I stood staring into the pit, and my heart lightened gloriously.
—H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
ONE SATURDAY MORNING a quarter of a century ago, as the school year was about to begin, my mother convened the five sevenths of her offspring who were of educable age and escorted us into the kitchen. There we were confronted by seventy-four loaves of Wonder Bread; three plastic pails filled with peanut butter, jelly, and mayonnaise; a hamper of egg salad; a butt of tuna fish; a hod of American cheese; and a tube of sliced bologna the size of a moray eel.
My mother, it seems, had grown wears of packing five lunches a night, five days a week, for nine months of the year. By fateful coincidence we had recently acquired a Bendix freezer the size of an overachiever’s sarcophagus, whose excess capacity could hold the 925 or so sandwiches it would take to get five children through school from September to June. We set to work at about 10:00 A.M. and put down our knives at around five.
The manufacturing process went smoothly enough for a while. Each of us worked under the impression that we were creating the sandwiches that we ourselves would eat, and so the results tended to be moist and plump, with the application of condiments precisely calibrated to satisfy personal taste. We painstakingly crafted sandwiches in this way for about three hours, at the meager rate of about four sandwiches a person per hour. Then, in the early afternoon, realizing that we would be at it until well into the following week, my mother intervened. She decreed, in effect, that the capitalist ideal of individual initiative in the pursuit of individual reward be henceforward supplanted by an emphasis on fulfilling the quotas mandated by the School-Year Plan. Our personal luncheon stacks were nationalized; all future sandwiches, it was declared, would belong to the collective. Dispirited, we grimly resumed our task.
This is not intended as a morality tale, but it may be worth mentioning that the quality of workmanship underwent an abrupt decline. Many sandwiches found their way into the freezer without mayonnaise or indeed without filler of any kind. Nutritionists date the emergence of the dry cheese sandwich, which can be made, wrapped, and stacked in less than four seconds, and which requires the use of only three minor muscle groups, to that Saturday afternoon. Inevitably, the incidence of hooliganism began to climb. Some members of our work brigade, acting with high levels of peer support, deliberately spread jelly over tuna fish or combined peanut butter and egg salad, and then insinuated the noisome result into the common stock of lunch. As the shadows lengthened, we began to argue, with the same success that British labor unions were achieving at the time, that our quotas were unrealistically high. Teachers’ conventions and snow days had not been taken into account. It also seemed likely that among the five of us, some thirty-five to forty days would be lost to illness; indeed, we were prepared to guarantee that they would be. In the end, as suppertime approached, my mother summarily reduced our quota to the number of sandwiches already made. The number, as I recall, was by then upwards of 800.
In my memories of that autumn and winter the image of white bread, in its solid, liquid, and gaseous stares, figures prominently. We learned that tuna fish and egg salad effect morphological changes in bread such that upon thawing, leavened matter achieves the fluent consistency of molten tofu. Bologna and cheese, in contrast, seem to function as powerful siccatives, causing trace elements of mayonnaise to disappear. Often we would forget to bring sandwiches up from the freezer in time for them to thaw, and these would have to sit atop a radiator at school, occasionally being turned, as fine strands of silky vapor emanated from inside the waxed paper. Sometimes, impatient, we would try to eat a partially thawed sandwich, nibbling around the soft edges until at last, its circular arctic core having been reached, further human exploration proved impossible. Needless to say, the barter value of our lunches was modest. In the scholastic economy, where sandwiches function as currency, we came to school with the gastronomical equivalent of zlotys.
There seemed to be no hope of relief. The Cuban missile crisis occurred in October but was resolved. Thanksgiving passed, Christmas passed, Valentine’s Day passed. The end came, unexpectedly, in March. For some time we had vainly been calling attention to a kind of odious spotting on the surface of our sandwiches. As the spotting began to spread, we began to remark a local disturbance of the olfactory sense. Before long, as playground experiments would convincingly demonstrate, blindfolded students could detect the location of one of our thawed sandwiches, standing unwrapped, from a distance of thirteen feet, within an accuracy of a few degrees. Finally, one day, we followed my mother down into the basement, where, after examining the sandwiches and uttering a long sigh, she concluded simply, “Freezer burn.”To this day I regard that phrase, which denotes the unfelicitous freeze-drying of a foodstuff’s surface, as among the most euphonious and happy in the English language.
We waited there for a while, looking at the neat piles of expiring lunch. It was like that moment at the end of The War of the Worlds when, after months of horror, the narrator sees the Martians, “stark and silent and laid in a row,”succumbing at last to the common cold. The cold had taken our sandwiches, too. I stood staring into the freezer, and my heart lightened gloriously.