My first encounter with a cestino della merenda (which, in Italian, literally means “snack basket” and is what we call a “lunch box”) took place on October 9th, many years ago, on the day of my third birthday. I was living in the city of Trieste (in Friuli, Italy) and this was my first day of nursery school. The basket was made from woven plastic and lined in plastic, with a hook closure in rattan that slid into a rattan loop.
Moreover, it was baby blue and I hated pastel colours as a child. It featured a hodgepodge of post WW-II motifs in polymer. Not exactly appetizing. And to make it worse, all of that plastic made for very little fresh air, and did nothing but make the smell of ripe banana even more nauseating. Little did I know at the time that children all around the world were sharing my same fate, and that “snack baskets” were just a part of childhood – wherever you grew up and whatever you call it – although surely not all kids were toting around such smelly contents.
In Japan, I discovered much, much later, even pre-school aged kids went (and still go) to school with absolutely odorless white rice packed into artful, elegant boxes – or bentō – where none of the separate foods touch each other. With the bentō, tastes and smells remain uncontaminated and the meal maintains a pure, inviting presentation.
I talked about this aesthetic masterpiece, as well as the cultural etiquette behind the bento box and its significance in Japan, with Tiziano Tosolini, an Italian from Friuli who has been working as a missionary is Osaka for more than a decade and is a researcher at the Nanzan University of Nagoya and the director of the Asian Study Centre.
«If there’s a Japanese food that a philosopher like Diderot would have approved of for its colour, refinement, touch, effect, harmony and taste, it would be the bento,» he says. «Today, what’s really popular among kids is the decorated bentō, the ones in which the rice, the nori, the egg, the tomato, and whatever else, are all arranged to form the shape of cartoon characters. Then there are other kinds (eki ben) that you can buy in the many stores found at the train stations, so you can nibble while travelling; there’s the bento that audience members are served during the intermission of Noh or Kabuki theatre (makuno-uchi bentō); and there’s the kind that restaurants will prepare for parties or funerals (shidashi bentō).»
Tosolini goes on to explain that what distinguishes a bentō is that it’s a well-composed, balanced collection of foods in which no one element takes precedent over another and the foods don’t have to be eaten in any particular order. The bentō, as a complete meal, invites the eater to mix the tastes and flavours himself, to create a personal combination.» The actual container is typically two separate levels, not bigger than 20 centimetres, and can come in different materials: plastic, disposable Styrofoam, and even the expensive, sophisticated and traditional lacquered wood.
In the U.S., the first lunchboxes were made from aluminium or tin and were put to a second use after originally containing tobacco or cookies or other dried goods. In an interview, David Shayt, the curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which in 2004 dedicated a large exhibition to the American tradition of lunchboxes (watch the gallery above the article to see some pictures), explains that the first models were either “woven baskets with handles” or that meals would sometimes simply be “dropped in a handkerchief.”
But with the arrival of cartoons and comic book heroes, lunchboxes became a pop object that appealed to the younger generation. The Smithsonian exhibition also included the first lunchbox adorned with a cartoon figure, the Mickey Mouse Oval from 1935. And then there was the popular model, the Disney Schoolbus, which accompanied nine million children to school or on outings. And with television came new kinds of heroes, like the cowboyHopalong Cassidy from 1950. Other unforgettable lunchbox icons includeSuperman in 1954; Barbie in 1960; the Beatles in 3-D with each member’s “autograph” in 1965. The very last metal lunchbox, before they all became plastic, was Rambo, which came out in 1987. Plastic has slowly replaced the metallic models all around the world, as have the popularity of foods in single-sized, disposable containers.
Today’s “portable lunch” trends among metropolitan adults, instead, often consist of large plastic tubs of salads, steamed vegetables dressed with sesame seeds, lightly curried skewered chicken, and grains like barely, rice or orzo with vegetarian proteins like tofu or seitan, savoury tarts, quiches or frittatas – all packed in Tupperware or colourful bags and often eaten in the office, in front of the computer.
And what about the old-fashioned lunchboxes? They’ve either become a popular collector’s item, or else are used by young women, who carry them around like an ironic purse. Which is perhaps the only way my old plastic “snack basket” could prove to be more functional than a sleek bento box.