TT: Three Squares

Once again, if you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just go back one day for a look at how one writer makes writing work.  Then join me and Alan Robson here for an almost anthropological discussion of mealtimes!

JANE: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were what I learned to call the three

Late 1950's Menus

standard meals of the day. Later, I learned some people called “dinner” “supper” instead, but it still seemed to be the same meal.

Are the meals the same in English terminology? Are hobbit terms like “elevenses” really used?

ALAN: Most definitely! The English are very hobbit-like in this respect. Elevenses (also known as morning tea) is a very, very important part of everybody’s day. The tea break is sacrosanct and woe betide any employer who tries to prevent his employees from having one! Riots ensue…

JANE: And that brings us to “Tea.” I must admit, it took me longer than it should have for me to figure out that “Tea” was a meal, not just a drink. I was always confused about how addicted characters in English novels seemed to be to drinking tea.

ALAN: But they are completely addicted to drinking tea so it is easy to confuse the two things. The very first thing that happens when you visit someone is that they offer you a cup of tea. And the longer you stay, the more tea is offered and drunk.

A cup of tea is the first response to a crisis and is also the first thing you drink when the crisis is over

JANE: My breakthrough came when I read Agatha Christie’s marvelous novel At Bertram’s Hotel in which the elaborate nature of the “Tea” being served at this old-fashioned hotel awakens Miss Jane Marple’s suspicions.

Pray, enlighten us Americans all about Tea, High Tea, and its associates

ALAN: Ah! Now here is a very pretty can of worms…

The whole thing about what refreshments are taken, the time of day at which they are taken, the exact nature of the food and drink that is served and the name that is given to the meal is very much intertwined with the complexities of the English class system. This is a system of Byzantine subtlety which is not well understood even by its own practitioners. Nevertheless it is hugely influential upon social behaviour even today.

Breakfast and morning tea are common to everybody. But the later the day becomes, the more complicated things get.

Around about the middle of the day, the lower classes eat dinner and the upper classes take lunch. Middle class people may have either lunch or dinner at this time, depending upon their aspirations and pretensions.

In the mid-afternoon there is afternoon tea. This is the afternoon equivalent of morning tea and in more leisurely households it may well be served with cakes and scones and maybe even sandwiches as a light snack.

In working class households, high tea would be the main meal marking the end of the working day and would generally take place in the early evening when the man of the household got home from work. However, when I was a child, my parents would serve me high tea as my main meal of the evening and have their own main meal later, after I had gone to bed. So they didn’t have high tea, they just had tea because it was eaten later in the evening (high tea specifically takes place in the early evening). That same meal (tea) would be called dinner by the upper class (because it was a main meal eaten later in the day), but my working class parents couldn’t call it dinner because that’s what they called lunch, and so the word was no longer available to describe their evening meal.

And then, even later in the day, just before they went to bed, my parents would have supper. This was usually a light snack, perhaps cheese and biscuits (i.e. crackers) and, of course, a cup of tea. I didn’t have supper, because I went to bed after my high tea. Though if my high tea had consisted of just a light snack rather than being a main meal, it would of course have been called supper instead of being called high tea because it was a snack eaten just before bed time. This was likely to occur if my dinner (lunch) had been a main meal. I would then be given supper instead of high tea on the grounds that two main meals a day might be a bit much.

Upper class people would also probably indulge in supper as well, but being upper class theirs would almost certainly be a more elaborate preparation though I’m not sure exactly what because I’ve never moved in those circles.

JANE: Wow! That boggles the mind.

Now that I think about it, we do have one other meal term: brunch. Brunch is “breakfast/ lunch.” Unlike your morning tea and tea and high tea, it isn’t a meal, but rather a substitute for two meals. American breakfasts can be rather light. Some typical breakfasts are cereal with milk, or a hard boiled egg and toast, or a bagel and cream cheese, or bacon and eggs. Ideally, for good nutrition, these would be served with fruit or juice, but that doesn’t happen all the time. By the time noon rolls around, you’re going to want lunch.

Brunch, by contrast, is always a more substantial meal. There will be some sort of egg dish, ham or sausage or bacon – sometimes more than one of these, fruit, toast, a sweet roll or Danish.

I’ve been to restaurant brunches that are so lavish that not only would they substitute for breakfast and lunch, but for dinner, too.

Do you folks have brunch?

ALAN: Yes, brunch is now quite common, especially at the weekend because of course we tend to sleep late on Saturday and Sunday as a special treat. I suspect that we actually stole the idea of brunch from you and then filed the serial numbers off so that nobody could tell.

There was a time when English breakfasts were themselves very substantial – bacon, fried egg, fried bread, fried sausages, fried mushrooms, fried black pudding, fried tomato with baked beans for added fibre – it’s known as the “Full English” and you can feel your arteries hardening as you look at it. But these days our breakfasts also tend towards the lighter side, just like yours.

By the way, I absolutely love the way Americans cook bacon – crisp and crunchy, it’s just magnificent. That’s the way bacon ought to be cooked. My mother used to cook it that way – she would grill it rather than fry it which I think was the secret of her success. New Zealand bacon, by contrast, is revolting. No matter what you do to it, it will not go crispy; it will burn itself black without ever going crispy. What a breakthrough in food technology! Consequently the Antipodean equivalent of the Full English is really rather sad. It sits on the plate grey and limp and oozing goo. Ick!

JANE: Now that I think about it, my siblings and I came up with “linner” as the term for a meal that substituted for lunch and dinner, but that never caught on. I guess Americans are willing to skip breakfast, but not both lunch and dinner.

I think we’d better leave food for a while or I’m going to start eating my way through these conversations. I have an idea. Why don’t we switch over to something low calorie, like dialects?

ALAN: Aye, lass. Gradely!

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10 Responses to “TT: Three Squares”

  1. Morton W. Kahl Says:

    In Bolivia the meals are called, in order, Desayuno, Almuerzo & Comida. Although Comida is also the word for food in general. There is between Desayuno & Almuerzo a snack, simply called Cafe, Usually a large cup of coffee and a pastry. All of the meals are fairly substantial. In the altitude one needs more energy to subsist.
    Breakfast would include juice, cereal, coffee & bread. Almuerzo, around 1:00 PM, would include soup, salad, beef, pork, lamb, chicken or fish (although we are a land locked country, there is delicious fish in Lake Titicaca.) maraquetas (bread), desert (usually fresh fruit) and coffee or tea. In the evening, usually fairly late, a repeat of Almuerzo. How one keeps from gaining weight is a mystery.
    Aside, Grits are, to me, horrible but my wife, who attended college in North Carolina, loves them.

  2. Melissa Ann Singer Says:

    A group of us use the term “dunch” for a meal that sits between lunch and dinner. It was coined by a guy in sales; the meal was most often eaten during a convention or conference where you had a hearty breakfast but then worked through lunch and so were ravenous in the mid-to-late afternoon–too late for lunch and too early for dinner in most places (this was before early-bird specials proliferated so widely). So we’d have dunch, and then something more like supper (a light meal or non-trivial snack) at around 9 or 10. I still do this once every couple of weeks, particularly if my teenager will not be home at the dinner hour.

  3. Tori Says:

    I’m glad Alan likes American bacon. I think we do pretty well with it. 🙂

    When I was living in Australia I found it to be way more British than Not British and the abundance of mealtimes were part of that. It’s a wonder I didn’t gain 20 pounds there.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    From a novelist’s point of view, my chats with Alan — and the additional comments — are really valuable.

    Too often, even when writing “speculative fiction” it’s easy to translate one’s own small habits into the prose.

    I don’t drink alcohol, for example, and have to remember that most people do, so perhaps my characters should.

    I guess that’s a reverse of the substance abusing writer who can’t seem to write about anything else!

  5. Tiffany Says:

    I am always excited to hear about anything you are going to write and your thought process, etc.

    You probably get this question a lot though: are there going to be any new Firekeeper books?

  6. Rowan Says:

    Here’s what I think we use to fill in for a lot of fancier-named small mealtimes: Snack. When you are in early grade school, snack time is a highly ritualized process. It usually involves something small and nowadays usually with an attempt to be healthy, and juice, which gets the blood sugar up and prevents crankiness. Then we lose the ritualized Snack and just snack because breakfast wasn’t enough, or we’re stressed, and then for adults snacking can become demonized because it breaks the diet, or joyless because it’s part of the diet, and we don’t know what time to have it…

    I guess the question is whether having more ritualized times might be better for us because then we’re less prone to idle eating between our three meals.

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    As another weird linguistic quirk, in one of Willa Cather’s novels (either O Pioneers or My Antonia; I don’t remember which) one of the characters says something about just “having a lunch for dinner”. The implication was that a “lunch” was something portable that you carried off to eat while working, instead of a sit-down meal. That’s the only place I’ve come across that particular usage. Has anyone heard that from other sources, verbal or written?

  8. Martin K Says:

    To a New Zealander, “Bacon” is thinly sliced meat, with a small-to-moderate amount of fat and skin (“rind”) on one edge.

    So of course it will burn rather than turn crispy, unless you use enough oil to turn your pan into a deep-fryer.

    I feel very short-changed when I go to a “restaurant” (as some fast-food chains proclaim themselves) that sells “Bacon” which consists narrow strips of skin and fat with almost no meat. I gather that they’re selling something which is common in the U.S?

    Such a product of course would be quite easy to cook to “crispy” without burning it.

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