Eight Things There Are To Say About Mealtimes


Mealtime. It’s a great-sounding word. It pairs together two great syllables. Well, the first syllable is great. The second syllable is that thing that reminds us we should have got this all done before. Still, “mealtime” together? That’s some nice stuff. Even better if the stuff includes, like, a gravy of some kind. Less good if the mealtime includes one of those Very Internet Persons who wants to argue about whether chili is a sandwich or hot dogs are soup.

How much do we really know about mealtimes? Not as much as we could, surely. The average person knows only about 95% of everything they might care to know about mealtimes. This could be improved, one way or another.

Mealtimes may seem like traditions fixed since time immemorial. It turns out that “time immemorial” usually means something a lot closer to 1956 than people admit. Also it’s not so much “fixed” as it is “it would make someone else’s life easier if we tried a little harder”. That person also deserves a lunch sometime they could predict.

Still, meals have been a lot more flexible in their scheduling and content than we realize. This until we notice that we’ve been “a couple minutes late” on dinner every day for the last six years. Also that by “a couple minutes” we mean 95 minutes. Also that by dinner we mean “two items taken, at random, from the freezer and heated up”. This most recently included a chunk of orange juice concentrate dating to the 2008 Financial Crisis. That usually makes people aware of what they’re doing with mealtimes, momentarily.

Still, there are common patterns in the times of meals. Dinner, for example, used to be a midday meal, had somewhere around noon. This shifted in the early 19th century, when the busy residents of New York City found it was too much bother to get home at that hour. Dinner moved first to 2 pm, then to about 8 pm, then back to 6 pm. In 1934 it moved back to 11:30 am the next day. This had the neat side effect of ending the half-day of work on Saturdays, since otherwise Saturday dinner would interrupt Sunday brunch. And thus the modern weekend was born.

Dinner kept moving later and later, though, and people reasonably got fed up having to wait so long. Oh, that exciting day in 1955, though, when the whole population started to say, “you know, I am fed up with waiting for dinner” and then heard themselves say that out loud. So they started having a quick, supper-like meal, eaten at dinnertime. Dinner as we originally knew it faded away, except for historical reenactments. It’s currently estimated to be around 3:35 pm, two days after.

Lunch has often been around noon. The trick is when noon happens. Yes, we think of noon as being at that 12:00 that has a morning just before it. But that’s just the chance result of the French Revolutionary Calendar. What noon is supposed to be is “nine”. This is not necessarily nine in the morning, nor in the evening. It’s supposed to be nine hours past the moment that’s nine hours before noon. How that ended up at 12:00 remains a mystery. Anyway I usually eat lunch late myself.

Breakfast is an interesting meal to time. In the old days, sure, people were fasting all the time. It added some panache to the famine going on. But even when food was plentiful there were problems. You could see, for example, religious prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays or Tuesdays. Or against eating milk on unseasonably warm days. Against eating eggs that haven’t been kept in a pot of water. Against eating things with the letter “r” in them before the Apocalypse. The trouble with finding a thing to eat was resolved in the 13th century, when a series of church councils came around to the idea that when the letter “r” appears in “breakfast” it is serving as a kind of devotional bread. Happily these councils got the matters settled first thing in the morning, first day of the meeting. And so we have breakfast right at the start of the day.

Will there be new mealtimes yet invented? It’s hard to say. Most of us have settled into a modern pattern where we kind of keep grabbing small things and ingesting them. And we don’t have any time to do anything properly anymore. But what if research projects to inject new hours into the day, such as the experimental R o’clock, works? We might get something good yet.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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