“What do you have?” The question rolled off his tongue like a fist in my face. I laid out my miserable inventory for all to see.

“A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some cookies, chips and a banana.” There was too much peanut butter and not enough jelly, the cookies might as well have been cardboard, the chips were stale and the banana, bruised.

“Not bad, not bad.” He smiled through his words.

It was toward the end of the month, and toward the end of the month was when my school lunches lost a bit of their brand-name, store-bought glory. My pastrami sandwiches, Nutter Butter cookies, Frito-Lay chips and Juicy Juice cartons were one by one replaced by their generic, lackluster counterparts. It was at these times that trading up really demanded salesmanship skills.

“The cookies are home-made,” I lied, trying to cover up the perfectly machined cross-hatches and consistent shape of the Oreo cookie knock-offs. It was my only item of value, and I fought to keep the tone of my voice believable. It’s amazingly difficult to convince a seventh grader of product authenticity.

And then, the proposition: “I’ll trade you these cookies for half of your Fritos.”

It was an elaborate daily ritual that became the reason for having good lunches. Lunch snacks weren’t necessarily desired for their taste, quality, or brand awareness, but rather for what they could get in trade. A nicely labeled bag of Doritos, for instance, could easily earn me a decent sandwich, juice box, or bag of cookies, especially when offered to the right audience. The better I got at identifying my target market, the better off I faired at lunch time. Having good material to begin with helped, of course.

Terms and return on investment were weighed. “How many cookies are there?”

Four. Four? Damn, there’s only four. “At least six.”

“Are they any good?”

“Kind of like Oreos.”