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Thinking about Lunch

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Now that school’s back in session, I’ve been remembering a bit about the most important part of the school day. Well, it was the most important part to me. As a child, and as an adolescent, my appetites were more visceral than intellectual (some might say they still are). 
I’ve written elsewhere about one transformative experience in the school cafeteria and, frankly, the less I have to recall about the food there, the better. Let’s just say that some of that cafeteria‘s offerings might have constituted a violation of provisions in the Geneva Convention.
No, I’ve been thinking about the lunches we carried to school in brown bags or metal lunchboxes (and they were fashioned of metal, back then—in the days before all children were protected from anything that might be used as a weapon). Alas, for most of us—unlike the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding—lunch was not savory leftover moussaka. Our lunch-bags held sandwiches. 
Usually soggy sandwiches.
After years of such moist disappointments, a few strategies have emerged to make the brown-bagging experience less traumatic. Most of them are structural.
The first should be familiar to those who (presumably, as adult cooks) have prepared classic canapés. Applying a thin layer of fat on the bread slows the transfer of wetness from topping ingredients. I’m not suggesting a bagful of canapés for your first grader’s lunch (it would probably garner the same sort of negative social pressure that “moose caca” did in the movie).
However, almost every child has had to face a squelchy PB&J —at the very moment when he or she was most in need of some comforting from mom. I won’t get into the choices of jams, jellies, and preserves that have to better than the ubiquitous concord grape jelly—‘though I’m sure we all could. No, this doesnt involve any ingredient changes. Prevent (or, at least, diminish) the sodden frustration of that PB&J by spreading half of the peanut butter on each of the slices of bread, thereby isolating the jelly from the bread.
The same principle can applied to other (perhaps more grown-up) sandwiches. Imagine that you’ve got some lovely left-over roast pork, and tangy-sweet chutney might be the perfect condiment. Simply spread the chutney between (rather than atop) the layers of meat, and it won’t soak into the bread. 
I, personally, don’t like tuna salad—‘though it has been brought to my attention that others do—but I suspect that a few lettuce leaves betwixt bread and tuna would help make the sandwich last longer in the bag.
Lettuce and tomato sandwiches benefit from the same approach—‘though mayonnaise provides some of the requisite water-proofing. Two brief asides: while big juicy tomatoes, like beefsteaks, are great for sandwiches served à la minute, drier paste tomatoes (Roma, for example) are a better choice for traveling lunches; and do not fear food poisoning from the mayo. The mayo’s acidity makes it much safer than a lot of common advice would have you believe.
In addition to the anti-wetness issues, experimenting with structure and ingredient sequence can lead to better sandwiches in another way. We taste multiple ingredients according to the order in which our tongue first encounters them. By tinkering with that sequence, we can alter the perceived flavor of the sandwich. Do you want your first bite to taste like ham or mustard? The sandwich’s construction might determine the result (McDonald’s test kitchens spend a lot of time on this seemingly trivial, but significant, element of the flavor profiles of their menu items).


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