By Mordechai Schmutter

 

So I hear where I live in New Jersey, the free-food-box pickup may be ending — again — and soon we won’t have free food anymore, unless we count the stuff in the freezer that we’re never going to eat. That stuff will be around forever. Our frozen rice, for example, which saves us a total of five minutes in boiling time and in exchange takes up freezer space that I should not have to allocate for what is essentially plain rice. Not to mention all the frozen milks.

So I figure we should talk about it, because it was nice while it lasted. I’ve written a bunch of articles on corona-related topics, but apparently everything about corona has become political these days, except the free-food box. Even the people who claim that corona’s over or that it was a hoax all along still line up for the food box.

“Oh, we have to wear masks to accept it? Sure! How many masks?”

If anything, it gave everyone something upbeat to talk about that was not lashon ha’ra. That is no small feat. It was the thing to talk about. Everyone felt included. People would come late to the conversation and say, “What are we talking about? Oh, the pizzarogies. OK, I’m caught up. So do we put sauce on it, or what? I mean there’s sauce already in it.”

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about and are finding out too late, from a humor column, the free-food-box pickup basically started with the non-Jewish parents complaining, back in March, that since their children were all home, rather than in the schools that they’d been sending their children to for free, they were no longer getting the meals that the schools had been providing on top of that for free, and they would have to now feed their kids. Breakfast and lunch! Whatever shall they do? So the government said, “OK, so let’s have the parents line up, and we’ll have lunch ladies in hairnets and facemasks, and each family will get — for each kid under 18 — enough food per meal for a skinny kindergartener. Teenagers eat one pizza bagel, right?”

But then the Jewish communities, one at a time, said (though not until after Pesach): “How about us? We pay for schooling, we pay for meals on top of that …” Even the yeshivas that don’t have a paid-lunch option. I pay for homemade lunch for most of my kids, as far as I know. I mean they claim they take lunch, but who knows? No bread is ever missing.

So some awesome askanim in our communities arranged for there to be government-funded kosher catered food — better food than anything our kids ate in school when there was no pandemic—so that every day, or once a week, we parents could run out first thing in the morning and sit in line in our cars, wearing a mask, and find the withered piece of paper that says how many kids are in our family, and hold it up to the window, and someone can put in a food box packed the night before in which everything is the same temperature as everything else, plus more milk than our children will ever drink. No one told the cows there was supposed to be a food shortage. They just kept pumping out the milk, no pun intended.

In conversation, my neighbors have been comparing it to the mahn that we got in the Midbar. You don’t have to pay; you just have to go out every morning and something is dropped on you that is based on the size of your family; you never know what it’s going to taste like; and on Friday you get a double portion.

Every community did it differently, so I don’t know how they did it in any other city besides mine. I do have relatives in other cities, but somehow when we were all told to social distance, I basically stopped calling relatives. Besides the occasional Zoom call that was mostly about saying, “Hi!” a thousand times and staring up little kids’ noses and abortively trying to play a game.

In our town, the whole thing was a learning process. At first, they were giving out individual bags every day for each kid, and then kids would eat what they wanted without bothering the parents, and there were no fights, and then at the end of the week, right before Shabbos, we’d have 30 random bags in the fridge of various vegetables and items that don’t actually belong in a fridge, and nothing had a name on it, and everyone wanted at least some of the items but forgot which ones were theirs. It kind of reminded me of the fridge in yeshiva, except that the hanhalah is far less likely to say, “Forget it,” and just turn everything into a Shabbos salad.

But that old system did give us some interesting items, such as the

  • Single dry pickle in a sealed plastic baggie
  • Hospital foods, such as single-serve cereals and 4-oz. apple juices. What’s a teenager going to do with four ounces of apple juice?
  • Small containers of milk, of which we had 30 open at any given time.
  • Cold French toast

But eventually, step by step, this system was phased to a single weekly pickup in which everything was in one big box, except for the milks, which came separately in a milk crate, and it all came on Thursday morning, so we could have time to figure out how to get it all out of the fridge by the time we did our Shabbos shopping on Thursday afternoon.

Every week, our box consisted of the following items, plus a few extras:

  • Some kind of pizza, or an item inspired by, but not as good as, pizza.
  • A second (and sometimes a third) pizza-inspired item
  • A lot of pita, which we mostly used for pizza
  • Some kind of kid-friendly meat substance that does not look anything like the animal it came from.
  • One thing that we were like, “Why?” that did not go with anything else in the box. For example, one week we got Italian herb croutons. There was no salad that week and no soup. Just croutons. Does someone eat those plain? And does he wash?
  • One unripe fruit for the next Shabbos. Like sometimes we’d just get a crazy number of pineapples — one for each kid — that we’d have to use before they go bad. (No one told the pineapples that there was a food shortage either.) Eventually, it just became about “What do I have to put on the chicken this week?” One week we had pineapple chicken, the next week it was mango chicken, then I had to figure out cantaloupe chicken…
  • One mystery item that none of us had ever seen before. We always get one thing that we have to consult the neighbors about: “What do we do with this food? How does one eat this?”
    Like one week we got malawach. I’d seen malawach in the store, but never bought it, because it’s not like a new flavor of herring, where I can put it on a cracker and see if it’s as good as the other herrings. I have no idea what to even do with this. What on earth is a malawach? It sounds like a noise you make when you’re trying to talk with your mouth full.

And of course every box has:

  • One item that kids would never ever eat. Like there was the week that we got a big box of bran flakes, which we still have. Why bran flakes? Where are all the raisins?

Wait, is bran-flake chicken a thing? Because it’s about to be.

Other than that, the best thing for me was the milk crates. I have like 16 milk crates. When the workers ask, “Do you want all your milks?” I say, “Yes!” Because if there’s a lot of milk to schlep, they’re giving me crates.

Our neighbors started a food-trade program. Not that it helps so much. There’s no family walking in and saying, “My kids hate the pizza stuff. Here, give me everyone’s peas and carrots.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about the mahn. I’m not going to complain that when we get our free food that we don’t even have to get out of our cars for, some of the foods are not things we otherwise would have bought, for money. This is just the stuff that keeps it fun to talk about.

And I do think it’s funny that everyone in town has the same groceries — including weird impulse purchases — and we’re all trying to figure out what to make out of it at the same time. It brings a weird sense of community to hear that the people around you are eating the same foods for supper on the same nights. This is never as cute under normal circumstances.

“Wow, we’re all having pasta tonight? On a Tuesday?!”

It’s like everyone has access to the same fridge:

“What should I make my family for supper tonight?”

“What about the oddly-sized chicken nuggets in your freezer?”

“Good idea! How do you know what’s in my freezer?”

So at the same time, it gave us a sense of community and kept us all talking, while also not giving anyone a real desire to go to each other’s houses for Shabbos meals, because we all have the same food. It also keeps kids from trading snacks in school. It was perfect for when we needed it.

I should really call my relatives, though. I bet their towns got different foods.

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com

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