Old and New Approaches to Take-Out Containers

Painting of the Pantheon from the National Gallery of Art (USA)

An Old Approach from Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, it was common for guests at a banquet or dinner to bring their own container – usually a napkin – and carry something home.  This worked well for everyone, as there were no storage facilities for cooked food and it allowed the host’s generosity to be remembered the next day.

In A Taste of Ancient Rome, Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa includes an epigram from Martial (ca. 38 CE–103 CE) that pokes fun at his friend Caecilianus’s habit of filling his napkin to the breaking point:

XXXVII WHATEVER is served you sweep off from this or that part of the table : the teats of a sow’s udder and a rib of pork, and a heathcock meant for two, half a mullet, and a bass whole, and the side of a lamprey, and the leg of a fowl, and a pigeon dripping with its white sauce. These dainties, when they have been hidden in your sodden napkin, are handed over to your boy to carry home : we recline at table, an idle crowd. If you have any decency, restore our dinner ; I did not invite you, Caecilianus, to a meal to-morrow.    (source: Archive.org)

Photograph of first century bowl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient Romans didn’t have plastic yet and paper was an expensive good, so reusable napkins were a discreet way to be ready for leftovers. Although a sturdier container might be more useful – and almost all upper-class Roman would have a slave or two at the party to help carry things to and from the home – a solid container has a tackier feel, a more direct expectation of bonus food.

A New Approach to Take-Out Containers

More than two millennia later, disposable take out containers are taken for granted, an most people don’t think twice about the resources needed to make, deliver and dispose of them.  Some restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are trying to change that.  The East Bay Express recently ran a piece by Food Editor Luke Tsai on several attempts to reduce restaurant waste by swapping disposable take-out containers for reusable ones.

One restaurant profiled in the article is following what you could call the ‘captured container,’ meaning that the container is only useable at one institution.  In this article, the example is West Berkeley’s Standard Fare, which offers a high quality ceramic container for take-away.  It’s only returnable at Standard fare (and you’ll incur a hefty $45 fee if you break one or don’t return it in a reasonable time).  You will see a variation on this approach at Mission Heirloom (Berkeley) and the Local Butcher Shop (Berkeley), where they only accept the containers that came from their shop.

The second approach is a more widespread offering – what you might call the ‘networked container’ – is the GO Box, a waste reduction project started in Portland in 2011. It’s fairly simple, nearly as simple as one could imagine.  Vendors sign up for a supply of boxes.  Customers sign up for a membership (and pay an annual fee) and then are allowed to ‘check out’ the boxes at member restaurants using a physical or virtual token. When the box is dropped off at a depository (which might not be the place where it was picked up), a new token is received.

A Bay Area branch of GO Box has launched, with a handful of sites in San Francisco’s Dogpatch (e.g., Jolt N Bolt, The New Spot) and South of Market (e.g., Rincon Market, Thai to Go) districts.  Over in the East Bay, you’ll find GO Box in Oakland’s City Center at places like Awaken Café and Tia Maria.

GO Box costs customers $19 per year in Portland and $29 per year in the Bay Area.  This, in my opinion, is a major shortcoming, as it requires a year-long financial commitment to a relatively small network of restaurants.  What if you lose interest in the restaurants in the network?   It would work better if the restaurants footed the operating costs, but that might not be practical because of start-up expenses, even though GO Box claims that the service can be cheaper for restaurants than standard single-use or compostable packaging.

GO Box is designed to comply with health regulations that don’t allow customer-provided containers (i.e., fresh take-out orders).  For leftovers after a restaurant meal, the rules don’t apply and there is a simpler and cost-free approach that I strive to use when I go out to eat (and manage to do so about 75% of the time):  bring my own containers for leftovers.  At the end of each course, I transfer the remainders to the container and set them aside (tip:  if the dish is rice and something, put the something on the bottom and the rice on the top; this way you can simply tip the container onto a plate and it’s ready for reheating).

Image Credits

  • Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (c. 1734) by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Downloaded from the National Gallery of Art (USA) website.  Yes, the people in the painting aren’t from ancient Rome, but I wasn’t able to find any good paintings of ancient Roman scenes that aren’t mythological or historical (e.g., the death of Caesar, the triumph of X on the battlefield of Y).
  • First century bowl from South Gaulish area of the Roman Empire (early Imperial period, ca. 90 CE).  Downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

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