In Japan, the bento box – with differently sized compartments to hold rice, tofu, meat and vegetables, make their daily journey to schools and workplaces. In India, the dabbawalla holds basmati rice, curry, vegetables and meat and is brought from train stations to Bombay office buildings. And with her campaign against childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has brought American lunch boxes into the spotlight - encouraging parents to take a healthy approach to their children’s diets.
While in Italy, especially Northern Italy, the “schiscetta” - /ski-ʃe-t-ta/, a Milanese term - brings to mind the post-War era, when blue collar workers from factories and farms would be sent off to work with small metal pots (whose lids were clamped on with a hinge, thereby “squishing” – schiacciare in Italian – its contents) filled with food their wives or mothers had prepared for them, which were usually leftovers from the night before: rice or pasta, egg frittata and vegetables, bread filled with cold cuts, or legumes like beans or chickpeas. The luckiest ones might even have a piece of fruit.
This barely resembles what passes for a packed lunch nowadays, and the ritual has become so trendy that many Milanese offices are referring to the habit of bringing food from home, as “schi-chic”. And today, just as it was in the mid-Twentieth Century, it was an economic crisis that made the ritual so widespread. It began as a time-saving habit: instead of going out to lunch, people tried to increase their personal productivity by having lunch in front of their computer, at their desks. But it quickly became a symbol of the “do it yourself” spirit and the desire to save money. In Italy, the lunch container now denotes a certain kind of person: one who pays attention to good food with healthy ingredients, a person who cares about what’s on their plate. Or better: what’s in their packed lunch.
Today in Italy, 59% of those who work prepare their lunches at home and heat it up in the office microwave. In the warm seasons, many will eat outside, bringing their to a bench or the park, along with co-workers. People are abandoning the usual cold pasta salad, and hunting for innovative recipes on the internet and in food blogs – even TV chefs are providing inspiration for this “takeaway” meal eaten outside the home. For the serious packed lunch foodie, the contents of a container should hold a mix of carbohydrates, protein and vegetables – and the idea of having “leftovers” the next day is often a priority when choosing what to make for dinner at home.
At the same time, the design industry is racing to create lunch containers that combine glamour with functionality – creating them with USB plugs that allow them to be warmed up by plugging them into a desktop computer. These are a far cry from the lunch boxes that were popular a few generations ago, which were usually made from tin or metal. These often had a circular space where one could place pasta or soup, and then a metal plate for the protein on top. They would close with a spring clasp, that helped to “squish” the contents securely inside, and then get covered – as an extra measure of safety – by a length of tied up kitchen string, or a wrapped inside a dishtowel.