I am a creature of habit and habitual comforts. Never more so than at lunchtime. I’m also a big fan of breakfast, it’s true, and I couldn’t really care less about dinner most of the time. But lunch is where the routine kicks in. I could happily eat the same thing every day for lunch, and for much of my life, I have. Here’s a rundown of my life, marked by what I was having for lunch at the time.
When I first started taking control of lunch myself, my standard lunch was a chicken sandwich. Roast chicken off the carcass (and there was always at least one carcass to be picked – I lived my teenage years in a pub), between sliced white bread, salted. But what with one thing and another, I often forewent lunch entirely. Sometimes I would arrive home at 4.45pm practically fainting with very low blood sugar, and I got in trouble after this happened quite a bit. My mother phoned my housemaster and I effectively got lunchtime detentions where I was forced to eat lunch.
When I was 16 or so I spent a summer or two working for my dad typing up documents on the computer, and later making my first forays into application programming. He was managing a salesforce and putting together a training programme at the time. We would walk into town every day and grab lunch from Marks and Spencer. I always had the same thing: BLT, orange juice and chocolate-covered raisins. The M&S BLT is still one of the best BLTs I’ve had. Malted granary bread FTW!
When I went up to university, lunchtimes became more social affairs with my small group of friends. Lectures ended at 1pm and just around the corner from the New Museums Site was Cornucopia, a sandwich shop and bakery. I don’t remember my usual sandwich (perhaps ham & cheese?) but I do remember always having a caramel slice. In my second year, a favourite was the baked potato van, and I always had baked beans and cheese on mine. A group of us would get potatoes and take them back to a friend’s room and play video games. Another lunch high point of uni was a cooked brunch for elevenses on a Sunday after an all-nighter in the lab.
During my second summer break, I got a job in London (in the City, just off Bishopsgate). My pay included luncheon vouchers – £2 per day! This was just enough to cover a chicken or ham salad roll from a Benjy’s round the corner.
When I graduated and first entered the workforce proper, I worked about half a mile from a huge Tesco, so I went back to my old favourite and picked up a packaged sandwich, juice and chocolate-covered raisins each day. I couldn’t always get a BLT though, so it varied a bit. ISTR coronation chicken, or ham, cream cheese and pineapple being possibilities.
Around 1997 we moved to new offices, so Tesco was no longer the lunch place. Instead, there were two sandwich shops up the road. I initially patronised one, but switched to the other (which was also a bakery) fairly quickly, and joined a couple of other guys who drove there. Driving there was the height of laziness – it was only 5-10 minutes’ walk. Once again I always had the same thing: chicken salad baguette, no tomato, and a bakewell tart. This was also the era of the Friday lunchtime outing, and up to a dozen of us frequented “the sausage pub”. I discovered its real name – The Royal Oak – only months later. Every fine Friday from April to September we’d sit in the sun and eat steaming plates of sausage, mash and vegetables with onion gravy. The sausages were from a local butcher and were really nice – pork and apple; pork and leek; pork and garlic.
In 2000 we moved offices again, and this time the company had its own subsidised cafe. The best part of this was that we could email sandwich orders in the morning and pick them up at noon, bagged and tagged with our email. Since the emails were printed verbatim, I took to typing my name in 72-point font, blue, for easy recognition of my sandwich. A variant of this tactic was soon adopted by everyone. Since the cafe was shared by about 500 people, we saw a gradual hastening of lunchtime for those that weren’t ordering ahead. When we moved in, most people (as is normal in the UK) were used to taking lunch at 12.30 or 1pm. This pretty swiftly moved up to noon to try to beat the rush, or even as early as 11.40 at times. Long lunchtimes became the norm – heading down at noon, eating and chatting until 1pm, then starting “second lunchtime” as it were and playing a game of Quake until 2pm. The post-game chat would then regularly take us until 2.30pm before anyone sat down to actually work again. Combine this regime with getting to work at 10am and spending a while checking email and browsing the web, and it meant that some people started real work at about 3pm!
Perhaps it was this schedule, among other things, that sapped my motivation, so I switched companies and started working in London at the end of 2001. My office was on Blackfriars Road, over the road from an Italian cafe (Cafe Pronto) and a convenience store. The cafe did wonderful paninis – garlic chicken with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. I tried to keep it to 3 a week, because they were really calorific. A mean slice of carrot cake was also on the menu. Mrs Elbeno would often meet me for lunch because she loved the paninis too. A coke was my drink of choice. My other alternative was to hit the convenience store, and if anything this was even less healthy – it usually meant me eating a whole packet of biscuits that afternoon.
After a little over a year, I moved offices (although not companies) to leafy Godalming, and we were situated in a fairly quiet area out of the town centre and behind a huge supermarket – this time Sainsbury’s. Of course, I went back to my old favourite the BLT (which I could get most days). Chocolate-covered raisins were in short supply this time around, but luckily Sainsbury’s in-store bakery more than made up for the lack with their chocolate orange muffins. These were incredibly delicious and sometimes I’d eat two! It was probably a good thing for my waistline that in mid 2003 I was hired away to Los Angeles.
Which brings us to the present day, where I am once again frequenting the company cafe. My favourites now are not things I can get every day, but when they are on, I always get them. Anything with the word “curry” in it is good, especially the curried chicken Waldorf salad sandwich that they do (on toasted white bread). I’d have that every day if I could. Barbecues (every Thursday) are a bit hit and miss. There is always the sandwich bar and soup choices, or something from the grill at a pinch, so most days I find something appetising.