Helen Martin: Bring this silly doggy bag resistance to heel

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PERHAPS the old music hall jokes about Scots being tight (or the once-held theory – now a bit discredited – that Scots banks were prudent) had more than a grain of truth in them.

Or, perhaps, it’s just me who is especially Scrooge-like, but surely I wasn’t the only one to raise my eyebrows in disbelief at a new campaign to encourage “British” restaurant diners to adopt the allegedly US habit of asking for, indeed expecting, a “doggy bag” in which to take home uneaten food for which they have paid.

According to the London-based campaign, UK diners struggle with the idea of asking for their leftovers to be wrapped up as takeaway, no matter how much is left on their plate. A survey showed at least a quarter of diners would be too embarrassed to ask, and almost as many even thought taking uneaten food home was against health and safety.

The campaign quotes the government’s advisory body Wrap estimating that a typical restaurant throws away 21 tonnes of food every year. Its solution is to distribute 25,000 Too Good To Waste “doggy” boxes to 50 restaurants which, they hope, will offer diners the service and encourage them to take it up . . . or, in this case, take it home. All 50 restaurants are in London.

A London newspaper editor once told me nowhere was more provincial. There is an assumption on the part of many in the Metropolis that what happens there happens everywhere. If they don’t ask for doggy bags, then no-one in the UK does.

In America, where a guy expects top value for his buck from his government, his outlets and his restaurants, doggy bags or boxes are automatic. In Scotland, you have to ask for it, but I certainly do.

It began for me with Indian restaurants in the 1970s and 1980s which offered gargantuan portions and were just as well known for their takeaway trade. It was only logical to ask for the excess to be put in a foil box and have the next night’s tea taken care of.

Indian food, which arrives at the table in separate containers, lends itself particularly to the doggy bag – less so British meals which tend to be plated together so that sauce, mash, meat and veg combine into a ghastly coagulated mess when they have been emptied into a box together and shoogled up on the number 24 bus home.

I still ask for it. Because I have a dog. Presumably the “doggy bag” was so named because it was deemed less embarrassing for diners to take scraps home for their pets than to give the impression they intended to eat the leftovers themselves.

I don’t usually specify, but I think a bit of a giveaway at Himself’s golf club – or anywhere else familiar – is when I go round all the other tables asking people to give me their uneaten meaty bits. With my plate piled high, I then ask the waitress to wrap it in foil.

There was once nearly a revolution when almost every diner in the place had contributed to my hound’s feast, only to discover the message hadn’t been passed to the kitchen and the treasured leftovers had been binned.

In the best restaurants, waiting staff will be curious if you have a fair bit of the main left on your plate, enquiring in a concerned voice if you enjoyed it. That’s my cue to say: “Absolutely, so much so I’d like you to wrap up the rest so I can take it home.”

I’ll initiate it if they don’t.

Aggravation comes when they say they don’t have containers, foil or film wrap. They are lying, of course – how can any restaurant kitchen manage without foil or wrap?

What they really mean is that they don’t consider themselves a “carry-out” establishment. They mistakenly think asking for food one has paid for is “low life”, or that they or the chef has their own dog who gets all the scraps so stuff yours.

The shocking truth is that about a third of that 21 tonnes of waste comes from diners’ plates and about ten per cent of the food a restaurant buys goes, one way or another, in the bin.

We no longer live in medieval times when the nobles’ leftovers fed the kitchen servants, their leftovers in turn fed the beggars at the village gates, and only then did the dogs get the bare bones. Hardly a model of social inclusion, but at least waste was minimised.

The London campaign is a great idea, but it shouldn’t be based on the assumption that diners are at fault for being too embarrassed or ashamed to do things US-style.

The onus is on the restaurants to offer. I am paying them for the food itself and for the cooking of it. It is therefore mine. Providing I don’t dribble on the carpet or soil the napery, whether I want to eat it all, leave some, or take it home is up to me.