Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bento Boxes and the Grade-School Power Lunch

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 boardsabound. There are bento contests and bento how-to books. As of this month, the best-selling lunchbox on 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 retailerMM.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, and especially food for children, 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.”

by Adrienne Raphel, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Mikey Burton