Hungry History

The Take on Takeout

By Stephanie Butler
take on takeout

sweetandsour/iStockphotos.com

These days, most Americans think nothing of picking up dinner, bringing it home and enjoying all the benefits of a meal in, without the hassle of dishes, cooking and clean up. But not that long ago, takeout as we know it was unheard of. While restaurants have flourished in America since colonial times, takeout (and its twin sister, delivery service) originated in the 1920s, in (no surprises here) Los Angeles, California. An enterprising Chinese restaurant owner placed an ad for his new business, proudly proclaiming that the Kin-Chu Café was “the only place on the West Coast making and delivering real Chinese dishes.” And while Chinese food is still the number one takeout and delivery food in the United States, it’s now possible to get fresh sushi, Indian curries and all-American hamburgers at your kitchen table in about as much time as it takes to drive to the corner store.

As it happened, that forward-thinking Los Angeles entrepreneur was a bit ahead of his time. Thanks to the penny-pinching influences of the deepening Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and then World War II, takeout didn’t take off the way it could have until the 1950s. By then, lifestyle changes and advances in packaging technology led to a takeout boom alongside the baby boom. World War II GIs moved their families to the suburbs, where they had TVs to watch, yards to tend and things to do other than slave over a stove. It’s no accident that takeout became popular alongside cake mixes, TV dinners and other convenience foods. The first mention of delivery service was none other than – you guessed it – a pizza place, once again in Los Angeles, in 1952. Casa D’Amore promised free delivery, as long as you made the minimum order of $2.50. Back when a medium combo pizza was $2.25, it wasn’t that hard to do!

Thanks to our increasingly busy lives, takeout and delivery have exploded in popularity over the past decades. Now we don’t even have to leave our computers to summon our food to us after a long day at work. Funnily enough, the one item most associated with takeout is the thing that’s changed the least over the years. The wire-handled white paper bucket used to bring you everything from chow mein to spaghetti to fried chicken is over 100 years old. That little bucket is called an “oyster pail” in the industry. It was invented to hold oysters, back when the bivalve was a cheap and plentiful food sold by street peddlers throughout the country. Shucking oysters, even back then, was seen as a dangerous task, so housewives would purchase pre-shucked oysters from a vendor, who would slip them into the container to be cooked at home later on. The technology had barely changed when, sometime in the 1970s, a graphic designer put a pagoda on the side of the pail and a faux-Asian “Thank You” on top. From then on, the containers became an indelible fixture of the Chinese takeout industry, even though they’ve never been used in China.

Categories: Chinese Food, Oysters, Pizza