Take-Out Food

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TAKE-OUT FOOD. Take-out food is food prepared for consumption away from the location where it is purchased. As a term, its first appearance was in James Cain's novel Mildred Pierce (1941), in which the main character expressed her desire to sell pies to the take-out trade. Synonyms for "take-out" include "carry-out," "take-away," and "food to go."

Origins of Take-out Food

From Roman antiquity onward, people have been buying foods to consume elsewhere that have already undergone some form of preparation. Roman cook shops, early precursors to restaurants, were an early example of today's modern gourmet to-go shop. A variety of production kitchens were available to the Romans. Not only did the Roman soldiers get food from a centralized kitchen, but large towns such as Rome had areas where food was prepared for eating on the premises or to take out. Cooks in ancient Greece and Rome were often itinerant, bringing their prepared foods to theater audiences, predating ballpark hot-dog vendors by millennia. In ancient Rome, according to historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, prepared foods were available for sale to be consumed in the markets or elsewhere. In fact, Trajan's Forum in Rome could be viewed as an extension of the idea of the Greek agora, where all kinds of goods were freely exchanged.

Cooked-meat vendors date back to ancient Mesopotamia, where a wide variety of foods were available to take out, from roasted meats to fish to almond pastebased desserts.

The custom of buying ready-cooked food was found, as recorded by historian Reay Tannahill, in twelfth-century London, where

you may find viands, dishes roast, fried and boiled, fish great and small, the coarser flesh for the poor, the more delicate for the rich, such as venison, and birds both big and little. If friends, weary with travel, should of a sudden come to any of the citizens, and it is not their pleasure to wait fasting till fresh food is bought and cooked.they hasten to the river bank, and there all things desirable are ready to their hand (Tannahill, p. 164).

Even in late-sixteenth-century France, more than two hundred years before the term "restaurant" takes on the meaning now associated with it, prepared foods were available from "the roasters and the pastrycooks, [who] in less than an hour, will arrange a dinner for you, or a supper," to eat on the premises or to take out to consume elsewhere. Only from 1786 onward did Parisian caterers and restaurateurs open their doors to the public for consumption of meals. It was at this time that the custom of the table d'hôte ("host's table") took hold, an expression that meant that paying customers were invited to partake of foods in the caterer's place of business at the very table where the caterer dined, instead of having to take the meal out to eat elsewhere.

Across the English Channel, a hundred years later, fast-food eating shops had become London institutions, frequented by members of all classes. In 1671 in Munich, Germany, the luxury food store Dallmayr opened, purveying box lunches to the noblemen of the day. The tradition continued with the founding of Fortnum and Mason in London in 1707. By 1788 Fortnum's was selling foods to go, including boned portions of poultry and game in aspic jelly, decorated with lobsters and prawns, all prepared so as to require no cutting, for a distinguished clientele that resided nearby. By 1851 ready-to-eat dishes had become all the rage: to sustain life during such ceremonies as the Coronation festivities, the new queen's review of 6,000 troops in Hyde Park, and the Great Exhibition of 1851. Harrods in 1849 began purveying high-quality foodstuffs to royalty and upper-class Londoners alike.

Hédiard (founded in 1854) and Fauchon (1886) brought a taste of what were then considered exotic foods to the Parisian elite. The German-born Leonardo Peck opened an epicurean delicatessen in Milan, Italy, in 1883, specializing in artisanally prepared smoked and cured meats and cheeses. The large department store Kaufhaus Des Westens (KaDeWe) in Berlin, Germany, established in 1907, devoted considerable space to foods to go. These and other stores featured imported fruits, spices, teas, and coffee; foods prepared on the premises for take-out set new standards in elegance and luxury that retailers in the United Sates wished to emulate.


Packaging is an essential component of foods to go. In the United States, paper bags for holding purchases were introduced around the 1860s, a significant development that catalyzed the growth of carry-out foods. Prior to this, clerks had often placed small purchases for customers who were without baskets, bags, or other containers into cones made of rolled paper, twisting them at the bottom to create a kind of primitive bag. By the 1860s the process of making paper containers was becoming mechanized. By 1875, a full-scale manufacture of paper bags was under way. Coupled with stepped-up mechanized production of food, improved refrigeration technology, and transportation of food by rail, a multiplicity of food choices was becoming available nationwide.

The late nineteenth century saw the establishment of grocery store chains. A&P was established in 1869, Kroger in 1882, and Gristede Brothers in 1891. Department store food halls, such as New York City's Macy's food department of 1908, would eventually serve as a model for Dean & DeLuca (founded in 1977 in lower Manhattan), a specialty-foods store with boutiquelike departments, each of which specialized in a different category of food (cheese, meats, prepared foods, pastries) displayed artfully.

Convenience and Education

In one of a number of attempts to educate the working class about healthful eating habits, Ellen Richards, a founder of domestic science who was a chemist and the first woman appointed to the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1884), helped open the New England Kitchen in 1894 as a place where neighborhood people could purchase foods to take home. Through it, she intended to promote the values of home and family life over the trend toward eating out. Ahead of its time, Richards's effort could be seen as the precursor to the delivery of prepared meals by the then new automobile. In the early 1900s, food delivery services in New Jersey (an offshoot of a communal dining experiment) and Illinois lasted only a few years but served as early models for the pizza delivery services that dominated the take-out food market from the 1970s onward. In the period after World War I, small independently owned grocery stores sprung up in cities and in their surrounding bedroom communities throughout the country, offering prepared foods to the carriage trade. One such operation, William Poll in New York City, started out as a grocery and catering establishment in 1921. Offering some of the earliest prepared take-out of the modern era (1951), a marvel of freezer and packaging technology in the form of shish kebab, cooked and ready for reheating, Poll continued into the twenty-first century. In 1934 the Zabar family started what was to become one of the largest delicatessen-prepared food establishments in New York City; its take-out operations have continued to the present.

In the modern era of food retailing, from the 1960s onward, in the United States the rise of two-career couples created a demand for fast food and prepared foods, available for take-out or delivery. Those early revolutionaries of the Boston experiment such as Ellen Richards, who said that home cooking as traditionally defined would soon be a thing of the past, were more prescient than they may have realized, given how much modern industrialized society has come to depend on sources for ready-to-eat food outside of the home. Among the upwardly mobile and working-class alike, a once weekly pilgrimage to the local Chinese restaurant, a phenomenon begun in the 1950s, defined take-out for many Americans. The growing ethnic diversity of populations nationwide in the succeeding fifty years enabled Americans to experience the cuisines of other countries, including Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Restaurants with limited seating often capitalized on the demand for convenience and offered their complete menus "to go." Take-out food was no longer limited to pizza, burgers, or fried chicken. From the late 1980s, the percentage of take-out foods purchased increased year by year. Take-out and delivery of foods accounted for 57 percent of all restaurant traffic, with more than nine out of ten table-service restaurants offering take-out options. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, Americans strayed far from the nightly ritual of eating a home-cooked meal with all members of the family congregating around the dinner table. In 2001, according to the National Restaurant Association, 47 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four said purchasing take-out food is essential to the way they live, with 29 percent of all age groups in agreement. With convenience and variety in increasing demand, the trend is not likely to cease.

See also Fast Food ; Fauchon ; Food Politics: U.S. ; French Fries ; Hamburger ; Hédiard ; Marketing of Food ; Places of Consumption ; Preparation of Food ; Restaurants ; Retailing of Food ; Sandwich .


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Robert Wemischner