Doggie fashion

Food - Bee Wilson on taking home the leftovers

In this country, doggy-bags are not kindly regarded. "Jesus Christ," comments one restaurateur I speak to. "Who'd want to eat a cold steak heated up? It's unhygienic. Poor dogs."

In America, land of steaks so vast that a whole pack of dogs could feast on one for a week, things are rather different. Even the poshest eaters think nothing of asking for their leftovers to be bagged or boxed up, and restaurateurs are only too happy to oblige. For one thing, it saves on waste disposal. For another, it's a cheap means of advertising: slap some funky design onto your doggy-bags and you have a bulging, fragrant billboard for your nosh.

At Gladstone's Malibu restaurant in California, desirable titbits are wrapped in gold foil costing $100 a roll. Trained staff twist the gold-wrapped leftovers into sculptures, with a choice of 40 different characters. This reminds me of the sugar-paste elaboration of Elizabethan times: food as pure, blatant, status symbol. The marketing director of Gladstone's, Christine Lloyd, has been quoted in USA Today as saying: "You come here for a lobster, and you go home with a swan." And Gladstone's is only the brash end of a growing trend. Other American establishments that pride themselves on their receptacles include Le Cirque 2000 in New York (sunny- yellow bags) and Bravo Italian restaurant and bar in Jackson, Mississippi (parchment-paper, hand-stamped bags adorned with "mushroom, ravioli and martini-glass designs").

Such gimmicks become necessary in a competitive field. A survey by American Demographics magazine found that 62 per cent of Americans leave restaurants with doggy- bags. The doggies themselves are mostly fictional: 89 per cent of customers dig the congealed souvenir out of their fridges and finish it themselves.

Our European sensibilities are appalled by this combination of excess and meanness. "I think there are some American restaurants where the portion size is obscene," a well-spoken denizen of Launceton Place in London's Kensington tells me. By contrast, an employee of Oak Room Marco Pierre White thinks that Americans are "tight-fisted and quite finicky, always ordering water instead of wine". Neither restaurant has much call for doggy-bags. At the Oak Room, waiters will wrap up cake or chocolates in pretty paper, black with Marco's name in gold, but they hardly get any requests for taking home fish and meat. At Launceton Place, the odd request for a doggy-bag is met with "ordinary tinfoil".

The same tale is told at numerous London restaurants: few would turn down the request for wrapped leftovers ("We do not refuse our guests . . ." says The Connaught), but nor is it encouraged. Perhaps a factor is respective attitudes to portion sizes in Britain and America. We regard large plates lavished with food as less admirable than huge plates dotted with leaning towers of crispy things. We see the Americans as prodigal. But which is worse: an excessive meal of which every mouthful is eaten (albeit some the next day from a carton), or a supposedly moderate meal of which half is chucked away?

I ask the greeter of one grand dining-room about the waste of chucking away the picked-over morsels of his wealthy clientele. He is unfazed. "It's people's prerogative not to eat the food. It's like smoking, innit?" Doggy-bags, he says, are "unhealthy".

A report published recently by Sustain revealed that up to 500,000 tonnes of edible food (worth a possible £400m) are thrown away in Britain every year. Only 3,000 tonnes of this goes to charities and local authorities for redistribution. The cost of disposing of the rest could be as much as £50m. Most of this surplus is not restaurant leftovers, and I don't suppose gold foil would do much to help. But in the face of these statistics, our disdain for doggy-bags does seem rather like a wanton enjoyment of waste.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy