Thursday, February 19, 2015

Graham Crackers

The big plastic bag of graham crackers sat in the bottom of my pantry for over two months. Like every other year, I bought way too many when I’d done the comprehensive shopping trip for the annual gingerbread house party. It’s okay to run out of candy canes when building gingerbread houses. To run out of household siding is not forgivable.

After all the colorful scraps of candy and sticky smudges of white frosting had been cleaned up I was left with a lot of crackers - eight packages still sealed, the rest gathered into Ziploc bags. They were banished to the bottom of the pantry until I could figure out what to do with them.

By mid February I was ready to have them gone, so I could have the floor space for cases of juice boxes and stock piled kitchen supplies. I work at a Rec Center with an active kid’s program.  I decided to haul the plastic bag of crackers into work, to see if I could pawn them off on the director of our children’s’ programs.

I got to work and immediately forgot about the donation crackers that filled out the bottom of my work bag. By the time I remembered them, the director had gone home. I considered just leaving them in the break room, with a note for the director to find the next day. Then I remembered something.

Every Thursday night at our Rec Center, the lobby is filled with kids getting out of swim practice. They huddle in packs around the front doors, the girls with their wet hair swept up into loose buns and the boys with their damp towels draped around their necks, as they wait for parents to come retrieve them. They are always hungry.

When they are not scavenging from the vending machines, they are digging into the bottom of backpacks, looking for any morsel to calm the ravaging hunger that was stirred up by too many laps in the pool. Most have not had dinner yet, even as the clock says it’s past seven. I wondered if these foragers might be interested in my old graham crackers.

I dug an old paper plate covered in a Christmas scene out of the back of our break room cabinet. I ripped open a few packages of crackers and stacked them high on the plate. The plate went onto the center of my front counter. Within minutes there were teenagers sniffing around.

“Are these free?”

Once I said the magic ‘yes’, you would have thought I’d opened up a large box of hot pizza. The crowd moved as a unit, from the couches and front lobby tables, to come hover over the front desk and a single plate of stale crackers.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I instantly thought about the days when my kids were in elementary school and we’d ski on the weekends, back when we lived in Utah. I knew that a long day of skiing did things to kids’ bodies that were much like the effects of a long day of swimming. A special deep kind of hunger set in and on the drive home my kids would eat just about anything. In those years I used to save every last stray cracker, every heel from the loaf of bread, every snack in the cabinet that was rejected on a regular day of after-school hunger. I collected them all in one big Ziploc, which was brought out on the drive home from skiing. And it never failed that the kids would practically fight over who got that last heel of bread or last scrape of peanut butter out of the jar. That hunger made everything taste good.

I was witnessing that same hunger in the water logged swimmers in my Rec Center lobby. The first plate of crackers was gone in two minutes. I dug into my bag and opened two more. Then two more. As round one of swimmers headed out the front door to waiting parents, dribbling crumbs in their path, the next round headed out of the locker rooms. “Are these for anyone?”

The most surprising reaction came from the parents who walked by the desk. As they saw the kids taking crackers, they gave me the questioning look, I shook my head, and they quickly grabbed one for themselves. More than one looked over their shoulder and said, “You forget how good a basic graham cracker is!”

Graham crackers. That box on the snack shelf of the pantry that is rejected over and over, as more exciting options like Ritz Bitz and Chips Ahoy get all the glory. Unless someone takes the time to spread some chocolate frosting in the middle, no one thinks about a graham cracker being the perfect snack.

But at the end of a long day, a day of school and swimming, or office jobs and work meetings, in the pocket of time before the real food makes its way to the dinner table, sometimes what you need is something simple. Something basic and plain. Something as delectable as a single graham cracker.



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