American Plate - Bite #49: Lunch Pails

Friday, March 6, 2015
It makes sense that the first bite I tackle for the American Plate Project incorporates a lot of the allowances I gave myself in the rules. It's easy to get my hands on, requires minimal preparation and planning, and is generally a solitary eating experience: Lunch Pails (Bite #49).

Lunch Pails are brought up in the time period between the Civil War and the Industrial Age, which makes total sense. Gone were the days that a majority of workers ate at home or had family members bring them the midday meal in the fields they were working. People were beginning to spend their lunchtimes in factories and coal mines, and needed a more convenient way to eat. The American Plate mentions this as a time that immigrants flooded into the country, and singles out the Welsh for their work in the coal mines. Immigrants from Wales were more easily accepted into American society than others, since they shared language and religion with the people already here. They were also crazy about leeks and helped popularize them in America, which I'm grateful for. Leeks are damned tasty.

Welsh miners would take a three-level pail to work: A bottom layer of hot tea (which warmed the food above), a middle layer of hearty food, such as ham and bread, or a leek/cheese pastry, and a top layer of fruit or something sweet. Sounds like a pretty good system! Several household supplies were sold in tin boxes in the time after the Civil War, and people naturally wanted to repurpose them, hitting upon the idea to send their kids off to their schoolhouses with the boxes packed with food.

It wasn't until 1902 that these tins were sold with the express purpose of being lunchboxes. After that, it didn't take long for merchandising to grab a hold of them, with Disney selling their first Mickey Mouse lunchbox in 1935. After that, an era of lunchboxes swept in; they were an important fashion accessory of American schoolchildren everywhere. They featured cowboys, television characters, cartoons, bands... Anything that was popular at the time. The rise of convenience food put an end to the lunchbox era, but some of us still "brown-bag" it to work.

My lunchbox was chosen for its insulation rather than any sort of eye-catching design. It keeps cold items chilly for an impressive amount of time! There are plenty of restaurants and carryout places near my work, but in an effort to save both money and calories, I tend to try and bring my lunch most days. It can consist of usual lunch fare (sandwiches, crackers, yogurt...anything easily portable), leftovers from the previous night's dinner, or as is most often, pre-packaged, microwavable meals. It's an easy way to mimic having an "actual" meal, incorporating things like meat, rice, sauces, and veggies into lunchtime, where they're relatively new arrivals.

It's always interesting to hear how different countries handle the midday meal, whether it's by taking a long break to enjoy a sumptuous feast, or by grabbing a quick bite on the go. In America, we have a long tradition of bringing our lunches along with us. Speaking of which, it's almost noon. Time to pay homage to those post-war miners and factory workers by busting out the honey balsamic chicken with steamed vegetables. Sadly, there aren't any leeks in there, but it'll have to do.