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Snack Lady

Time for recess! Why? Because the snack lady is here. She calls in the front door. “Cemil cemilan!” (pronounced chu-meel chu-meel-ahn) That’s Javanese for, “Snacks!”

The snack lady walks the streets, balancing a large round double-decker basket on her head. Inside its woven walls lie treasures in the form of a variety of colorful snacks. Pink spongy cupcakes, brown sugary squares of sticky rice, kebabs of cool jello-like pods, green rice-flour balls rolled in coconut and filled with palm sugar, rectangular sticky cakes layered red and white, like the Indonesian flag. I would choose one of each if I could.

Mom lets us take a short break from homeschool because, well, she wants to choose a snack too. We tumble out onto the front porch where the snack lady has already lowered the load from her head and separated the two levels of her basket so that we can see the entire selection. We get to choose three each. Only three? Yes, only three. She’ll be back again another time.

After we choose, she pulls out sheets of banana leaves to wrap our purchases in. The waxy leaf works like butcher paper to protect the snacks. She secures the package with toothpick-sized sticks that she keeps neatly tucked into the edge of her basket.

Mom pays the lady and we smile and take the packages. They are warm because the snacks are fresh. We convince Mom to let us eat one snack each before we go back to continue our studies. The rest of the yummy morsels will be gobbled up during our scheduled recess later in the morning.

That afternoon, my sister and I play “snack lady.” We tear off sections of the banana leaves that hang over our wall from our next-door neighbor’s yard. We sell each other cupcakes of mud and kebabs of flower buds, and rectangular cakes layered purple, red, and whatever other color of flower petal we can find. We neatly wrap them and secure the packages with the sticks we have “borrowed” from Ibu Sofia’s stick broom. (She’ll wonder what happened to the broom later on when she tries to sweep our back porch.)

Children imitate normal life when they play. And this was normal life for us. And in my opinion, the snack lady should be a normal part of life everywhere!

(The picture above is taken from our front porch in the 1970s. This is where we would pick our snacks. You can see a banana tree over the wall, this may have been one of the trees that sacrificed its leaves for our pretend snacks.)

Published inChildhoodCulture


  1. Susan Lafferty Susan Lafferty

    Still crave those snacks… 🙂 You described them TOO well 🙂

    • Jana Kelley Jana Kelley

      I was hungry for them for the rest of the day after I wrote this 🙂

  2. April Luptak April Luptak

    This brings so many memories flooding back! Remember the 8s and the flying saucers? My favorite was the brown sugar soaked sticky rice squares!

    • Jana Kelley Jana Kelley

      I’d forgotten about the 8s until Lori M reminded me on FB. Oh yes, flying saucers, how could I forget? My faves were probably the brown sugar ones and the layered ones. Remember how we’d peel off each layer and eat them one at a time. I always liked to peel them off and see which layers had bubbles 🙂

  3. Joyce Rogers Joyce Rogers

    I loved those green balls rolled in coconut, and a ball like rolled in sesame seeds. Enjoyed your story. If children today could play together like you did, they would be more well-rounded and well-mannered.

    • Jana Kelley Jana Kelley

      Thanks for responding Aunt Joyce! Yes, I remember those balls rolled in sesame seeds too! I have such great memories of all the games we’d play growing up. Thanks for enjoying it with me 🙂

  4. Johnny Norwood Johnny Norwood

    My mouth was watering as I read this post. Cookie barked at the front door, and my first thought was, “It’s Punkin telling us the snack lady is here.” Stepping out on the front porch, I was disappointed to watch a car make a U-turn in our cul-de-sac and drive away. Man, so many things we are deprived of here in America. Thanks, Jana, for reminding us of the “good times.”

    • Jana Kelley Jana Kelley

      I think every country should have a snack lady who makes her rounds to all houses to sell snacks! We were just spoiled back then!

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