October 11, 2013
For the privileged eaters of the Western world, so much of eating is done routinely: cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, probably a protein and vegetable for dinner. Sometimes, the act of eating is so second nature that the guidelines that dictate how and when we eat are invisible—guidelines such as eating a steak for dinner but not for breakfast, or eating lunch in the middle of the day. Eating wasn’t always dictated by these rules—so why is it now? That’s the question that food historian Abigail Carroll set out to answer in her new book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Tracing the meal’s history from colonial America to present-day, Carroll explores why we eat cereal for breakfast, how dinner became American and how revisiting the history of our meal can have a tpositive impact on the future of eating. Carroll spoke with Smithsonian.com about the guidelines that control our dining.
How did the associations between certain meals and certain foods, like cereal for breakfast, form?
You start in the very early colonial era with one meal in the middle of the day—and it’s the hot meal of the day, dinner. Farmers and laborers ate earlier because they were up really early, and the elite were eating later in the day because they could sleep in. Breakfast and supper were kind of like glorified snacks, often leftovers or cornmeal mush, and there was not a lot of emphasis placed on these meals. Dinner, the main meal, at which people did tend to sit down together and eat, was really not the kind of social event that it has become. People did not emphasize manners, they did not emphasize conversation, and if conversation did take place it wasn’t very formal: it was really about eating and refueling. That’s the time where there are very blurry lines between what is and what isn’t a meal, and very blurry lines between what is breakfast, dinner and lunch.
Then, with the Industrial Revolution, everything changed, because people’s work schedules changed drastically. People were moving from the agrarian lifestyle to an urban, factory-driven lifestyle, and weren’t able to go home in the middle of the day. Instead, they could all come home and have dinner together, so that meal becomes special. And that’s when manners become very important, and protocol and formality. It’s really around then that people start to associate specific foods with certain meals.
Then, with dinner shifting you have the vacuum in the middle of the day that lunch is invented to fill. People are bringing pie for lunch, they’re bringing biscuits, but the sandwich really lends itself to lunch well. So the popularity of the sandwich really does have something to do with the rise of lunch—and especially the rise of children’s lunch, because it’s not messy. You don’t need utensils, you don’t have to clean up—you can stick it in a lunch pail really easily.
Why is it acceptable to eat cereal and eggs and a waffle for breakfast, but not for lunch or dinner? How did breakfast go from being a necessity meal—fueled by leftovers—to a meal with clear guidelines for what is acceptable to eat?
There was a problem during the Industrial Revolution: people were still eating a farmer’s diet, but they were shifting to a more sedentary lifestyle, which caused indigestion. People who were interested in health started looking into that and started coming up with solutions. Sylvester Graham, the reformer who became a preacher of health ideology, advocated for vegetarian food, and whole wheat as kind of a panacea for health problems, which becomes the answer to the question of breakfast. Then, people who ran sanitariums, including John Harvey Kellogg, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, really took that idea and flew with it and invented new ways to eat farinaceous [starchy] foods.
Entrepreneurs—some of whom worked in the sanitariums, like Charles C. Post–really build on these ideas and make them a healthy requirement. He creates all sorts of crazy testimonies that serve as advertisements for Grape-Nuts, where people’s lives are saved from chronic illness and they’re able to walk again.
Then, there’s also the history of orange juice and milk, with the discovery of vitamins in the 1910s. Milk came to be seen as a super food, and something that would keep you from getting deficiency diseases. It shows up at other meals too, but for much of the 20th century, it’s not a complete meal unless you have milk.
Why is it that, in America, we have maintained the feeling that lunch needs to be a quick meal in the middle of the day?
We still are working a lot—we’re working more hours in the United States than any other industrialized nation. Lunch is the original quick meal; it accommodated changing work schedules.
And dinner has taken on the ideological weight of the meal. Dinner has been the time when we celebrate family, and when we concentrate on having a nice, hot meal, ideally. Because dinner fulfilled that need, there was less of a need for the other meals to. Lunch doesn’t have a lot of cultural work to do; it just has to get us by.
But, if you think about it, it’s not just lunch—it’s breakfast too. We can just pour milk over cereal, or pop some toast in the toaster and walk out the door without even needing a plate or utensils. Breakfast accommodates work. It’s not the meal that shapes work, it’s the work that shapes the meal.
Could you talk about how dinner became a particularly American institution?
Dinner was not initially a strong identifying factor, in terms of nationality, for colonists. At first, they were eating more or less peasant food, porridges brought from England that said more about class than nationality. Then, dinner shifts in the 1700s to become an identifying factor in terms of being English. They’re in this new world, seen as primitive, and so they feel that they have to compensate for that. They inherit the fashions that cross the ocean, like eating a roast with dinner.
In the nineteenth century, the emerging middle class identifies itself through French food and French ways of eating. Things that we take for granted now, like starting a meal with soup or having a salad, were really French concepts. Dessert was largely a French concept, and many of the desserts that we adopted in the 19th century were French desserts. For the Victorian middle class, eating in the French way was a way to imitate the elite.
With the decline of servants in the late 1800s, people just couldn’t keep that up. Then there are the [World] Wars and the Depression, and those require Americans to be frugal. But they don’t just require Americans to be frugal—they give Americans the opportunity to celebrate frugality as patriotic. To eat frugally, to have a Victory Garden and can your own foods is patriotic. The model for dinner is no longer the French multicourse formal meal, but Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving becomes the model for the everyday American dinner. Of course, you don’t eat a whole roast every night, but the idea is that you have “a chicken in every pot,” which was Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign slogan. You would have some kind of meat on the table.
Are there any dishes or foods that you would classify as typically, or even exclusively, “American?”
A number of iconic foods—hot dogs and hamburgers, snack food—are hand-held. They’re novelties associated with entertainment. These are the kinds of food you eat at the ballpark, buy at a fair and eventually eat in your home. I think that there is a pattern there of iconic foods being quick and hand-held that speaks to the pace of American life, and also speaks to freedom. You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed. These foods shirk all that. There’s a sense of independence and a celebration of childhood in some of those foods, and we value that informality, the freedom and the fun that is associated with them.
Along those lines, there’s a lot of pushback against those processed foods today, with people wanting to recall old ways of eating, with eating local and fresh. But, how do you think that knowing the kinds of food that we used to eat and the ways that we used to eat, and think about eating, influences the future of American food?
History can play a really central role in thinking about the way that we want to eat in the future. The evolution of the meal is a process, and it continues.
With all of the talk of food and health, I think a really good question to ask is “Can we actually be healthy without eating meals?” And without even, perhaps, eating a family dinner? Studies show that eating together, we always eat better, always.
The family meal is the opportunity to put to work what we’re talking about. If we’re learning about fresh foods and ingredients, the family meal has potential to be another way of instructing our children and ourselves. There’s an interest in renewing the family meal, even reinventing it. We’re not going to be able to revive a Victorian notion of dining; I don’t think we’re interested in it. If we want to spend time together, if we want to invest in our children, if we want to be healthy, the family meal can be a vehicle for that.
August 23, 2013
On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people peacefully marched between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to show support of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights and to bring widespread public attention to end segregation in public schools and the federal implementation of fair employment practices to prevent job discrimination. The March on Washington was a watershed moment in human rights history that helped to get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law. Organizing an event that large was a formidable task in and of itself, requiring the coordination of grass roots groups to drum up participants and raise the funds to travel to DC. Tackling the issue of handling food for the masses was another issue entirely.
The Chicago Tribune anticipated a bleak sustenance situation. “Tomorrow, should the nation-wide turnout for the march swell from 100,000 demonstrators to 200,000 or more, there may be shortages of food. Even access to portable toilet facilities and to temporary drinking fountains attached to fire hydrants may be at a premium.” March organizers advised participants to bring their own water jugs and two boxed lunches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples were recommended as a durable foodstuffs and discouraged anything with mayonnaise as it would spoil in the summer heat.
In New York, volunteers showed up at the Riverside Church at 3:00 AM to make bagged lunches The bagged meal, comprised of a cheese sandwich, mustard, marble cake and an apple, could be purchased by marchers for 50 cents. Working in shifts until 4 in the afternoon, the assembly line crew paused once for a few words from Dr. Robert Spike, director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches: ”As an act of love, we now dedicate these lunches for the nourishment of thousands who will be coming long distances, at great sacrifice to say with their bodies and souls that we shall overcome.” In all, 5 tons of American cheese went into the 80,000 lunches that were loaded onto refrigerated trucks and shipped down to Washington.
Early reports estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 demonstrators would be in attendance. Fearing unruly behavior, the District of Columbia placed an unprecedented ban on the sale of liquor, beer and wine from 12:00 am on the 28th through the following morning. This extended not just to standalone liquor stores, but to the city’s bars and restaurants. (The only holdout was the House of Representatives cafeteria, which traditionally had beer on the menu and served it on the day of the march. The rest of the city being dry did nothing to boost sales.) The policemen, national guardsmen and others charged with maintaining order were forced to forego their lunch breaks that day and ate boxed lunches while at their posts: two sandwiches, a piece of cake and juice. Rioting did not occur as anticipated.
A mile or so north from the National Mall, on Washington’s U Street, also known as the “Black Broadway,” the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl served people in town for the march. Per the Washington City Paper, Ben’s cofounder Virginia Ali recalls, “I remember the enthusiasm of many people about going down there to march for equal rights and jobs.”
After the day’s scheduled events ended, a delegation of march leaders—which included A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr.—met with President Kennedy at the White House where they were served tea, coffee, canapes and sandwiches and discussed the prospect of civil rights legislation passing. Kennedy was obviously impressed by demonstration, saying that “the cause of 20,000,000 Negroes has been advanced.”
Activist John Lewis was also in attendance and recounted meeting the president to author Michael Fletcher in an exclusive Smithsonian magazine interview. “He stood in the doorway of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.” And yet, there were no great dinners or parties to celebrate the day. “I don’t believe as a group that we got together and had a meal,” Lewis recalls. “But some of the young people in SNCC were able to pick up a hamburger, a sandwich here and there, get a soft drink, lemonade. But we were just pleased that everything had gone so well.”
Even the language of dining was used to describe the event. In his response to the march, activist Malcolm X thought that the organizers and the participation of liberal white groups inappropriately toned down the feelings of anger and inequity that initially fueled the gathering. “It had become an outing, a picnic,” he wrote in his 1964 autobiography. “What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as ‘the gentle flood.’”
The New York Times used the same metaphor to describe the day, but saw the situation differently: ”The picnic atmosphere that pervaded much of Wednesday’s march should not be misinterpreted as betokening any lack of determination on the Negro’s part to insist on the rights he has been so long denied. Rather it was an affirmation of his confidence in the efficacy of an appeal to national morality to make true the dreams so eloquently evoked by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. It is up to all of us to make certain those dreams are not destroyed.”
For more on the 1963 March on Washington, read our oral history from the movers and shakers who made that demonstration a resounding success.
“On the March.” Newsweek. 2 Sept. 1963.
Petersen, Anna. “80,000 Lunches Made here by Volunteers for Washington Marchers.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.
Pakenham, Michael. “Rights Marchers Are Sightseers, Too!” The Chicago Tribune. 29 Aug. 1963.
Rich, James. “1,686 Chicagoans En Route to Washington.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Aug. 1963.
Robertson, Nan. “Capital is Ready for March Today; 100,000 Expected.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 1963.
“The March in Washington.” Time magazine. 30 Aug. 1963.
Wicker, Tom. “President Meets March Leaders.” The New York Times. 29 Aug. 1963.
August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
November 10, 2011
Mealtimes are fairly well represented in fine art. Wayne Thiebaud had an affinity for deserts. Manet gave us images of Breakfast in the Studio and Luncheon in the Grass. And I think Da Vinci may have a dining scene in his oeuvre as well. And then there’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s instantly recognizable scene of a convivial bunch of diners enjoying a summertime meal alfresco. Completed in 1881, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of the most famous midday meals committed to canvas, but it’s curious to note that in spite of the title, there’s precious little food to be seen. Taking a cue from Clara Peller, I have to ask: where’s the lunch?
“It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. By the time we see the table, all that’s left are a few not-quite-empty bottles of wine and a compotier of fruit such as grapes and pears, perhaps a peach or two. “It’s the end of the meal. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a beguiling picture. It’s of that time that comes when everyone has had a delicious meal, they’ve all gathered, they’ve focused on the food and now they’re just focusing on each other and this beautiful day and they don’t want it to be over. And we’ve all had those kinds of experiences where you want to linger and those are the best meals we ever have.”
The scene takes place at the Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where people of all social classes mixed and mingled as they enjoyed their leisure time away from the bustle of the city. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists. It remains open for business, although the scenic views have changed a bit since Renoir’s time.
But it seems Renoir wasn’t much of a foodie. In a memoir, son Jean Renoir, who made a name for himself as a film director, remembers his father preferring simple fare, even when finer things—like veal and soufflés and custards—were laid on the table. In terms of food as a subject for his paintings, actual foodstuffs crop up most often in his still lifes, and even then, his attentions turned to raw ingredients instead of finished dishes. “He could paint a beautiful onion,” Rathbone says. “They’re the ingredients in their most natural form, which is their most beautiful moment. Let’s face it, a chopped onion isn’t nearly as beautiful as an onion whole. I think Monet and Caillebotte did more prepared food in their still lifes than Renoir did. We have a wonderful still life in the collection that’s a ham and it’s a marvelous subject in Gauguin’s hands. He makes the most beautiful ham you ever saw.”
Instead, Renoir seems to prefer to focus on the social aspect of the dining experience. “He was a people person, and people love food. So I think the subject came to him naturally.”
Next time you are in the D.C. area, you can enjoy Luncheon of the Boating Party first-hand at the Phillips Collection, which is a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro.
September 6, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we expected some horror stories about cafeteria culture. Instead, writers have shared largely positive memories: learning social customs in the United States, creating an open-air lunch spot in Kolkata and today, a civilized taste of socialized shrimp in Luxembourg. Helene Paquin lives in Toronto and blogs about books at the CrackSpineDrinkWine book club. Her twitter handle is @CrackSpineBkClb
Cafeteria Culture? It’s Not All Bad
By Helene Paquin
Business travel can be taxing. The time spent at airports instead of at home with family. The challenges of inventory control as you’re living out of a carry-on for a week. The unfair reality that the Earth rotates around the sun and therefore you will be jet lagged. It’s not all negative, however. Business travel does provide an opportunity to visit places that you wouldn’t likely visit on your own. In my case it was Luxembourg, not exactly on my bucket list of must-see. I’d been asked to attend a week of meetings, and having no real choice in the matter, my answer was, “Oui, I shall go.”
After managing five hours of sleep on the flight, I take a taxi to Luxembourg’s second largest town, Esch. As the taxi pulls up in front of the headquarters I’m struck by the architecture of the building. A giant stack of red plastic building blocks in the shape of a V greets me. In contrast, next door is what appears to be a dilapidated steel plant facing foreclosure. I hand over 75 euros and in my best French I manage to squeak, “Merçi, au revoir” to my driver. I’m determined to use my native language while I’m here despite my Quebecois accent.
The morning meeting goes well and I’m invited to have lunch in the cafeteria. Flashes of high school flood my memory bank: long lines, steel trays steaming with the bland daily special, the refrigerated cases with slide windows to reach a chocolate pudding. Frankly I’m a bit horrified and do not have the best poker face. My peers immediately start explaining: The district is being developed and has no restaurants in the immediate area for dining. The office has planned for this and a subsidized cafeteria has been built for the employees. Apparently it’s the law for companies to do this. I fake a smile and we head to the second floor.
The elevator opens and I’m greeted with a display table featuring the season’s offerings. Giant white asparagus tied with string on a silver platter lie below vases filled with spectacular flower arrangements. A rectangular blackboard lists today’s menu choices written in white chalk. Employees pour in and say hello to each other as they swipe their employee cards. I ask about the cards thinking I may need one to order my lunch. I’m informed that employees swipe their card to prove that they have taken a lunch break. If an employee doesn’t swipe, his or her manager receives an email indicating the staff might be overworked. Again this is the law. The labor codes want to ensure health and wellness by encouraging breaks, eating meals and socializing. In my office we eat lunch at our desks while answering phones and typing emails.
There are five lines divided by meal types: grill, pasta, pizza, daily special and salad. I head to the shortest and quickly the chef asks what I would like. On my first day of travel I keep it simple: pasta with tomato sauce. “Voulez-vous des langoustines?” I grin widely. Why, yes, I would like subsidized shrimp on my pasta. He makes the sauce from scratch in a saucepan right in front of me. No bastions of steel trays filled with food that’s been sitting there for 3 hours. Everything is fresh. I look over at the others and it’s the same everywhere. The pizzas are made to order, so are the salads. This is unlike any cafeteria I’ve ever seen. Everyone looks happy, standing in line, talking to each other.
I’m handed my dish and head over to the fridges. There’s wine and beer! How civilized! I’d love to grab a red wine but my North American employment policy says not to. I make a mental note that I need to see about getting a transfer when I get back. The desserts are works of art. The shelves reveal crème caramels with slivers of chocolate on top, chocolate éclairs with fresh custard and what looks like a lemon cake. Want a coffee with that? Enter some coins in the espresso maker and a freshly brewed cup magically appears. I see my colleagues and join them at the cashier. She tallies my order: three euros. This is the best cafeteria ever! I sit at a table and stare at the trays filled with treasures from the kitchen. I’m overwhelmed and realize how grateful I am to be here among people who care so much about food and quality of life. I raise my water glass, “Bon appétit everyone!”