow Fluff never crossed my path before that night. As soon as I admitted inexperience with these stoner munchie staples, the laughter reignited—this time at my expense.
My brothers and I all preferred Yodels over Ho Hos, and being children, it’s likely we made this known: “Ugh, Ho Hos? Again? Yodels are a million times better! Why do you always buy Ho Hos? Etc.” Certainly, economics ruled. We switched back and forth between the two, but we definitely got more Ho Hos than Yodels. Ho Hos must have been the cheaper snack.
I could learn a lot from my parents’ allocation rules. My kids have trouble limiting screen time, and if a snack is in the pantry, they think it’s fair game. The screen time addiction is unsurprising. Everywhere they look there’s a screen. They don’t watch any more TV than I did, but add in games and texting and “checking the weather” on my computer (their clever euphemism for time-killing google searches), and they more than double my allotment. But they are really just emulating everyone around them. Everyone is on a screen, all the time. I don’t have a phone, but I spend hours on my laptop writing these stories and feeding my growing social media addiction.
The snack food issue goes beyond annoyance. It’s affecting relationships. My childhood habit of capping off every lunch with a chocolate cake treat has resurfaced in my adulthood. My opinion as a child was correct. Yodels are clearly better than Ho Hos. And Ring Dings, also by Drake’s—identical to Yodels in every way except shape—are better still. Plus, Ring Ding is more fun to say. I would never have named this story “Yodels.”
Ring Dings come ten to a box. I buy them on the weekend and expect to eat them as my lunch dessert all week. Monday goes well, but by Tuesday morning, the Ring Dings are gone. Ten Ring Dings—I get one. That’s when I accuse my kids of gluttony.
This is unfair. My children have grown up in a world where ice cream is served in a rolled up waffle; the smallest soda at 7-11 is now twenty ounces; and every meal purchased at a restaurant is really enough for two people—yet the waiter still tries to guilt us into dessert. A serving size is two ‘Dings, but my kids never eat more than one at a time. But often, they will eat two in a day, so the box will never make it to the end of the week.
I now keep my Ring Dings at work. My ten cakes, my five servings, lasts me two weeks. I eat a half a serving per day, just like when I was a kid. Even though my motivation is moderation, I’m the one who feels like the glutton. I’m the guy with a personal stash of Ring Dings in his desk drawer.