American Girls

In the first grade, I made friends with a little girl named Ellen.  From the public school.  Every day we sat together at the same table in the cafeteria  And every day she brought the same strange food for lunch.

It was a sandwich filled with a stack of flat pink floppy circles of a uniform size and shape seemingly designed to fit just within the borders of its Wonder Bread exterior.

I had never seen such a thing and so I asked her what it was.  She said it was baloney.  At first, I didn’t believe her.  We had baloney but it was nothing like this stuff.  Ours came in a long red tube.  My mother cut off uneven chunks and put them in the frying pan with our eggs.

More confusing still, Ellen would sprinkle two packets of sugar onto her sandwich before eating it.  We never sweetened our baloney and eggs so I asked why she is using sugar.

She insisted that it was not sugar; it was salt.  Now, I definitely knew the difference between sugar and salt.  Sure, they were both white and sandy, but sugar crystals were small and tasted like candy and salt crystals were large and tasted like pretzels.

Anyway, one day Ellen invited me over to her house after school.  We were playing in her room when her grandmother came in to say hello.

This is the moment all reason took flight.  Her grandmother was tall and slim.  She wore pants — pants! — and when she spoke, she sounded more or less like us kids and our parents.  She didn’t speak in that silly way my grandmother liked to talk.

See, Ellen was my first non-Jewish friend and this was my first visit to a non-Jewish home.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, my family life was really very shtetled.

We never ate in restaurants.  We never ate by the goyim.  I was completely unfamiliar with concepts like “lunch meat” and “table salt”.  Many years later, I would sample of the treyf during my early adult fudspringa.  (After awhile, I decided I really wasn’t missing anything and came back to the kosher kitchen.)

Also, the older relatives, the older people from the shul, they were all immigrants, refugees, survivors from Europe.  Every one of them spoke a half-Yiddish, half-English tongue, one and all with a heavy accent.  So much was this the case that I had thought I would start to talk in this way, too, when I got to be old.

After I started working, I began to travel, both for business and pleasure.  I have had opportunity to taste of many cuisines and partake of many cultures.  But nothing has ever surprised me quite like that first exposure to mainstream middle class America.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

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