Sailors in the Royal Navy received three “square meals” a day, served to them in a wooden, square tray, which wouldn’t slide and roll around on a rocking, creaking sailing ship.
Each morning, we break our evening fast, with the first meal of the day. At night, we dine upon dinner, or sup upon supper. We take dinner in the afternoon and supper at night, or lunch in the afternoon and dinner at night, and supper as a late-night snack. We have elevenses, morning tea, afternoon tea, Bruncheon, Tiffin, coffee-breaks, tea-breaks…Where did all our different meal-names and meal-times come from?
Get yourself something to eat while we sink our teeth into the history of our meals.
“We’ve had breakfast, yes! But what about second breakfast!?”
“I don’t think he knows about second breakfasts, Pip…” – LOTR
Breakfast! That meal that’s so important, hobbits have it twice a day!
In our modern lives, breakfast is our regular morning meal, eaten any time between daybreak and noon. But why do we call it ‘breakfast’? Why not sunmeal or upfeed or dawning snack?
The word ‘Breakfast‘ comes from the Middle Ages, when days often started at sun-up, with hard physical labour, working the land. Or started with morning prayers in a monastery or church. Most people would rise at dawn, and not eat until they had tilled fields, split firewood, fed the animals, prayed and handled the most important of household chores during the limited hours of daylight. It was only after this exertion that one could ‘break one’s fast’. Eventually, it just became known as ‘breakfast’.
Breakfast staples such as pancakes, bacon and eggs, toast, and porridge, developed over the centuries. In the days before Lent, people observed Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday. The two days before Ash Wednesday.
During these days, people had to use up all their meat and perishable foodstuffs before the period of abstinence called Lent, since none of these things would last and would rot during the period of fasting.
So came about pancakes (which used up extra eggs, flour and dairy), and bacon and eggs, which used up excess eggs, and meat. A ‘collop‘ is a slice of meat, so basically ‘Meat Monday’.
Most countries around the world survived on porridge or pottage for breakfast, and every society has its own variation. Rice congee or porridge in Asia, oat or barley porridge in Europe, cornmeal porridge or gruel in the Americas.
In Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, the entry of “Oats” is hilariously defined as: “Eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England“, to which a reply was typically: “What fine people, and what fine horses!“
In England, the ‘Full English’ breakfast was typically the norm for those who could afford it, during the 19th century. Bacon, eggs, sausages, toast, beans, black pudding, and tea. A substantial amount of food to keep the body fueled during hard labour on the farm, or in one of the new manufacturing jobs that was popping up around England during the Victorian era.
Cornflakes and other breakfast cereals started appearing in the late 1800s, in the years after the American Civil War. These were championed as healthfoods by such people as John Harvey Kellogg. J.H. Kellogg, along with his brother William Keith, were vegetarians, and believed strongly in a grain-based diet, without the eggs, meat, bacon, and sausages common on the breakfast tables of the 1800s.
One of the more interesting reasons as to why the Kellogg brothers developed cornflakes was due to their views on sex. As Seventh Day Adventists, they believed in sexual abstinence. Surely, a change in diet would distract people from their morning shag, and make them better, more holy people?
Not if you feed them a rich, healthy, carbohydrate breakfast which gives them lots of energy to enjoy their morning romp even more…
But then, Dr. J. Kellogg was a man who believed in the wholesome benefits of yoghurt enemas.
So much for the dietary views of Dr. Kellogg…
Throughout most of history, breakfast was eaten…whenever. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it started seriously becoming a morning meal. The long working-hours of farmers, industrialists, inventors and the landed gentry…okay maybe not the last one…meant that a meal in the morning before heading off to work was necessary, and it wasn’t practical to go home for a meal halfway through the day, so it was eaten as early as possible before heading off into the humdrum routine of the day. By the Victorian period, Breakfast was well and truly set as the morning meal.
We imagine brunch as a modern thing. Housewives have it with their friends. The rich and idle have it when they wake up late from drowning in their Egyptian cotton sheets. It’s the lazy dude’s meal. Right?
‘Brunch’ as we know it today, first arrived in the Victorian era of the 1890s. It was created as a joke in the popular comic magazine, ‘Punch‘, as a sort of long, Sunday lunch, to be enjoyed after weekend church-services, starting with breakfast foods and slowly morphing into heavier, more substantial luncheon-style foods in the afternoon, all enjoyed in a relaxed, lazy atmosphere.
Brunch has extended its reach and now exists in countries all over the world, from America to China. From enjoying a light meal at a country club, to a casual yumcha in Hong Kong.
Ah, lunch! Not everyone has lunch. Some people think it’s an essential component of life. Others enjoy long, lavish, relaxing luncheons, eaten with friends and colleagues. Some just skip it and survive on two meals a day. But what is it?
‘Lunch’ is the new kid on the block, as far as mealtimes are concerned. Originally, there was breakfast, taken in late morning or midday, and then dinner or supper, taken in the late afternoon. ‘Lunch’ as we know it today did not even exist.
But from the 1700s onwards, with breakfast getting earlier and work-hours forcing dinner further and further back into the evening, it was often several hours between meals. Imagine having breakfast at seven o’clock in the morning, or eight o’clock, and then starving for ten or twelve hours straight until dinnertime?
Something had to be done!
So, people started eating in the middle of the day.
Originally, nobody knew what to call this newfangled meal. ‘Noonings‘ was one suggestion, since it was eaten at midday. Another was ‘Nuncheon‘, a word which had survived from the 14th century, and which meant a light snack or refreshment. Eventually, mankind on a whole, settled on the word as being ‘Luncheon’. Or just ‘lunch’ for short.
Just as working habits had forced the creation of lunch, so had the time to prepare food forced the creation of a new item in the home – the lunchbox.
It was impractical to stop in the middle of the workday to go all the way home and make and eat lunch. And it was expensive to stop in the middle of the workday to go out and buy lunch all the time. It would be far more convenient to cook or make lunch at home, then bring it to work and eat it on the spot. To transport this new meal called ‘lunch’ came the lunchbox!
Lunchboxes were originally just whatever you could find to carry your lunch in – wooden crates, barrels, empty buckets with lids on top…but eventually, dedicated lunchboxes (typically made of cheap, pressed steel) came onto the market. These would hold two sandwiches, some snack-foods, and maybe a flask of hot coffee, tea, soup, or just ordinary drinking-water.
Lunch varies around the world, and the common or garden-variety lunchbox is not suitable for all situations. In Asia, where most people eat rice or noodle dishes instead of bread, it would be difficult to pack fried rice, dumplings or noodles into a conventional western-style lunchbox and take it to work, or school. Let’s introduce the tiffin-carrier:
My three-tier stainless steel tiffin-carrier
‘Tiffin‘ is an old English word for a light, refreshing luncheon. A relaxing meal taken in the middle of the day. Commonly used by British expats and colonials living in the Empire’s oriental extremities during the 1800s. It comes from the word ‘tiff‘ meaning a light drink or snack. Eventually, it evolved to mean something a lot more than tea and cucumber sandwiches, however.
The ‘Tiffin-carrier’ is a type of food-container invented in the 1800s for transporting the comestibles which typically made up the midday tiffin – curry, rice, noodles or flatbread, vegetables and soup. Tiffins typically came in two, three, four and five-tier arrangements (in some examples, six or more), but three or four was most common. This was to keep each food-component separate and to make access to the food much easier, by simply opening the carrier…
…and unstacking everything, bowl by bowl…
Until everything was neatly laid out in front of you:
Tiffin-carriers remain extremely popular in Asian countries, and they’re as common over there as thermos-flasks are in the Western world. People in western countries are starting to use tiffin-carriers, however. They find them useful for things like sandwiches, sushi, salad, leftover spaghetti, Chinese food and for storing snacks for lunch. You can still buy them brand-new, or you can buy vintage reproductions, or even fancy antique brass and copper ones at fairs and antiques shops.
Of all the meals we eat today, dinner is probably the one which has seen the most change over the centuries.
Dinner gets its name from the word ‘to dine’ or to eat. Since you eat all the time, ‘dinner’ was basically defined as the main meal of the day. First came your breaking of the evening fast, and then after several long hours, dinner, usually in the afternoon, much earlier than we’re used to today. Expensive firewood and candles meant that it was impractical to eat dinner at night.
Dinnertimes changed throughout history, as working-habits shifted and pushed dinner forwards or backwards on the 24-hour time-scale. In some lower-class households in England, or people who made up the servant-class, ‘Dinner’ was the midday meal, and ‘supper’ was had at night. This was because the demands of domestic service prevented servants from eating ‘dinner’ at night, since they had to cook and serve for their employers.
On a whole, though, dinner was pushed back further and further as time advanced. Originally eaten at midday or early afternoon, it moved to the late afternoon or early evening by the late 1500s. With the arrival of ‘Luncheon’ in the 1700s, ‘Dinner’ was forced back even further. It was now steadily in the late-afternoon, evening timeslot, and kept there by the new working-hours of office-clerks, lawyers, bankers, shopkeepers and other people now involved in the professions and trades brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
With candles becoming cheaper, and with new forms of lighting such as oil, gas and eventually, electricity, it was finally practical and comfortable, to eat dinner at night. Most people will typically have dinner between five and seven o’clock at night, depending on their work and time schedules.
When most people think of ‘supper’, they imagine a late-night snack or meal, but, as with ‘Dinner’, ‘Supper time’ differs depending on where you live and your general social background. Some people consider ‘Dinner’ the midday meal, and ‘supper’ to be the evening meal, while others consider ‘luncheon’ the midday meal and ‘dinner’ to be the evening one.
That being the case, where does supper fall?
The origin of the word ‘supper‘ in English comes from French and German, the words ‘Souper‘ and ‘Suppe‘. ‘Supper’ was originally the evening meal, but as workdays got longer, breakfast earlier and dinner later, which was backed up by ‘lunch’ at noon, Supper, like Dinner, was kicked back further and further. Most people now consider it to be an after-dinner meal. Usually something light, before retiring, or something enjoyed with friends and family after a night out. However, in some places, ‘supper’, ‘dinner’ and even ‘tea’ are all synonyms for the same thing – the main evening meal.
Morning Tea, Afternoon Tea & Elevenses
Anyone who grew up on a literary diet of the Famous Five, The Secret Seven, the Adventurous Four, Paddington Bear and The Wind in the Willows will probably have heard of such English meals as Morning Tea, Afternoon Tea and some mysterious snack called ‘Elevenses’.
What are they?
These typically light meals became popular among the English upper-and-middle classes during the Victorian era. Changing social and work-habits meant that mealtimes changed drastically. While their menfolk were out earning, women of the well-to-do classes would go visiting. It was the man’s job to earn a living. It was the woman’s job to make all the social connections to ensure that the wage or salary brought home would grow as time went on.
Morning tea and afternoon tea centered around tea, naturally. This beverage was once so rare and expensive, women kept their tea-caddies locked and had the keys with them at all times. But with the opening of China in the 1850s, the import of Chinese and Indian teas became cheaper and it was now available to a much wider range of people.
Tea was designed to be light. No heavy roast beef or rice and pasta or noodles. Similar to the Chinese custom of Yumcha, tea was meant to be light, refined and relaxed. Enjoyed with close friends and relations, or business-partners and colleagues. Tea consisted of small cakes, biscuits, and sandwiches – stereotypically, the classic cucumber-sandwich. Light snacks not designed to fill you up, but to distract from hunger until the main meals of the day, such as luncheon, or dinner (depending on if it were morning, or afternoon tea). In some places around the world, ‘tea-time’ grew later and later, from its 2 or 3 o’clock position, to four, five, or even six o’clock at night, becoming synonymous with ‘dinner’.
Instead of morning tea, one might have ‘elevenses’, taken, as the name suggests, around ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. Since the Industrial Revolution forced people to wake up earlier and eat breakfast earlier (six or seven or eight in the morning), by midday, they could be especially hungry. Elevenses or morning tea was designed as a light snack, to be enjoyed halfway between breakfast and lunch. Depending on where around the world elevenses may take place, it might have coffee, or tea. But typically also comes with sandwiches or small cakes. But it shouldn’t be confused with ‘Brunch’ which generally concentrates on heavier, stomach-fillers to keep you going into the afternoon.
Time to Eat
Mealtimes and meal-names have changed and evolved over the centuries. Some have remained fashionable, such as the long, lazy, Sunday Brunch, or the exclusive, Friday or Saturday dinner out at a restaurant. Some have changed drastically, such as the time (and speed) at which we eat breakfast. Some names continue to change or evolve, depending on where you live and your social background. Dinner. Supper. Lunch. Tea. Tiffin…It changes and changes all the time. For more information, explore the fascinating documentary series’ below, which provided much of the information for this posting.
Hungry For More?
A lot of the information gleamed here came from episodes of…
“The Supersizers“, presented by Giles Corran and Sue Perkins.
“If Walls Could Talk“, presented by Dr. Lucy Worsley.
“Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner“, presented by Clarissa Dickson-Wright (of ‘Two Fat Ladies‘ fame).