Monday, June 11, 2012

Social Class: Snacks, Pyrex Bowls, and Grosgrain Ribbon

Twelve helped plan a going-away party for one of her friends last week, and she was responsible for bringing some of the food. Twelve is ridiculously good at selecting snacks and treats, probably because the hospitality gene runs in my family: We may not be great thinkers, or world leaders, but this is what we do. (However, we do read quite a bit and some of us used to run fairly fast.) If you need a formal dinner given, you check with my mom. If it's a cookout for 200 that you're after, I'm your gal. Twelve's specialty is classroom treats.

For example, for the winners of the geography contest a few weeks back, she did a box of nerds with a package of those awful sugar-and-sticks things on top, all tied with a narrow grosgrain ribbon in an impeccable bow. Okay, the ribbons were my idea, and Twelve hasn't yet mastered bow-tying so I ended up having most of the fun, but they were apparently a hit with the winning team. (Bow tying is just another one of those skills that impress people to no end but that can't quite go on my cv. It's an excellent substitute for a party trick in many nonalcoholic middle class realms, and it's one of the little things that keeps me from really understanding most other people. Or does it keep them from really understanding me?)

Anyway, after an hour at the Grocery Outlet, Twelve and I talked through all possible options for the going away party food and drink. After a certain amount of earnest negotiation, we settled on just the right assortment and quantity of canned beverages to signal my conflicting middle-class and granola hippie pretensions. (Sprite because it's name brand but caffeine free and Hanson's because it's made with Real Cane Sugar; quantity plentiful but not to the point of appearing crass.) I allowed the family size bag of Doritos as long as they were Cool Ranch instead of the grossly colored Nacho. I even good-naturedly drove Twelve across town to another grocery store to get huge bags of just the right candy in bulk.

Yes, I'm ridiculously indulgent with Twelve when it comes to the selection of foods for social occasions. We both have a great time with the process, and it's hard to articulate what it is that's so much fun.

Twelve loves to shop, that's for sure; she's great at narrowing down a range of selections to just the right one. Even with clothes, I'll think that three or four things are perfectly acceptable, but she'll still take just one or two, even if I'm willing to purchase all four. She also loves the freedom of buying treats for school; our regular grocery shopping outings are full of no, no, no in response to processed and/or conventional food items, but for treats she gets way more latitude. I'm sufficiently haunted by my own junior high experiences of not having the right brand names that I recognize and occasionally indulge Twelve's need to purchase a sense of community. Call me a hypocrite if you must.

I enjoy our earnest discussions about what to get. Because Twelve feels like she's getting away with murder, she's unusually cooperative. She acquiesces immediately to the Cool Ranch Doritos and conscientiously checks to see how much one scoop of Sour Patch Kids weighs before filling the bag. She demurs thriftily when I point out that we'd need a couple dozen cans of soda to make a respectable showing in the cooler, but eventually gives in when we discover a second variety of Hansen's.

On a deeper level, though, our treats shopping expeditions are an exercise in constructing and maintaining class privilege. We each know half of some kind of elaborate algorithm that accounts for what we think other people will think about what we select. I had a nice, long, complicated sentence going that involved phrases like "my assumptions about parent and teacher assessment" and "her innate knowledge of peer assessment," but the damn sentence was drooping under its own weight and there's no point in sugarcoating the truth: We are trying really, really hard to cultivate other people's approval using snack foods. I tend to couch my concerns in terms of appropriateness and logic, sometimes invoking convenience and cost. Really, I am trying to impress whatever adults are around to notice. Twelve never comes right out and says outright that x is cool and y is not, but I can tell that there's something going on in there, some knowledge of sixth grade coolness to which I'm not privy. Really, she's trying to impress the other kids.

When we got home, we discussed serving options for the chips and candy. I had unequivocally vetoed the purchase of a plastic serving bowl at $1.49 as a complete repudiation of our entire belief system. I offered my vintage Pyrex mixing bowls as the logical alternative.

Let me explain about vintage Pyrex mixing bowls. I'm not even sure why or how this tradition started, but every woman in my mother's side of the family is given a set of the classic large yellow/medium-large green/medium-small red/small blue Pyrex mixing bowls, usually at marriage. They are definitive. They are simply what bowls are - I forget what philosophers call this. Things are served out of them at all occasions. Tossed salads and tortilla chips go in the big yellow ones. Fritos go in the green, if you got the big bag of Fritos; otherwise the red will do. My aunt's pea and cashew salad goes in the red. The blue size is just right for mixed nuts, and is also excellent for heating soup in the microwave. I'm at a loss for further description here because this is how things are done.

So, reassuring Twelve that I trusted her to keep my bowls safe, I packed her a box with one bowl of each size: Chips, fruit snacks, Sour Patch Kids, and M&Ms, in descending order of volume. We hied off to the party.

Of course the bowls didn't make it out of the box. I'm not sure what I was thinking, really. Twelve didn't care one way or another, of course, but we did share a rueful smile as we hauled them home again. I might as well have tied a grosgrain bow around each can of Sprite, I suspect. The way we do things in my family isn't pretentious, though of course I wouldn't think so. It's just that I decant the damn tortilla chips into a bowl, damn it, and if the salsa is in a matching smaller bowl, so much the better. We use coasters, we arrange tufts of tissue paper to stick out of the gift bag, and we know that the fork with the short tines is either for salad or dessert.

What's my point? I dunno. Twelve associates many of the niceties with her grandmother, and it's true that my mom does all of this much more effortfully than I ever will. I don't experience my affinity for serving dishes as an affectation of a higher class, especially since the family hosting the party at their suburban neighborhood clubhouse pool is much wealthier than we.

At the very least, grosgrain ribbon and colorful mixing bowls are something that Twelve and I share. I'll take it!

1 comment:

  1. You are probably thinking of the Platonic ideal of a bowl.


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