So I heard this story on NPR about how My Japanese Table author Deborah Samuels learned to make bentos for her son after he came home in tears, saying his American lunch wasn’t cute enough. Her son had opened his brown paper bag to find a pb&j, some carrot sticks, and some fruit. It was a fluffy piece about cultural discovery, but it was also about a conversion: Samuels learned to make more visually appealing lunches for her son, and now carves carrots into flowers just for her own satisfaction, even when she’s eating alone. There is a joy in making your food visually appealing.
It resonated with me, of course, because I also make bento lunches… but more on that later. First I want report that days after that report aired, All Things Considered aired some of the comments that had come in from listeners. You can hear it here at time index 1:50. People wrote in to complain that they don’t have any damn time to make their kids’ lunches look good, and their kids will just have to settle for regular ugly American lunches.
I’m always amazed at people who find a way to be offended at someone else’s personal growth. Samuels is not crusading against ugly American lunches, but somehow these parents felt personally attacked. I’m willing to bet money that none of the people who rended their hearts and garments bothered to try to make a bento, or even looked at a picture of one. I think they imagined the hours of their lives that Japanese mothers must toil away carving delicate orchids and daffodils from carrots, and then immediately busted out their keyboards to leap to the defense of the ugly ass lunches they cherish so dearly, and the American WayOfLife that they represent.
One day I packed a bento, and I mentioned it to my students. They of course demanded to see it, and when I showed it to them, they said, THAT’S NOT A BENTO. Perfect, I thought, please educate me on what a bento is. A bento, they said, has edamame… and pickled radish.. and inscrutable croquettes coated with panko… and a bowl of soup, and what makes you think, profesor, that what YOU made is a bento?
So… I told them. I think it’s a bento because… when O-Sensei saw it, she said, “oh, a bento!” That’s a pretty solid argument for calling it a bento in my book, since the Japanese teacher called it that at first glance. Right?
Anyway, that pb&j and bag of chips and whole apple and baggie of carrot sticks that we pack for American kids is not appropriate for a bento, so the easily offended parents can probably calm down. A bento, first and foremost, is a box of food. The separate components are not individually prepackaged like in the American brown bag; instead they are jammed together so they won’t shift during transport.
So I make bentos for myself, but I don’t take a lot of time decorating them. My lunches during the week usually consist of a scoop of rice, leftovers, and then whatever chunky things I can cram into my glass box. My coworkers often have similar lunch components, but what distinguishes my lunch is this: instead of making a layer of rice and then slopping my leftovers on top of it, I make a tall lump of rice, and slop my leftovers NEXT to it. The other chunky things (chopped veggies, boiled egg, pickles, whatever) get crammed into a corner to take up the rest of the space.
Voila, it’s a bento. It’s not the fancy cartoon-character bentos that bento moms make, but it still makes my coworkers comment on the visual presentation of my food. I’m all about making my coworkers think about food that’s not theirs.
I also have an undying dedication to the bento lunches that are served in Japanese restaurants around here; several of which I’ve photographed and included in the gallery below. My favorite was the Mountain and Sea Obento that they used to serve at the old Takohachi, with chicken karaage, a bite of lotus root, a big piece of salmon, and that amazing savory tamago…
Note: the original title of this post was going to be “Don’t Get Bento-ta Shape” but I realize that pun reference the Canadian pronunciation of “out,” and I didn’t know how to work that in.