As Civil Beat explores Hawaii’s use of plastic foam, we thought it’d be worth researching the history of one of the most common uses for the containers — plate lunches.

It turns out, along with every two scoops of rice and mac salad piled into a plate lunch, Hawaii eaters get a little piece of local history, too.

The plate lunch stems back to the 1800s when sugar companies established plantations in Hawaii, attracting laborers from all over the world to work the fields.

“It’s a combination of the bento — which is Japanese — and plantation laborers taking their lunches to work in these metal tins,” said local author Kaui Philpotts, a former food editor and columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser.

For the laborers — who hailed from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and other areas — sandwiches and the like didn’t make the cut when it came to refueling mid-day. Workers needed hearty lunches, and would pile leftover rice and meats into compartmentalized metal tins.

Lunchwagons and Drive-Ins

When the plantation era ended, these carb-loaded lunches survived, thanks in part to early entrepreneurs who had launched lunch wagons in the 1930s, and diners and drive-ins that emerged after World War II.

“In the 1930s, people started lunch wagons to feed stevedores and construction workers and plantation workers,” Philpotts said. “And then after World War II, there were a lot of diners — places like Grace’s Inn and LikeLike Drive In, James’ Fountain, Rainbow Drive In — where plate lunches were sold.”

The offerings in today’s plate lunches are a reflection of the mix of cultures and ethnicities in the islands: kalua pork and laulau (Hawaiian), kal-bi ribs and meat jun (Korean), chicken katsu and teri beef (Japanese), pork guisantes and chicken adobo (Filipino).

“The original plate lunch basically has lots of carbs — it has to have rice — and then they added the mac salad. And you’ve got to use an ice-cream scoop, that’s critical,” Philpotts said. “Then there’s tons of meat, sometimes a combination. And a main thing is that it has no vegetables.”

Plate lunches at one time were served on compartmentalized paper plates covered with aluminum foil, Philpotts said. The entrees graduated onto round paper plates with a piece of wax or parchment paper on top, that were housed safely in a square cardboard boxes. (Rainbow’s Drive-In and St. Louis Drive In still serve their plates in this fashion. Zippy’s stopped using the cardboard-box method more than a decade ago.)

Today, most plate lunch eateries serve up entrees in white plastic foam clamshells.

“It’s evolved,” Philpotts said. Plastic foam “plates aren’t that old. Even through the 1970s it was just a paper plate and tin foil.”

So whether you get your plate lunch fix at Rainbow’s or Cupie’s Drive-In, Zippy’s or L&L, you’re getting an extra scoop of history on the side.

Now that you’ve had your history lesson, what else can we tell you about the use of plastic foam?

Read our related stories about plastic foam in Hawaii:

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