Dinner, supper or tea?

By Richard Tomkins

We seem to be all over the place in our anxieties about food. One minute we  are in a panic over obesity; the next, over super-skinny models. But why be  surprised? Some of us are so confused about eating that we are not even sure  what our meal times are called.

What, for example, is the name of the evening meal? Is it dinner, supper or  tea? And if the answer is “dinner”, why are our children having school dinners  in the middle of the day?

Or, to put it another way, if someone invites you to tea, what time do you  arrive? And what, if anything, do you expect to eat? Some thinly-cut cucumber  sandwiches and a piece of cake or a full-on hot dinner with dessert?

“It’s very complicated, really,” says Colin Spencer, author of British Food:  An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, referring to meal-time terminology. “It always conveys some social distinction. Food is so symbolic of where you  believe you are within society.”

Nearly everyone agrees that breakfast is the first meal of the day. The  confusion sets in after elevenses or mid-morning coffee and biscuits.

If you are a member of the lower classes or live outside London and the  south-east, the midday meal is called dinner and is often the main meal of the  day. But for the upper classes and metropolitans, the midday meal is called  lunch and is usually quite light unless taken in a restaurant with friends or  business associates.

In the evening, the lower classes and northerners come home from work, school  or shopping and sit down to another fairly substantial meal called tea at about  6pm. However, the upper classes and southerners eat later and the meal they eat,  called dinner, tends to be the main meal of the day.

For all classes and regions, supper usually means a late-night snack or meal,  but some people use the term for the early evening meal if they have already had  their dinner at midday. Afternoon tea – a pot of tea with sandwiches and cake  once enjoyed by upper-class ladies of leisure – has largely died out but lives  on in the form of the 4pm tea and biscuits that people of all classes enjoy.

If the system were not complicated enough, schools introduce even more  quirks. By custom, at least in the state sector, all schools serve school  dinners at midday and call the evening meal tea; so to avoid confusing the  children, some parents temporarily adopt the breakfast-dinner-tea terminology  even if it goes against their instincts. Another anomaly is that if your  children eat the meal the school provides, it is a school dinner, but if they  take in their own food, it is a packed lunch.

Another problem arises if the main meal of the day does not coincide with the  meal you call dinner. The upper classes, for example, are thrown into turmoil  when they find themselves eating their main meal of the day at lunchtime. Is it  Sunday dinner or Sunday lunch? Christmas dinner or Christmas lunch?

Not surprisingly, research on meal terminology is a bit thin on the ground  but last year, Geest, the fresh food supplier now owned by Iceland’s Bakkavör,  did a survey that provided some insights.

Based on a sample of 1,000 Britons, it found that 53 per cent called the main  evening meal dinner, 39 per cent called it tea and just 8 per cent called it  supper. But within those figures, there was a stark north-south divide. In  northern England, 68 per cent of those questioned called the main evening meal  tea, but in London, only 5 per cent followed the same custom.

How did the divergence come about? In medieval England, everyone knew you ate  breakfast when you rose at daybreak, dinner in the middle of the day and supper  just before you went to bed, around sundown.

Things started to change with rising prosperity, urbanisation and  industrialisation. The better-off could afford candles and lamps that allowed  them to party after dark, and keeping late hours became a status symbol. For  these people, dinner – still the main meal of the day – was gradually pushed  back until it reached evening.

As writer Sherrie McMillan explained in an article in History Magazine, this  posed a problem for early risers such as mothers with children: they faced an  enormous gap between breakfast and dinner. So the womenfolk invented a light,  midday meal called luncheon to bridge the gap, using a word with a disputed  derivation.

Meanwhile, among the lower classes, working people now had to travel to  factories to work so their midday meal, still called dinner, consisted of only  what they could carry with them. Hungry again by the end of the day, they would  have another substantial meal when they arrived home, calling it tea after the  drink that accompanied it. Supper remained, for all classes, a bed-time  snack.

Could we conceivably rationalise the names of our meals? Perhaps we could  agree that dinner is, as it always was, the main meal of the day, usually  consisting of more than one course. If eaten at midday, the terminology should  be breakfast-dinner-supper, as in medieval times. If eaten in the evening, the  terminology should be breakfast-lunch-dinner, on the basis that  breakfast-tea-dinner makes no sense at all and to call tea a meal is confusing.

Good. Now, having solved that problem, all we have to agree is what to call  the dish that comes after the main course. Is it pudding, sweet or dessert? Or  should it be simply afters?

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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