Real men . . . have real wives . . . who pack a real lunch.
Sundays at Japanese church don’t end with the benediction and postlude. If people walk out the church door at this point it’s probably because they forgot to bring their lunch and are running to the store deli to pick up a “bento box” or rice ball and piece of fish. The church supplies the green tea and coffee. Folding tables and chairs are set up, The lunch boxes come out and the meal begins.
Here are the finer points of lunch:
- Each person has their own individual lunch box. Rarely do families eat out of a joint lunch.
- Each lunch box is wrapped in a cloth (something like an oversized handkerchief,) which is knotted properly at the top.
- The cloth is untied and serves as a mini-table cloth for the lunch box inside.
- Typically the lunch is half rice and half fish with some colorful combination of seasonal vegetables. A piece of steamed broccoli still bright green. A dark shitake mushroom has a cross cut in the top–both decorative and helps the thicker part cook better . The orange carrot rounds are made into floral shapes by use of a mini cookie-cutter . . . There can also be bite-sized chicken pieces, thin slices of pork, or a bit of fish.
- Variety is important; try to have at least 7 different food items in the lunch. If your lunch comes up short, you can always sprinkle black sesame seeds on the white rice–that gets “presentation points” too. Bright pickles are another way to add.
- In winter a quarter of an apple or a mandarin orange is “dessert.”
- Real sweets are served at tea time, promptly at 3 o’clock.
- Each person brings their own chopsticks (which are carried in a chopstick box with sliding top) as it’s no longer politically correct to use disposable chopsticks.
The mothers and wives take much effort on these lunches. MUCH effort. (I am probably the only one who packs Saturday night’s leftover vegetables.) Those sitting at a table together look at each other’s lunches and comment on how delicious the other person’s lunch looks and how hard that mother/wife must have worked to prepare it. Happy is the girl whose rice is in a Hello-Kitty shape with pieces of seaweed cut out to add the eyes, nose, and the 6 whiskers. Every once in a while, not often, someone looks at the lunch I’ve made Mark and then smiles approvingly at me. I sometime think I have the basics of Lunch Box 101 figured out.
Then it happened. Last Sunday as we were eating, a young man in his 20’s came to Mark with a Christmas gift. He’s a great kid who loves to entertain everyone with Michael Jackson impersonations, his jacket is leather—a bright turquoise blue leather and it zips up on the side, and he is known to bring spaghetti for his lunch. This is the kid who doesn’t heed traditions and who thinks outside the box. He was clearly delighted with the gift he had gotten Mark, his eyes shining as he asked Mark to open it on the spot. It felt very light, almost like an empty box. Mark unwrapped it—and there it was—a brand new beautiful wooden lunch box. The young man turned to me, as a teacher would a pupil, and said, “now you can pack his lunch in a man’s lunch box.” Ah, twas true. I’d been unwittingly packing Mark’s lunch in a (cheap aluminum) woman’s lunch box.
Note to self: you might get away with packing Mark’s lunch with Saturday night’s left-over vegetables, but they’d better be in a man’s lunch box.