A Meal in a Basket – the History and Modern Use of Food Hampers

A “hamper” is not specifically an item used to transport or contain food, though its general English usage normally denotes this. In fact, a hamper is simply any wicker basket or container with a wide mouth, normally accessed through a flap or shallow lid at the top. The term has an agricultural derivation – a field hamper was, and still is, a large meshwork receptacle hung from the back of a tractor or truck, which is used to carry large volumes of harvested crops. Often a field hamper is used to carry fruit crops, which need to breathe so they do not begin to ferment under the weight and heat of their siblings.

It is interesting to note that the phrase “to hamper” (as in, to hinder or make difficult) may derive from the size and weight of a filled hamper. Cleary the manipulation and easy transport of a full wicker container, particularly an agriculturally sized one, will slow the person or vehicle doing the moving. 

In modern usage, the term hamper is almost exclusively applied to food and laundry. The elements necessary for something to be a hamper are: that it is manufactured from wicker; that it possesses adequate ventilation to keep whatever is inside in the state it was in when it went in; and that it have a flat or shallow lid opening and closing at the top. 

The use of the hamper as a food receptacle stems from this ventilated quality. The smells of food in a hamper are allowed to dissipate naturally, thus sparing the hamper’s user from being hit with a noxious waft when he or she opens the basket. Aeration may also help to prevent food items from sweating or beginning to degrade. 

There are two essential modern uses of the food hamper – one as a picnic basket and the other as luxury food hampers. There is some crossover between the two, though increasingly the concept of a luxury food hamper is more that of a range of delicacies held in a single wicker package than it is of the rich person’s ready meal – which is essentially what the picnic hamper started life as. 

A picnic hamper differs from luxury food hampers in that it contains all the hardware necessary to eat a meal out of doors; and is generally stocked with a quantity of different dishes suited to creating a whole repast from beginning to end. Normally, the crockery and cutlery for such a meal is strapped into the shallow lid of the hamper – which may in some variations be detached from the wicker basket beneath, upturned and used as a basic table tray. 

A hamper may be divided into compartments by the use of flat trays within it; or by segmenting the body of the basket into smaller areas. This is useful where bottles and food items are transported together. 

Luxury food hampers, on the other hand, tend to be presentation items containing a number of complementary for seasonal comestibles. These may include both food and drink, and may either be designed to represent a single meal or to deliver a themed part of a meal – for example port and a selection of cheeses. Luxury food hampers may appear in a number of sizes and layouts, from simple small ones to full feasts.

Author: Christine is a food writer. She is currently designing luxury food hampers for a number of well-known department stores.
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