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Doggy Bag? Yes, Please: Taste Against Waste

Asking for leftover portions at the restaurant has become a widespread - and trendy - custom: from the USA to Sweden, everyone wraps up food

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Don’t be shy. Asking for a “doggy bag, please” has now become a widespread if not trendy custom. And if you get cold feet when it’s time to wrap up your restaurant leftovers, just give a thought to the American First Lady: when Michelle Obama was visiting Rome during the G8 summit, she kindly asked waiters of the Maccheroni restaurant to wrap up leftover portions of lasagna, pasta alla carbonara and spaghetti all’amatriciana.

Much depends of course on which part of the world you happen to be in. This custom was born in the United States, where it is now commonplace wherever you go, to avoid wasting nothing of the macroscopic portions served up in meals with a particular format: one single main dish, served up in huge quantities and almost inevitably on its own. Of course it’s always possible to run into those who go too far and, in some cases, you may see your plate being whipped from under your nose to deal with the leftovers the minute you leave a tasty morsel long enough to take a breather. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason that led to the introduction of doggy bags: for some, it was a strategy to reduce waste and for others a crafty move to “recycle”; all we know for sure is that the idea was conceived in the United States in the forties when the Second World War was in course. In 1943 San Francisco cafés, in an initiative to prevent animal cruelty, offered patrons Pet Pakits, cartons that patrons could readily request to carry home leftovers to Fido. Around the same time, Hotels in Seattle, Washington provided diners with wax paper bags bearing the label “Bones for Bowser.” Eateries across the nation followed suit and started similar practices.

Seventy years later, a growing awareness with regards to reducing waste has led to the dissemination of the doggy bag outside the United States as well. The economic crisis has contributed to its popularity in Great Britain: in London, for instance, where many restaurants have adopted special take-home boxes produced in 100% recycled and biodegradable materials, making them suitable for recycling and composting, with a minimum environmental impact. The British still show a certain bashfulness when it comes to asking for them, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

In Italy and France, though, this habit is even less widespread: excessive shyness or appetite? Figures reveal that this is certainly not due to any shortage of leftovers on diners’ plates: Italian restaurants throw away 30 tons of food each year. It must be said that the cuisine in these countries does not always lend itself to being taken home. For example imagine a T-bone steak with roast potatoes heated up and eaten the following day: an idea any gourmet would refuse point blank. Or, in the case of France, it could be the enormous respect for the work of a chef to make people baulk at the idea of seeing his creation jammed into a cardboard box and carted home.

Our closing note regards Sweden, where 2011 turned out to be a “magic” year for the increased use of doggy bags thanks to a massive campaign to make the public aware of the food waste issue. Among other things, the promoters convinced the rapper Dogge Doggelito from The Latin Kings, one of Sweden’s first hip hop groups, to participate in their doggy bag promotional film. In the film, Doggelito overhears a couple quarrel about something the man finds embarrassing, and takes for granted that she wants his autograph – when in fact it’s a doggy bag she wants.

Finally, a hint for enthusiastic doggy bag users. Only a small amount of the food taken home is actually used up the day after: a lot of it ends up in the rubbish bin after transiting briefly in the refrigerator, or is stored away in the freezer where it will patiently wait for weeks to be thawed out and eaten. So, if you do ask for a “doggy bag, please” remember to eat up the contents!

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