I’VE LEARNED NOT TO MENTION them in social settings. “You don’t do that for me,” a woman says to her suddenly defensive husband. “I wish someone would make mine,” remarks another woman, as her partner glares at me. “Boy, you must worship your wife,” a man suggests, as if that’s a crime. These folks assume that pure, unselfish love is why I pack my wife’s lunch nearly every working day. And they’re wrong.
I started preparing her lunches for as unromantic a reason as there is: I’m cheap. I noticed my wife was buying her midday meal, and at around six bucks a pop, this added up to serious cash. As the cook in our home, I knew I could feed her just as well and for a fraction of the cost. Fifteen years and 3,000 lunches later, just thinking about the savings makes me smile.
But thrift only goes so far. When my wife opens her lunch, I want that food to look as good as it tastes. And I try not to give her the same thing two days in a row. She doesn’t demand eye appeal or variety — she’s thrilled simply to be fed and would uncomplainingly eat peanut butter daily. So why do I obsess over what color peppers to put on a sandwich? And why not lasagna again on Tuesday, if she enjoyed it Monday? Is it because I love her?
I do love her, but that’s not why 3,000 lunches — and counting — still doesn’t add up to drudgery. My daily engagement with Tupperware and Ziploc is as much about the making as the eating — it’s the selfish pleasure of craftsmanship. When I transform day-old calamari into sushi rolls, it’s my victory over dullness and waste. To cut a sandwich straight or on the bias is my decision, and it affects both appearance and flavor. When I wrap a cupcake so that it bounces in the lunch bag but emerges intact, it’s as close to engineering as I’ll ever get. Each of these tasks gives me the simple satisfaction of a job well done.
Which isn’t to say I don’t need to have my work acknowledged. I’m not that self-contained. Anyone who cooks wants his food to make people happy, which means my wife’s approval matters. A lot. So much so that when she occasionally fails to compliment a lunch on which I worked hard, I sulk. Given that she has a demanding job, you might think I’d be sympathetic if she forgets to say “great sandwich” or “amazing shrimp curry.” I’m not. I tend to become passive-aggressive, as in “Did you hate your lunch today, dear?”
Call it whining, but it’s mutually beneficial whining. The more the appreciation, the better the lunches, and vice versa.
Making a lunch isn’t always practical, I know — people don’t have time, or they have business lunches, or they scarf party-tray fare at meetings. Nor would I suggest that packing a lunch for one’s partner is the key to domestic bliss. But it’s economical, it offers the self-gratification of meaningful work, and it can earn appreciation out of proportion to the effort — to me, this is one form of bliss.
I occasionally buy flowers and chocolates for my wife, and on special occasions I’ll take her out to dinner. Although these romantic gestures are undeniably pleasant, they can become predictable, and a special-occasion dinner can be sabotaged if a good restaurant happens to have a bad night. But packing a lunch that makes people stop by my wife’s office and say, “Yum — where’d you get that?” feels original, controllable, and reassuringly continuous to me. I expect to feel the same way sometime in 2017, when I assemble lunch number 4,000.