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Why Lunch

It rained last night. I was awake around 4:00 a.m. I could hear thunder in the distance, its low-level rumble, like nature clearing its throat. Then it came closer and in ten minutes was above us. 

“Rain,” Tizi whispered. I knew what she was thinking. During the day when it clouds up and begins to sprinkle, she goes outside and moves her plants. The potted ferns on the porch, they go to the sidewalk. The geraniums around the berm, the ones shaded by our big maple, they get re-positioned. The fig tree we’re waiting to bear fruit gets wheeled to a rain zone on the driveway. Rain water, Tizi firmly believes, is better than water from the hose. 

She knows I’m awake. I feign sleep, but she knows that’s a lie. I do this because I know one of these mornings, if she knows I’m awake and getting out of bed soon, if it’s raining she might ask me to go outside and move her plants. In the dark. In the rain. At 4:00 a.m. To me, the hose is as good as a cloudburst.

While she thinks about rain and her plants this morning, I think about lunch. Later I’ll shop, then cook, then we’ll eat. The planning starts early. As soon as I wake up.

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For years on Saturday we had what we called a celebration lunch. Every Saturday we planned and we drove and we shopped; back home we opened wine and we cooked and we ate. Since we retired from work, lunch has taken on even greater importance. In the evening we eat very little, in the interest of not sleeping with full stomachs. In the evening I rarely drink wine, in the interest of not being suddenly and totally awake at 2:00 a.m. due to perverse brain chemistry, in a full body sweat, unable to get back to sleep. Give us this day our daily lunch. We try to make it count.

Why, I wondered recently, do we call it lunch? In France it’s dejeuner. In Italy it’s pranzo. In German, mittagessen. We say lunch. 

We say lunch because in the mid-14th century they said nonechenche. That’s Middle English none for “noon” and schench, related to Old English scenc, for “pour out.” The noon pour. It sounds like they drank lunch in the 1500’s. Good for them. I’m just glad we didn’t get stuck with either word, nonche or nunch. Want to come for nonche? No thanks. 

The shift to lunch may have occurred when the Spanish word lonja began to circulate, denoting a chunk of bread or cheese. (In Italian a salami-like sausage of meat or, if you’re lucky, chocolate and fig, is a lonzo.) David Wilton, a medieval scholar at the University of Toronto, documents the arrival of lunch, citing A Madd Couple Well Matcht, playwright Richard Brome’s 1652 play, whose characters refer to “Noonings, and intermealiary Lunchings.” Those are some great words. Would that they had survived.  Come on over for a healthy nooning, why don’t you.  Or, Let’s us have a little intermealiary snack, shall we? Nunch, on the other hand, no. 

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“We should grow some tomatoes,” I say to Tizi one night. “I’d get out of bed to put them under the rain.” 

“No, you wouldn’t.”

She’s right. I wouldn’t. “And zucchini,” I say. “We’d have our own fresh zucchini. You’d get zucchini flowers for the omelet. For your risotto.”

“Rabbits,” she says. And she’s right. Much we’ve grown to eat in the past the rabbits got to first. They’re hungry and determined.

I remind her that our lady is gone. For years we visited a Korean lady on Saturdays at the local farmer’s market. She brought bouquets of fresh dill and zucchini flowers, a few bucks for a dozen. Our lady of dill.  Our lady of zucchini flowers. Since Covid, she hasn’t been back.

I remind Tizi of her dad’s tomatoes, this chard, his pole beans, and lettuces, and the pleasure he got from the work. If I can’t eat it, he would always say, I don’t grow it. 

One year he grew a giant tomato, so big he took it to Italy with him to show Domenico, Tizi’s cousin. The tomato was startling to look at, a low-level freak of nature, it looked like a red soccer ball with some of the air kicked out of it. Timing was an issue. When the tomato was ready for harvest, he and my mother-in-law still had two weeks to wait for their scheduled departure, so he wrapped it in paper towel, placed it in a plastic bag, and froze it, preserving it, but just barely. Coming out of the freezer, a little bit frosty, it looked like a shrunken head. But it made the trip intact. He probably violated a couple laws against the international transport of fresh frozen produce. Domenico, who was growing beautiful tomatoes of his own at the time, was duly impressed.

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Another night, a little more rain. I lie awake these nights thinking about the end of the world.  

We make the mistake of watching the evening news, which reports on political corruption, local, national, and international; on drought, flash flooding, the end of rivers as we know them; general meteorological mayhem attendant to climate change. And on impending famine around the globe and the imminent threat to millions of souls. 

When I was a kid you got rain, you got snow, you got sun, you got fog. Often the weatherman was a comedian. Tomorrow, he would say, there is snain in the forecast. Wink, wink. Now, given weather tracking technology and meteorological models, there is an undercurrent of terror in weather reporting. The tone has changed, the language–polar vortex, bomb cyclones and atmospheric rivers, tornadic waterspouts and thundersnow, heat domes, haboobs, weather bombs–is unnerving. 

Just now there is a monsoon in Oklahoma. Imagine that.

Yesterday I read about a town of 10,000 inhabitants in Las Vegas, New Mexico, that has 30 days of water left. The other Las Vegas, the one in the Nevada desert, next to declining Lake Mead, is flooding. I lie awake at night thinking about the end of the world; I wake up thinking about lunch. I blithely go grocery shopping every day. It all feels so wrong. 

One of my neighbors said once, “Well, you live when you live.” We must have been talking helpfully about misery and comfort.  He added, “And you live where you live.” 

Two years ago I made a New Year’s resolution that I’ve actually kept. I gave up the plastic bag. Almost completely. It is not an exaggeration to say that in decades of shopping I brought home 300-400 plastic bags every year, and threw most of them away. Standing at the checkout now, I tell the cashier that I’m a bag man, pulling one or two robust bags from my pockets, using and re-using my plastic. 

A drop in the bucket. Not even. 

A Scientific American article cites a recent study: “If every person in the U.S. cut their meat consumption by 25 percent, it would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent.” 

Another drop. But I could do that. But what do they call it, the tragedy of the commons? Individual acts of renunciation can seem irrational. If I’m the only one not enjoying a hamburger for lunch, what’s the point?

Andrew Marvel, a contemporary of Robert Brome, wrote in his poem “To His Coy Mistress, “Yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.” And “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.” Therefore, Marvell argues, live now, make love, don’t wait.  Eat lunch, I say. 

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We’re on our way over to our daughter’s house one morning, bringing lunch. I’ve made a fine pasta sauce Tizi’s mother called sugo matto, crazy sauce. She made it with their garden tomatoes, a medium fast sauce, sweet and delicious. The one I’ve made has tomatoes from the local market, which I would say are some of the best tomatoes we’ve had in years. We’ll pair the sauce with campanelle, a pasta shaped like a cone or a little bell-like flower. 

Before we leave, I ask Tizi, “Do we have enough campanelle for all of us?” When she shrugs and says maybe not, I search the pantry for another box. Little bells. Better safe than sorry.

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