Bento. Traditional lunchboxes from Japan.
I would go so far as to say that Bento is becoming an English word. In case you don’t know, it means a lunchbox (usually for children), containing carefully prepared tiny portions of different kinds of food.
I have compiled my own take on what bento means, beyond the cuteness. Here it is:
A bento is the condensed physical representation of a mother’s love. A package put together with deliberate consumption of time, energy and creativity that symbolizes her desire for her children to grow into healthy adulthood while celebrating their childhood. The box itself has to be cute, or meticulously arranged with a focus on interesting shapes and symmetry. It must also represent the best traditions of nutritional completeness and uprightness. (No Oreos, please.) This means that a starch (rice, rice, rice) a protein, and vegetables should all make appearances. Extra points are awarded if you have a little bit of a lot of things tastefully arranged inside.
The bento is a package designed to be carried by the child and consumed outside of the home, a place where child is separated from mother. As such it is a talisman that transmits the safety of home, a way to support the child in his/her temporary bouts with independence. It is an artifact that will remind them of the surety that she is waiting for their return.
In addition to being done for the child, the Japanese mom has the psychological benefit of having teachers and other moms see her handiwork. It is a representation (like a Boy Scout merit badge) that shows the uprightness of the household and her dedication to healthy well-adjusted kids. An element of competition (my child’s lunch is better than yours…but I would never say so out loud…) can come into play as well.
There is a strong sense that the preparation of bentoshould take time. It would not seem right if the bentowere a 2 minute creation. Even if a 2 minute preparation of food would be at parity in terms of flavor and nutrition with a the more time consuming process , it would not be in line with the spirit of bento.
The tradition of bento came about in a time in Japan when mothers were almost always stay-at-home figures in the household, and as such had an abundance of time to prepare them. Nowadays, many moms are working and feel a sense of guilt if they cannot spend the amount of time necessary to do a proper bento box for each of the kids. In our house, the tradition continues in modified form, but never quite to mom’s satisfaction. There is some degree of guilt for not doing it right…if only there were more time.
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