It was a tweet that went viral on the Internet. Two images, side-by side: two Royal Dansk tins filled with sugar-studded butter biscuits and wrapped in white wrappers. The tin next to it has a smaller assortment of buttons, thread, and is blue. The text below the first image can be found. “My fall plans.”The second clause “The Delta variant.”

One Twitter user discovered that Royal Dansk cookie tins were a favorite for storage of sewing supplies.

(Jessica Pons/The New York Times).

The August tweet, which was inspired by a popular meme about pandemic failure, received more than half a billion likes and 75,000 replies. 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.

Food can trigger strong emotions. Sometimes the container it came from can cause 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's family would store food in reused containers.

Folu Akinkuotu is a deeply nostalgic person who remembers Country Crock containers as her family used them to store jollof Rice and egusi stew. She can be seen in Cambridge Mass.

(Kayana Synczak/The New York Times)

Folu Akinkuotu doesn’t think of Royal Dansk cookies when she sees one. Instead, she thinks about the time her mother taught Folu how to sew a button. Her family used the Country Crock spread’s taupe tubs to store leftover jollof and egusi rice.

Akinkuotu (31), who lives in Boston and writes a newsletter called Unsnackable, said that the Country Crock Container proved to be particularly 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.”

A woman holds a variety of containers she uses for storage.

Folu Akinkuotu holding some of the plastic containers she uses for storage. These containers are what connect her to family memories, not the original product.

(Kayana Synczak/The New York Times)

“I have a relationship with the container,” she declared, “not the product itself.”

These containers have been a popular cultural icon in recent years, possibly due to the do-it yourself 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.

The reincarnations are now part of the cultural discourse on social media. People realize that what was once a quirk in their community or generation is far 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 has been involved in research and package design for over three decades. He stated that consumers who have participated in focus groups are more likely to 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 it today, was founded in the late 19th century. Asher stated that reusing containers from stores had become a popular way to save money and stretch meals by the time of the Great Depression. The older containers are a reminder of thriftier, more resourceful times for many people today.

Deva Hazarika is shown with Talenti gelato containers where he stores spice rubs.

Deva Hazarika from San Francisco uses Talenti gelato boxes to store his spice mixes 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 stated that only a few food containers were well-designed and readily available and were also inexpensive.

Hazarika, who founded several San Francisco-based software startups, loved Royal Dansk tins. He called them his “love of Royal Dansk tins.” “faux elegance” “classy” script. They were used to store school supplies.

The most popular use of cookie tins is the home sewing kit. Royal Dansk spokesperson said that the practice became more common after World War II, when people were encouraged not to use as many materials as possible.

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 containers 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 arranged for an Italian restaurant in order to take the empty jars.

Leslie Stockton, 48 (an Alexandria, Va. educator) used Country Crock tubs as a child to keep Play Doh moist and her grandfather used them to attach nails and screws. A 5-year-old Country Crock tub was transformed by her into a planter. Country Crock tubs, unlike other containers, are stackable and easy-to-clean.

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. Her grandmother could easily label leftovers because the plastic was easy to write on. And when there was no label, McMullen loved the mystery of the opaque containers — is this one filled with mashed potatoes, or whipped cream?

All containers may not be as easily recognized by the mass market as a Cool Whip container, or Royal Dansk Tin. They can still have a special meaning.

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.

Her grandmother died three-years ago, but her family still retains 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 her accomplishment, as are all the others she sees posting online.

Akinkuotu, who writes the snack newsletter, says she and many others her age have come to realize that their families 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 years old, is the owner of Addo in Seattle. He traces his love for a brand back to his childhood when his mother used Country Crock containers as storage containers for 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, chief marketing officer for North America at Upfield, who makes Country Crock, said that the company is working to develop environmentally friendly packaging for the spread that can be reused.

People will likely become more sentimental about the traditional containers as they go away, just like they were with vintage Pyrex bowls, and vinyl records.

Eric Rivera shows a Royal Dansk tin he uses to serve a sugar-cookie-flavored dessert.

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-cookie Tins from eBay when he opened Addo. This allowed him to incorporate childhood memories into the dining experience. Rivera will often place a tin in front each guest to end 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 sewing supplies inside.

Krishna writes for The New York Times.
Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company

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