Classic Lunch Box - © lmayminerslunchbox.ca

Street Food Discoveries: A Lunch Box Renaissance?

What’s better than having access to a great selection of street foods? Having a way to get them safely and still steaming to your chosen dining perch! And fortunately there’s a long-established, traditional way to do that: A renaissance for the Lunch Box!

14-qt. electric cooler - © Koolatron

They have always been popular – even iconic – in cultures where folks have worked outside the house. You can thank the Industrial Revolution for creating masses of jobs in which workers lost their expectation of going home to their own kitchens for the mid-day meal. It was a much longer journey from their labouring places to their homes, and time was limited.

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A modern electric picnic cooler (left): Prototype of the ‘street food harvest basket’ of the future? A renaissance for the lunch box of old?
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A long history

The concept of he lunch box, or bundle, probably goes back at least, as far the pyramids. Tens of thousands of slaves and s few key skilled workers all labouring for long hours under the Egyptian sun. I’m sure they all wanted to take best advantage of every opportunity their shop foreman gave them for a break. They would have used a small animal skin. woven palm fronds or a piece of papyrus (if they afford one) to wrap their lunchtime hand foods.

Fast forward…

Fast forward to the agricultural revolution, when farmers had to make the most of their time in field, which could be some ways out from the house. I recall my mother and grandmother talking about bringing ‘the men’ their mid-day meal (also supper) in the fields in big wicker baskets. And kids all had something like that in which to haul their lunches to school in town. Baskets were common, but most kids prized the big jam and honey pails with their tight lids and stout paint-can-like handles.

After the Second World Mar, most blue-collar workers carried one version or another of what had by them become a standard lunch pail design. It consisted of a log, boxy narrow bottom and lid like a mini Gambrel barn roof, with maximum room for a thermos bottle that usually contained hot coffee or tea. When I was in school, I remember the boys all having to make one for themselves in sheet metal shop, to help prepare them for the industrial and commercial jobs that awaited most of them after grade 8.

The first great marketing collabs

The post-War period, notably the 1950s and later, saw the rise of a period in which there was no such thing as a plain school lunch box. They all carried the likeness of some TV or movie hero, in full colour silk screening. By the late 1960s, it as more common to see the logos or mascots of major brands that catered to kids (or appealed to their moms). Or cartoon characters…

This mode of lunch box decoration persisted for more or less 20 years, until kids started being served hot lunches are school. I can remember the hoop-la about mom’s who wanted more for themselves out of life – to have careers outside the home – being criticised for not making sure their kids got proper lunches packed for them. This was also era in which legions of products (which we would call prepared and processed) were being invented and marketed fiercely, to help harried moms meet the latter challenge. The marketing slogan ‘perfect for the kids’ lunch box!’ was all over the place, on radio and TV, and in newspapers and magazines.

Forward again, to the 90s and beyond…

Now a days, dietary and nutrition pros – heartily endorsed by social workers – insist that all kids must have free access to full, balanced breakfasts and lunches at their schools. Regardless of whether they live in well-to-do or lower-income neighbourhoods. Gone are the days when sliced white bread sandwiches stuffed with PB and J, or whatever leftovers might be in the fridge, plus the ubiquitous thermos of 2 percent milk, were deemed sufficient to fuel a kid’s brain for learning.

At the same time, though, witness the progressive younger folks, notably millennials and those generations, who have come after them. Many of them have started carrying lunch boxes to work, again, to ensure they get quality mid-day meals and snacks again. We live in a time of stark contrasts, when ultra-processed convenience foods snuggle with fresh, clean, nutritious, balanced foods on adjacent supermarket shelves.

The future of the lunch box

I can foresee – quite soon, actually – the resurgence of the lunch box as a go-to accessory for workers of all income levels. Everyone will carry one every day when they venture out from home for whatever reason, so they take advantage of any and all street food and farm-stand fresh food opportunities that present themselves. Gather the components for your lunch and break snacks on the way to work in the morning. Graze the seasonal food stands in the supermarket parking lots on the way home at night for wholesome ingredients or fully-prepared meals…

The new lunch boxes will be larger and more technically advanced than the jam pails of yester-year, of course. Construction workers already spend a fair amount on advanced boxes made from space-age materials designed to keep their lunches and snacks fresh all day. And we already have ‘picnic’ coolers that feature 12v piezoelectric cooling units which run off your vehicle accessory sockets. Or plug in right beside the computer power outlets under your office desk.

My final word..

Let’s hope that the fresh, seasonal, nutritious, unprocessed foods and the culturally-appropriate prepared dishes we all associate with he magical ambience of street food strips and markets survive the rampaging destruction ravaging our food space as a result of global warning – so we can enjoy the kind of shopping and dining renaissance I’ve envisioned above…

~ Maggie J.