Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lunch Buckets, Lunch Pails, call 'em what you want

One of my favorite blogs is Lunch Bucket Bento. The author is an exceptionally witty and talented writer who makes very cool lunches for her family. Anyone who makes hot dog curry is a fun person in my estimation. The title of her blog brought back a term that I had not heard in years - lunch bucket. My caregivers when I was very young, five or six years old, would use this term, and its close cousin, lunch pail, to refer to my Snow White lunch box or their husbands' large, black steel or aluminum manly man lunch boxes, much like this one.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh to be exact, where coal mining and steel making were once a vital part of the local economy. My caregivers and many of my parents' patients came from mining and steelmaking families. Over the years, we became very close with many of these families, and remain so today. These were women whose fathers, brothers, uncles, and husbands worked in the mines or the mills for generations. Long before OSHA, these men endured long hours, unspeakably dangerous conditions, and meager pay.

They were working class families, who made enough to get by and maybe send their children to college, if they were lucky. Their wives and loved ones would send them off to work with trepidation, praying that they would not be hurt or injured, or worse, killed, on the job. The physical demands of their jobs aged them rapidly; men of forty would look old and haggard from years of hard labor. It was a hard life for everyone. Injuries were financially crippling, which is often how we got to know them as my father was a doctor. It was a lifestyle; not an enviable one by any stretch of the imagination, but reality for thousands upon thousands of families. I sometimes wondered why they would call them lunch buckets, but never questioned it. I accepted that it was an old-fashioned term and that older folks were set in their ways. I grew to appreciate the care with which they would pack chipped ham sandwiches on Town Talk bread with mustard, a plastic bag of chips, and some Ho-ho's or devil dogs, with some napkins until they came home.

It turns out that there is such a thing as a lunch bucket or a lunch pail, not surprisingly something that is associated very closely with coal mining, and likely steel making. I came across these on Ebay the other day (while I was looking for something else entirely) .

This one is a three piece aluminum lunch bucket or lunch pail which the seller dates around the late 40's or early 50's. The seller bought it from a woman who said it belonged to her grandfather, who was a coal miner who had a mine right on his farm. What surprised me about this, and other similar specimens, is how similar they look to tiffin boxes and bento boxes, complete with removable inserts. I can just picture a wife in her housecoat 40 or 50 years ago packing this up with sandwiches or maybe a hearty stew. I doubt very seriously if she obsessed over making things cute or packed rice or curry, but I would think that the meals, probably simple, humble comfort foods, were packed with the same care and love.

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