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Is This Lunch or Dinner?

October 17, 2012

I overheard this child’s innocent question when we were having lunch in a pub recently. The parent gave a vague answer, but little did they realise that this simple question opens a can of worms that involves History, Geography and that terrifying beast – social class in England. Until the early nineteenth century it would have been easier to answer. Even with the social changes the eighteenth century had brought: the advent of chocolate, tea and coffee to the breakfast table, the decline in ale and beer drinking,
variations in the timing of dinner and so on, it was still a basic fact that for those who could afford to do so, the day started with breakfast, peaked with dinner (usually sometime in the early/mid  afternoon) and concluded with supper which
could be as varied a meal as the combination of time, guests and other activities required. Before the end of the eighteenth century tea was also being served prior to bedtime, but this meant a dish of China (or bohea) tea perhaps with a light sandwich or piece of cake. In Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ there is an amusing exchange between Emma’s hypochondriac father and his guests where he tries to stop them eating anything late at night, and Emma quietly ensures they all receive the delicacies they enjoy.

During the nineteenth century one effect of the Industrial Revolution was the provision of gas to main towns and cities. Wealthy homes soon took advantage of the superior lighting this offered, which meant they were no longer slaves to natural light before succumbing to the gloomy charm of candle light. In consequence, in large towns, the wealthy and fashionable were able to dine later in the evening. As the century progressed we became less dependent on the land and working it, as better refrigeration and faster transport brought in more and more foodstuffs from around the world which were often cheaper than those which had been grown or reared in this country. However, more men were working in business and finance than they had been, and they kept ‘office hours’ which meant they were not free to dine until later in the evening. In novels written during the middle part of the century there are often references to keeping ‘town’ or ‘country’ hours for meals. The question of when one should dine becomes an issue in ‘Wuthering Heights’ when the fashionable Mr. Lockwood wants to dine at 5pm and his countrified housekeeper
is used to serving the meal at midday. It would be well into the 20th century before gas or electricity routinely reached country areas – in fact not everywhere is connected to the National Gas grid even today.

For those who were dining later and later, especially the women confined in their corsets, there was a long stretch between breakfast and dinner. Even in Jane  Austen’s time a light meal had begun to appear around midday. This was luncheon. It was covered by fairly rigid requirements:

“The English labourer has his lunch between breakfast and dinner… the English of the higher classes particularly if their time is not well spent, are apt to make luncheon a kind of dinner – a meal of animal food and stimulants which, if superadded to dinner, is entirely unnecessary and productive of disease. Either the luncheon should be a bona fide dinner, albeit at an early hour, or it should be entirely without animal food, provided, of course that this is not required on medical advice. Fruit is more wholesome at luncheon than other times of the day.”
Cassell’s ‘Dictionary of Cookery’ around 1880.

In reality this often translated into serving cold meats, or a hash or fricassee of a previous joint. New roasts were not served. Fruit formed a regular part of the meal and cake was quite acceptable.  There are recipes for luncheon cake, for example:

8oz. butter to be rubbed into 12oz   flour. To this add 4oz. ground rice, a pinch of salt, 8 oz. pounded sugar (from a sugar loaf), 4oz currants, half a grated nutmeg, an ounce of finely sliced candied lemon peel and up  to a teaspoon of caraway seeds (if required).

To the well mixed dry ingredients should be added 1 teaspoon of
bicarbonate of soda dissolved in ½ pint of boiling milk and 3 well beaten eggs.
It was estimated that it would take an hour and a quarter to cook in a moderate
oven (approx 175c). It should be left for 2 days before cutting, and we are
advised that this costs the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence to make
(7.5 decimal pence).

The advent of afternoon tea is routinely ascribed to Anna, Duchess of Bedford (who, incidentally, is also supposed to have popularised the avocado) when in 1841 she admitted to a ‘sinking feeling in the mid afternoon’ which was alleviated by being served tea and a variety of light cakes. At first this was taken surreptitiously in her rooms, but the trend became popular and soon a definite time emerged – between 4.15 and 5.15 – when ladies could call on each other and take tea. These visits were usually fairly short and in time became surrounded with their own etiquette. It was predominantly a female rite: boiling water, tea caddies and all the necessary equipment would be served to the lady of the house who would then prepare the tea herself before the footmen, parlour maids or unmarried daughters handed it round. It is perhaps for this reason that tea was usually prepared by the housekeeper rather than the cook – though she may well have made the cakes in the first place. By the end of the nineteenth century ladies had elevated this occasion to one which
required special clothes – tea gowns – which were elegant but more comfortable
than the formal morning dress or evening gowns with their tight boning and

In rural towns and communities, however, and in places more remote from London the midday main meal still held sway. For them, dinner had been eaten earlier in the day. However, supper began to be influenced by fashionable trends and the rise of more specialised grocers’ stores which sold the delicacies required for teatime. Canned foods such as salmon and potted meats became widely available and some of these found their way onto the country supper table along with cakes and biscuits which were also becoming commercially available with the advent of biscuit factories such as Palmers and Peak Freans. Boundaries were becoming blurred, but in the North and up in Scotland this fusion of old fashioned supper which might contain a cooked dish and bread and butter as well as cakes and muffins became known as ‘high tea’ and can still be taken at places like Betty’s in Harrogate and York. This was an admirable time of day, too, for children to take an evening meal, and by the end of the nineteenth century nursery supper was also often called ‘high tea’.
The occasion still survives today in children’s birthday parties where cake is
served as part of the event, though pizzas and burgers have usually replaced
the sandwiches and welsh rarebits of former years.

The precise timing of dinner is a tricky question. In towns and cities the wealthy classes might well be going on to see an opera, theatre programme or a ball or soiree. On these occasions dinner might be as early as 7pm. However, in country houses where the meal constituted part of the evening’s entertainment and would be lingered over, 8pm or later was quite common. At its conclusion the hostess would catch the eye of her most senior female guest and stand up at an appropriate moment when the dessert course had been concluded, the men would rise and bow, and the females would leave the dining room to the men, withdrawing to take tea and coffee separately while the men lingered over cigars and port. This segregation usually only lasted 15-30 minutes, especially if there was entertainment or music waiting to begin. However, dinner parties were also a time to politely transact business: at a political party the ladies could wait for some time before being joined by the men.

Around the middle of this century there was also a revolution in the way in which dinner was served, fuelled in part by the rise of Sheffield plate and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution which enabled people to own more and more cutlery, dinner services and napery without the same expense as formerly. Dining a la Francaise followed the ways of the Georgians and earlier: the diners came into a dining room to see a huge variety
of dishes placed with an eye for symmetry. The host, and often the hostess,
too, would serve their soups, then later they would stand to carve, and guests
would help each other. No matter how delectable or favourite a dish might be at
the opposite end of the table, it was expected that one confined one’s
attentions to what was within reach. As dining a la Russe gained in popularity
this all changed. Now diners consulted name cards to check their places after
proceeding to the dining room in couples determined by social class. Once
seated they would find nothing but empty place settings awaiting them, as the
dishes would all be placed ready on a sideboard, waiting for a servant (a
footman in better households, a parlour maid in aspirational but not first rank
households) to help them. Now it was the butler who would carve at a sideboard:
this freed the host and hostess certainly, but as the table looked bare after
the opulence of a la Francaise meals, the centre of the table would be
decorated with flowers, candles and piles of fruit. The epergne is a Victorian
invention which allowed tiers of cascading flowers and fruit to fill the middle
of the table, so much so that conversation had to be confined to those seated
on either side. In Cardiff castle the dining table even has a hole in the
middle which allows the insertion of a fruiting vine so that guests could pick
their own grapes when it came to dessert. The floral decoration of the dining
table was often the duty of the head gardener rather than the indoor staff.

This leaves us with the question of supper. In rural areas, as the nineteenth century progressed, this might be something as simple as a drink before bedtime, what the Flapper society of the early 1920s translated as a ‘nightcap’, meaning cocktails and alcohol rather than the restrained tea of their parents’ generation.   However, if
there had been musical entertainment or a ball during the later evening then a
ball supper might be laid on. This could be anytime up to midnight and
sometimes later. It was another epic achievement from the Victorian kitchen and
could involve champagne, jellies, ices, sandwiches and a full buffet.

With the decline of the Edwardian heyday into the hell of the First World War with its shortages and first time rationing the standards of the wealthy and privileged came under attack. After the war the servant shortage was made worse when the Spanish ‘flu pandemic swept the country in 1919. As a new decade started the old ways were in decline; restaurants were becoming fashionable, as were nightclubs, and meals were no longer the lengthy formal rituals they had been. During the nineteen years of rationing that started with World War 2 in 1940 and ended, more or less, with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 it was impossible to maintain the lavish lifestyles that had kept the divide between classes and areas in the previous century. Nowadays the main meal – whenever it takes place – is usually dinner. As the world shrinks under the impact of social media we know we are lucky in the West to have the opportunity to wonder what a meal should be called.

So there we have the way that a variety of influences, geographical, industrial, historical and social, have all combined to lead change in the way and time that we eat our meals. As a family with one foot in the South and the other in the North I know that names still mean a great deal. It still says far more than it should about one’s class and upbringing whether one refers to lunch or dinner which, considering that so many meals nowadays are taken on the run, is really rather silly. I pity that poor child in the pub: life can be unnecessarily complicated at times.

From → Food, georgian food

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