Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Who's a Good Doggy?

The BBC has an interesting article out today about the cultural stigma of asking for a doggy bag in the UK.  Apparently, a campaign called Too Good To Waste is being launched to combat execessive food waste as a typical restaurant can throw away an astonishing 21 tonnes (or 42,000 lbs) of leftovers every year; however, it seems that this noble initiative is facing an uphill battle.

In the United States, asking to take home unfinished food is de rigeur.  This could be, as the BBC posits, because American portion sizes are outlandishly large, and I'm sure that this does play a role in the prevalence of the doggy bag on that side of the pond.  I think that it also has something to do with a practicality - both financial and culinary - that in the US is admired because of the idea that you are currently lower on the socio-economic totem pole than you will be in the future due to the careful steps (like asking for a doggy bag) you take every day in the quest for upward movement.  Americans aren't ashamed to ask to take home leftovers because it shows an admirable thriftiness indicating foresight and advance planning.  (For more ramblings on class, see this post; please do read especially Megan's very insightful comment!)

In the UK, though, asking for a doggy bag isn't culturally acceptable.  One reason is that there is "a shyness about appearing greedy."  We certainly cannot discount the British desire to never create a fuss.  Plus, the article notes, the ability to waste food has historically been seen as an indicator of wealth; asking for a doggy bag is seen as a sign of poverty.  Whatever the reason - or reasons - for avoiding the request to take home leftovers, it is clearly discomforting for the British to be faced with the prospect of a doggy bag.

I've seen this first-hand.  When dining out with Jon's family for his mother's birthday a few months ago, I only ate half of my steak.  Jon's father motioned towards my plate at the end of the meal and asked, laughing, if I needed anyone to finish my meal for me.  I explained that, as I was already full, I was going to turn the other half of the steak into the next day's lunch.  (This may have been the best decision of my life.)  He made fun of me for being so American, but was goodhearted about it all.  The waiter was a bit taken aback by my request; he recovered his composure relatively quickly and did bring my leftovers all wrapped up but the way in which they were packaged made it clear that this wasn't a request they had to accomodate often.

The aformentioned British inclination to not create a stir plus the universal business adage that the customer is always right means that, in the UK, you will never be turned down outright if you ask for a doggy bag.  In fact, I sometimes take advantage of this glorious combination to create a situation wherein it is necessary to take leftovers home: when dining out and happening upon some sort of deal that offers two courses for a steal, I will order the set menu even if I'm not terribly hungry because then I can take home most of the main dish for later.  (Hey, it's the next meal!  This girl is on a budget, you know.)  I do get some funny looks sometimes, but I have never heard no.

What do you think about this issue?  I'd love to hear viewpoints from both countries!


  1. Girl, I am the queen of leftovers. I frigging love them. That is one of the saddest things for me is that there just isn't a culture of that here.

    BUT, like you, I've definitely asked for the doggy bag. I do miss the immediate offers of "would you like a box?"

  2. You were rude in front of your boyfriend's family and you got away with it? I pretty much got disowned and stuffed into the pushy bitchy American box - and not merely over the doggy bag issue. Is God sitting on your shoulder 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year??? Yeesh. RH

  3. Sarah - rock on.

    RH - well, it sounds like you subscribe to the British mindset as far as doggy bags! I don't think I was rude and it seems that Jon's family didn't think I was rude, either. Otherwise, though, if you have struggled or are struggling with cultural differences, my one biggest piece of advice would be that the way you are received has everything to do with how you approach the issues you come up against. If you find yourself being "disowned and stuffed into the pushy bitchy American box" perhaps it might be useful to examine how you brought up the issue. Of course, I don't know the situation(s) you're talking about and so I can't be very helpful, but it's just a suggestion!

  4. I'm a Brit, but with a lot of American family, and every time I visit them I am always so thrilled to discover how easy it is to take home a doggy bag - in some places it is even offered or suggested. It's a far more sustainable solution that throwing food away, and frankly, you've bought the whole meal, not just the amount you managed to eat, so you should be entitled to do with it what you like. I think plenty of Brits would be happy to take their food home with them from a restaurant were it not for the frosty response they would typically get from the stroppy wait-staff. Maybe it's our level of restaurant service that reallly needs to change rather than the British fear of looking cheap or greedy?

  5. Whilst travelling in America and Canada I always asked for doggy bags for leftovers - we were backpacking and needed to save, obviously! - but I think it should be a normal, accepted thing. I have done it quite a few times over here in the UK, but I agree that it is not as culturally accepted as it is in the US. This really should change - afterall you have paid for the meal and if you want to take half of it home then you darn should be able to!!


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