It was a viral tweet. Two images side-by-side: Two Royal Dansk tins stuffed with sugar-studded butter cookies and wrapped in white wrappers. The blue tin to its right has a smaller number of buttons and thread. The text can be found below the first photo. “My fall plans.”The second clause “The Delta variant.”
One Twitter user discovered that Royal Dansk cookie containers were a favorite storage option for sewing supplies.
(Jessica Pons/The New York Times).
August’s tweet, which was inspired from a popular meme on pandemic failure, was liked more than half a trillion times and received 75,000 responses. Its author, film critic Carlos Aguilar, was surprised to find that he had hit on a seemingly universal experience: the repurposing of a Royal Dansk tin as a sewing kit, and the dismay of all of the children who’ve opened one.
“This thing that I thought was a very niche and specific to being Latin and being Mexican turned out to be a global phenomenon,”Aguilar (32), a Mexican-American who grew to Los Angeles.
Strong emotions can be triggered by food. Sometimes, the container in which it was stored can trigger strong emotions. Royal Dansk tins, Cool Whip tubs, Dannon yogurt containers and Bonne Maman jam jars — all belong to an unofficial hall of fame of receptacles that have been redeployed for myriad uses, giving them countless afterlives and often imbuing them with special meaning that transcends whatever they contained in the first place.
Folu Akinkuotu has a deep nostalgia. Her family used Country Crock containers to store jollof Rice, egusi stew, and other household items. You can find her in Cambridge Mass.
(Kayana Synzak/The New York Times).
Folu Akinkuotu doesn’t think of Royal Dansk cookies when she sees one. She thinks of the time her mother taught Folu how she sew buttons. Her family used the Country Crock spread’s taupe tubs to store leftover jollof and egusi rice.
Akinkuotu (31), a Boston resident, wrote Unsnackable’s newsletter. He said that the Country Crock container proved to be very functional. “It wasn’t fading even after it went through the dishwasher, even after it was microwaved multiple times, or it was passed around from family to family.”
Folu Akinkuotu with some of the plastic containers that she uses for storage. These containers are what connect her with family memories, not the original product.
(Kayana Synzak/The New York Times).
“I have a relationship with the container,” she declared, “not the product itself.”
These containers have become a cultural icon in recent times, possibly because of the DIY spirit of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020 Pixar movie “Soul,” a Royal Dansk cookie tin containing sewing supplies sits in the tailor shop of the protagonist’s mother. While making dosa together in a 2019 video, actress Mindy Kaling and Vice President Kamala Harris (then a presidential candidate) bonded over how their parents stored spices in Taster’s Choice instant-coffee jars. Rachel Khong, a novelist and podcast host, launched a podcast called “Trash/Treasure”; each episode will center on how a specific container is made, and the ways in which it’s reused.
Reincarnations are now part and parcel of the cultural discourse via social media. People are now realizing that what was once a peculiarity in their generation or community is now much more common.
There’s no limit to what can be turned to a new purpose: the purple drawstring bags that sheathe Crown Royal whiskey for keeping Scrabble tiles, Altoids tins for spare change, Folgers coffee cans for nuts and bolts.
Some companies are well aware of their containers’ appeal. Country Crock’s Instagram page teaches how to turn an empty tub into a bird feeder or the base for a gingerbread house. Dannon’s has a post on growing an herb gardenIn a yogurt cup. But representatives for those two companies and Royal Dansk said their packaging wasn’t intentionally designed to be reused.
Jonathan Asher was involved in Research and package designOver three decades. He said that consumers who have been part of focus groups are more likely talk about how they might reuse a container. “that was the kiss of death.”
“That doesn’t get people to buy the product if the benefit is only, ‘I can put buttons in this pack.’ ”
The American packaged food industry, as we know them today, was founded in late 19th century. Asher stated that the Great Depression had made it popular to reuse containers from stores, which was a great way to save money and extend meals. Many people today are reminded of thriftier and more resourceful times by the older containers.
Deva Hazarika San FranciscoTalenti gelato containers are used by the author to store his spices for cooking.
(Gabriela Habun / The New York Times).
Deva Hazarika, 49, said that when he was growing up in Houston, he didn’t know of many families that bought Tupperware, Rubbermaid or other brand-name storage products. He said that only a few food containers were well designed and easily available. They were also very affordable.
Hazarika, a founder of several San Francisco-based software companies, loved Royal Dansk Tins. He called them his “love of Royal Dansk tins.” “faux elegance” “classy” script. They were used for storage of school supplies.
The most common use of cookie tins are for home sewing kits. Royal Dansk spokesperson explained that the practice became more popular after World War II, when people were encouraged to limit their use of materials.
Megha Desai’s 42-year-old family found the tins ideal for storing papadum. And those weren’t the only containers reused in the Boston-area household where she grew up: Dannon yogurt tubs could hold “exactly two to three portions of dal,”She stated that many could fit in the refrigerator at one time. Nescafé instant-coffee jars were pressed into service for chai masala. Vlasic pickle vessels housed lentils. (Desai, who now lives in New York City and heads the nonprofit Desai Foundation, couldn’t understand why her family had so many pickle jars, yet never ate pickles. It turned out that her mother had organized for an Italian restaurant to take the empty jars.
Leslie Stockton, 48, an Alexandria, Va. educator, used Country Crock tubs to keep Play Doh moist as a child and her grandfather used them in attaching nails and screws. She transformed a 5-year-old Country Crock bathtub into a planter. Country Crock tubs can be stacked and are easy to clean unlike other containers.
Elizabeth McMullen, 34, a publicist for the Organic Valley dairy cooperative, recalls that Cool Whip containers were similarly prized for their versatility and sturdiness at her grandparents’ home in western Wisconsin. If the containers were dropped, the lid wouldn’t fly off, she said. Because the plastic was easy to write, her grandmother could easily label leftovers. And when there was no label, McMullen loved the mystery of the opaque containers — is this one filled with mashed potatoes, or whipped cream?
While all containers might not be as easily identified by the mass-market as a Cool Whip container or Royal Dansk Tin, they can still be recognized by consumers. They can still be of special significance.
Christina Valle, a publicist in Boston, feels that way about Doña Maria mole jars, which her grandmother used as drinking glasses. “It kind of looks like a fancy crystal glass”She said, “Once the label is removed, she said.” Drinking lemonade out one made her feel old.
Three years ago, her grandmother died. But, her family still owns the jars. “I am allergic to nuts, so I can’t actually have mole,”She said, but “it brings back those happy memories of her.”
Valle, 30, used to be embarrassed about her grandmother’s obsession with reusing containers. “It showed that maybe you didn’t have a certain social status,”She said. She is proud of this accomplishment, as well as all the others she has seen posting online.
Akinkuotu, the writer of the snack newsletter She and others of her age realize that their families are important to them. aren’t the only ones reusing packages. “I think especially as millennials, we like to think that all of our experiences are very unique,”She said. “A lot of them are not.”
The containers she and others her age reuse tend to be of more recent vintage than, say, the Country Crock tub: Crofter’s jam jars, Talenti gelato cups or Classico pasta sauce jars. But containers like Country Crock’s remind her of a bygone era — when pastels and minimalism weren’t the predominant product aesthetic, and before exposés about corporate abuses made the concept of brand loyalty exceedingly complicated.
“You may not miss the actual experience of eating those items,”She said. “But interacting with those brands and having a relationship with a brand,”As she did once. “you kind of miss that, in a weird capitalistic way.”
Eric Rivera, 39, is the owner and operator of Addo in Seattle. His love for a brand can be traced back to his childhood, when his mother used Country Crock containers to store sofrito. “Every time I see a Country Crock anything, I still think about it having food in there that is dope,”He said. “I don’t know too much now that signifies that.”
For all of the warm feelings they evoke, these containers aren’t necessarily vessels of unalloyed virtue. Some aren’t recyclable, and the plastics that make many of them so long-lasting are harming global ecosystems. Brian Orlando, Upfield’s chief marketing officer for North America, made Country Crock. He said that the company is trying to create recyclable packaging for the spread.
People will likely be more attached to the old containers as they pass away, just as they were with vintage Pyrex bowls and vinyl records.
At Eric Rivera’s Seattle restaurant, Addo, he sometimes uses Royal Dansk tins to serve a sugar-cookie-flavored dessert.
(Kyle Johnson/The New York Times).
Rivera purchased several Royal Dansk butter and cookie Tins from eBay when Rivera opened Addo. Rivera was able to bring back childhood memories through the dining experience. Rivera will often place a small tin in front of each guest to close a tasting menu. They open the tins to find a sugar-cookie-flavored dessert, like ice cream.
But one of the tins doesn’t contain any dessert. There are also sewing supplies inside.
Krishna writes for The New York Times.
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