In “Bento Monogatari,” a Belgian short film that was released in 2010, a woman makes her husband a bento box for lunch each day, in an attempt to salvage their marriage. Traditionally, bento is a single-portion meal, served in a box that contains small amounts of several types of food. In Japan, bento, which dates back hundreds of years, is highly aesthetic, reflecting clean lines, ordered geometries, and uncluttered space; today, it often includes food shaped into adorable characters. And so the wife in “Bento Monogatari,” who wears Harajuku-style dresses and fills her house with Japanese tchotchkes, molds rice balls into elaborate rabbits and piglets. Her husband, however, is more interested in his beautiful male co-worker, and he throws away the food. When the wife finds out, she explodes. “Don’t forget that I wake up at five every morning to prepare this ‘garbage’ for you!” she snaps. But the allure of bento prevails in the end: in a surreal twist, the husband is transformed into a bento character, and the beautiful co-worker eats him for lunch.
The film played at Cannes, in 2011, a small part of a wave of international interest in bento over the past few years. A decade ago, it was difficult to find bento supplies outside Japan. Now bento-dedicated blogs and Pinterest boards abound. There are bento contests and bento how-to books. As of this month, the best-selling lunchbox on Amazon.com was a set of three-compartment “Bento Lunch Box Containers.” This year’s flurry of back-to-school media coverage included reports on bento from the “Today” show, the Guardian, and the Halifax Chronicle Herald, to name a few. The term “bento” has also spread beyond lunch, to describe balanced, compartmentalized, and aesthetically appealing design in any field. In fashion, for example, the online retailer MM.LaFleur offers customers a stylist-curated bento consisting of three to five base garments and an assortment of accessories. (“We often hear from customers that they feel like we ‘know’ them and have solved a major problem in their lives,” Sarah LaFleur, the company’s founder and C.E.O., wrote to me in an e-mail.)
It’s in the realm of food, though, that bento has become a status symbol. The trendy version of bento depicted in “Bento Monogatari” follows mainly from the contemporary Japanese practice of charaben, which features food sculpted into intricate and adorable characters, like SpongeBob SquarePants and Pikachu. Charaben makers painstakingly fashion the food using stencils, specialized picks, cutters, and other tools, with the aim of achieving kawaii, a type of cuteness associated with things like babies, snowmen, and baby pandas. For his book “Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes,” Christopher D. Salyers photographed the elaborate bento made by Japanese mothers (and one father), who told him that they would often wake up at 5 A.M. to tweeze seaweed and tapioca into piglets and manga princesses. “The devotion they had to the craft was one inspired by an absolute avidity toward pleasing their children,” Salyers writes.
Online bento culture is focussed on the exquisite and the practical. Shirley Wong, a Singaporean blogger who goes by the moniker Little Miss Bento, runs workshops to teach people how to make the perfect charaben. Elsewhere, bloggers like Sheri Chen, of Happy Little Bento, and Li Ming Lee, at Bento Monsters, document the bento they build for their families. (Caroline Miros, the C.E.O. of PlanetBox, a maker of bento-like containers, told me that about ninety per cent of people sharing lunches on her company’s social-media pages are women.) The downside of this conspicuous creativity is the expectations it can place on parents. A recent article by Kimberly Leonard in U.S. News and World Report suggested that pressure born of bento-dedicated social media, in particular, is excessive. “For parents who make these lunches and for those who don’t, the topic of what they are feeding their kids is deeply personal, rife with insecurity, anxiety, judgment and criticism,” she writes. Bettina Elias Siegel, a food-policy commentator who blogs about children and food at The Lunch Tray, wrote to me in an e-mail, “Are [bloggers] justifiably proud of their work and entitled to show off a little, the way we all trumpet our accomplishments on social media these days? Or are they coming across as morally superior?”
As Kenji Ekuan, the Japanese designer best known for creating the Kikkoman soy-sauce bottle, writes in his 1998 book, “The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox,” these social concerns are woven into the history of the bento box. The bento has humble beginnings, tracing back to twelfth-century Japanese farmers who used them to carry simple balls of rice into the fields. A more elaborate bento culture flourished during the Edo period (1603–1867), when it became the province of the élite. Sightseers would carry koshibento, or “waist bento,” which consisted of easily portable rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves and tucked into a woven bamboo box. Makunouchi bento, or “between-the-acts bento,” consisting of cylinders of rice and side dishes, were served during intermissions of Noh and Kabuki performances.
Later, bento became prevalent in more areas of Japanese society—in offices, as white-collar workers began to carry their lunches in compartmentalized aluminum containers, and at train stations, which came to feature a wide selection of to-go bento. By mid-century, factories were churning out cheap bento boxes, to the dismay of some élites. “The quality of these mass-produced lunchboxes is appallingly low, making them an entirely different breed from their gorgeous ancestors,” Ekuan writes. “In many cases, the rice is no longer even shaped or wrapped but simply crammed into the assigned portion.”
In schools, the boxes became a marker of inequality. In the first half of the twentieth century, Japanese schoolchildren primarily brought their lunches to school. Wealthy kids began to bring elaborate bento in metal containers that underprivileged students could not afford. The attendant status distinctions effectively disappeared in 1954, when Japan enacted the School Lunch Act, which mandated that lunch become integrated into the country’s educational curriculum. Nutritionists began to regulate what went into student lunches, and schoolchildren were assigned to arrange tables, serve the school-provided meal, and clean up. Today, although bento in Japan has become popular with schoolchildren again, it tends to be restricted to field trips and picnics.
In America, the status and health issues involved in the segmented presentation of food have historically been further complicated by the influence of mass marketing. These began, notably, in 1953, when Swanson sold its first TV dinners, prompting some men to complain that they preferred meals made (by their wives) from scratch. Later, in 1988, the Oscar Mayer Company came up with the segmented, prepackaged brand Lunchables, as a way to sell more bologna. Although the company’s executives, perhaps seeking to tap into the sushi craze at the time, perpetuated a myth that bento boxes had inspired Lunchables’ bright compartmental design, the journalist Michael Moss writes in his book “Salt Sugar Fat” that they were actually based on the TV dinner. Lunchables targeted kids in their advertising, and were soon a hit. But nutritionists pointed out that, like TV dinners, Lunchables were packed with salt and extra preservatives. A 1997 study showed that ham-and-cheese Lunchables contained three-fourths of the recommended daily sodium allowance. Pancakes Lunchables, a variety that has been discontinued, had seventy-six grams of sugar. Health concerns eventually prompted Oscar Mayer to change some of the contents of Lunchables (swapping, for example, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with fruit cups) and to emphasize terms like “protein” and “no artificial preservatives” in marketing them. In 2013, the Lunchables brand accounted for more than a billion dollars in sales.
While the countervailing boutique bento trend can be precious, it has also married concern for presentation with concern for the quality of the food that children eat. “I think most of us agree that what we make with whatever ability we have is much better than what our kids would otherwise get in the cafeteria, and that might eventually lead to change in our food industry,” Chen, of Happy Little Bento, wrote to me in an e-mail.
For many parents and nutritionists, a sea change not unlike Japan’s School Lunch Act, which democratized eating and made nutrition part of the educational curriculum, would be the better approach. Sanna Delmonico, a nutrition specialist at the Culinary Institute of America, told me that she would prefer to see greater emphasis placed on participation in school meals. “They tend to be more nutritious,” she said, adding, “There’s a lot to be said for conviviality and eating the same foods as other people. They learn a lot from that. It’s peer pressure, in a good way.” She sees school meals, too, as a corrective to special-snowflake syndrome among children, which she said bento can promote. “There’s so much defining of one’s individuality though food that people lose out on what food is really great for: bringing people together,” she said.
Fortunately, some bento bloggers are already fighting the impulse to spend hours making perfect replicas of Hello Kitty. Shannon Carino, who writes the blog BentoLunch.net, started making bento in 2007 to coax her daughter to eat. “With a huge sandwich, she would never eat that, but when I had everything cute, we had absolutely no problem getting her to finish all her food,” Carino told me. Far from turning bento into a marker of her child’s identity, though, she often doesn’t bother with decoration beyond toothpicks with little panda ears. “I don’t have the kitchen, nor the time, nor the patience,” she said. “For me, it’s more about what regular families are going to eat.” A recent post, “Simple, Not-So-Exciting Bentos,” featured tuna sandwiches and raspberries plunked unceremoniously in a plastic container. “Some days,” she wrote, “I’m just not that inspired, and the kiddos still require food. Sheesh.”
Watch: Dinner Lab is the next generation of the pop-up restaurant, the 2.0 of supper clubs.
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