What Take-Out Food Can Teach You About American History

9 minute read

On any given day in the United States, 6% of the entire country will be eating take-out for one meal or another. Whether it’s ordered with a touch on an app, a few clicks on a website or a quick phone call to the neighborhood pizza joint, delivery food can seem like just another modern convenience. But a jaunt through culinary history quickly reveals that there’s nothing new about the concept of take-out. In fact, for as long as there have been advanced societies, humans have been buying food to go.

The ruins of Pompeii in Italy are filled with thermopolia, “cook-shops” that slung hot foods for hungry Romans in a hurry, while vendors in ancient Aztec markets sold a multitude of tamales to eaters just passing through. And the delicious twin of take-out cuisine, delivery food, has existed for nearly as long and across just as many cultures. Butchers in 14th century Paris would frequently send their wares directly from the butcher’s block to the homes of the city’s well-to-do families, while cohorts of dabbawalla in Mumbai continue to deliver home-cooked lunches to hungry workers across the city as they have since at least the 19th century.

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In American history, the take-out and delivery options have been equally ample and just as delicious. For example, during the 18th century, colonial hotels in big cities advertised that “families may every day be provided with plates of any dish, that may happen to be cooked that day, by sending their servants for the same.” For those of lesser means, after the Civil War there were restaurant-made “lunches put up” in cracker boxes for Sunday picnickers or hungry travelers. One restaurant in the 1920s, for example, offered their customers boxed lunches that included “chicken sandwiches, roast chicken, club sandwiches, salads of all kind,” as well as “Brick Ice Cream in different flavors” to finish off the meal.

But the story of American take-out is not just the tale of the nation’s long-standing passion for sandwiches. How, where, and why the country has eaten food to go reflects much broader changes in the nation’s social, economic and technological history.

The Take-Out Class

Until the middle of the 20th century, the most common places to find take-out were major transit hubs, like train stations or the intersections of well-traveled highways. Finding fully cooked meals to go in these locales was not only typical in the United States, but a common practice across the globe as well; American soldiers traveling in the Far East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often wrote of the “little lunches put up in flat boxes” they purchased on trains in Japan and China. Though servant-delivered restaurant dishes were the province of the wealthy, this kind of eating on the go was more likely to be part of a laborer’s life.

In the United States, African-American women were the most group most associated with the take-out business at such locations. “The eating houses on the railways in the South are, almost without exception, abominable,” wrote one Yankee making his way from Washington to Mobile, Ala., via train in 1868. “It took me several days to learn the secret,” he continued, “but I found at last that the surest way of satisfying the appetite, and also the cheapest, is to patronize the colored women who throng around the cars at the principal stations with nicely cooked chicken, eggs, and sometimes hot coffee.” Although their food often received high marks — travelers on the east coast would change their routes just for a chance to grab lunch in a town called Gordonsville, Va., which was famous for its fried chicken — the reason behind the trend was a sinister one. Since even before Emancipation, overt racism meant that selling take-away like this was one of the few options for entrepreneurial African Americans looking to support their families.

And for African American consumers, take-out was often less of a convenience than a necessity. Blacks on a long journey or simply looking for a bite to eat away from home anywhere in the Jim Crow South were often forced to order their food as take-away in segregated restaurants if they wanted to eat at all.

Take-out lunches were also an unavoidable part of life for the urban working classes of all races in the early 20th century. Industrialization meant people were laboring further from home, but they still wanted something hot and delicious to eat during the workday. Amongst the most popular take-away foods in east coast urban centers like New York at this time were oysters, scallops and other steamed, stewed or chowdered sea creatures. Many city restaurants offered “take-home specials” that included items like “Scallops Fry in a Box to Take Home,” which could be purchased for 25 cents at Chas’ Bradely’s Oyster Room, or “Oyster Stew in a Can to Take Home” from 30 cents at the Sagamore Restaurant and Lunch Room..

Although pollution and overfishing have since destroyed the street-side oyster trade, the containers that these bivalves could be taken away with in fact linger on as familiar “Chinese Take-Out” containers. The first individuals to mass-produce these “oyster pails” were the Bloomer Brothers of New York, who started their container manufacturing business in 1900. By the 1960s, the company evolved into the Riegel Paper Company and by 1977 they had become Fold-Pak, the business that still produces the majority of the Chinese Take-Out containers used in the United States today. Along the way, the quintessential white, cardboard containers gained a vaguely Chinese red temple on their sides and became a symbol of fast, casual Chinese cuisine in America.

And that was no coincidence: even before their food arrived in those boxes, Chinese restaurants were well ahead of the restaurant delivery trend in the United States. The earliest known reference to delivery services of the kind modern eaters know and love today in fact comes from a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. In 1922, Kin-Chu café proclaimed that is was “the only place on the West Coast making and delivering real Chinese food.” One phone call and the restaurant would “deliver hot dishes direct to you,” even as late as 1:00 a.m.

Driving Delivery

After the Second World War, the concept of delivery took off across a broader swath of the restaurant world. By the early 1950s, the bourgeoning American middle class had purchased second cars, moved to the suburbs and discovered the primal joys of television. As families increasingly spent their leisure time in their own homes glued to the boob tube, restaurants saw their profits steadily declining. With an “if you can’t beat ‘em” attitude, restaurant associations quickly declared “the take-home trade has come as a solution to the problem” and restaurants throughout the country began advertising television menus made for taking home. Those eating-houses that started offering their customers that service in the early 1950s “show[ed] sales increases of 20 to 50 per cent” in a single year. By the end of the decade, menus regularly contained reminders that “Any Item …May Be Ordered to Take Out,” which meant that restaurant food at home was no longer just for rich people or just for those without any other option. In the postwar years, take-out and delivery became something for everyone.

Amongst the most popular items on these “television menus” was, unsurprisingly, the pizza. In the 1940s soldiers returning from the War in Europe had developed a taste for Italian cuisine and flocked to dine in the Italian restaurants that had dotted American cities since the first major waves of Italian immigration in the early 20th century. Hungry civilians were intrigued and even the New York Times took it upon itself to explain that this newly popular “pizza” was “a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes.” By 1944, restaurants in New York City offered pizza that could be “ordered to take home,” which were “packed, piping hot, in special boxes for that purpose.” A few years later, Los Angeles would again prove to be on top of the world’s delivery needs, when a pizza joint named Casa D’Amore began offering what is thought to be one of the first examples of free delivery. (This was, of course, only if eaters met the $2.50 minimum order.) These days, one in eight American adults will eat pizza on any given day, be it a frozen pie or brought to their homes by their friendly, neighborhood delivery boy.

After solving the television problem, take-out and delivery only continued to evolve. By the 1960s, private automobiles had taken over American roads and fast-food joints catering almost exclusively in food to-go became the fastest growing facet of the restaurant industry. By the 1990s the internet started to made its mark on American take-away and as early as 1997, entrepreneurs who felt that “the internet and on-line communications are here to stay” starting putting up “websites for menus” where hungry eaters could order their favorite foods online.

And delivery is taking on newer and more convenient forms in today’s ever-changing technological landscape. There is of course the model championed by industry giant Seamless, which allows users to order food delivery with the touch of an app, but supermarkets like Whole Foods and Tesco will also now deliver groceries straight to one’s door while companies like Blue Apron will send hungry shoppers ready-to-cook meals. In recent years, the food delivery space has become one of the biggest and most lucrative in the tech world; in 2014, venture capitalists invested over $1 billion in the field, knowing full well that humans of whatever century will always be hungry—and will always be looking for a quick and convenient bite to eat.

Emelyn Rude is a food historian and the author of Tastes Like Chicken, available in August of 2016.

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