Let’s Do Lunch

“Luncheon of the Boating Party”, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1881), Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

If you had lived 500 years ago, you never would have heard of a meal called lunch.  Of course, you never would have heard of computers, either, but that’s sort of the point — things change.

For many centuries, the midday meal was called dinner, and it was the biggest meal of the day.  Supper was the evening meal, and often consisted of leftovers from dinner, since refrigeration had not yet caught on.  Supper was also a precursor of today’s Early Bird Specials:  it was eaten around 5 p.m. or so. That’s because in the absence of artificial light and cable TV, people went to bed when it got dark.

To review, then, if you had been hungry in 1512, you would have had breakfast soon after dawn, dinner around noon, and supper at sunset.  “But what about lunch?” I hear you mutter.  (Or maybe that’s your stomach growling.)

The word once conveyed the idea of “snack”, possibly derived from the Spanish word lonja, which means a slice of ham, or loncha, a slice of cheese.  As recently as 1755, lunch or luncheon meant a portion; a hunk of something.  In his dictionary of that year, Samuel Johnson defined it this way:  “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”  Fast-food chains still base their menus on that definition, apparently.

It was not until the mid-19th century that the rearrangement of our meal designations took hold, with dinner moving to the evening hours, and lunch taking over the noontime slot formerly held by dinner.

There were several reasons for that, one of which was artificial lighting.  Oh sure, candles had been around forever, but who wants to eat dinner by candlelight?  Well, yes dear, candlelight is very romantic.  I’m just saying it was the practicalities of meal preparation and cleanup that made having a meal after dark, you know, impractical.  With improved oil lamps and gas lamps, it became possible to eat dinner later.

Another reason for the change had to do with social conventions of the upper classes, who were obliged to call on friends and acquaintances during the early afternoon.  Let’s say someone had dropped in while you were away from home.  Etiquette required you to return the in-person call at their residence the following day.

As Bill Bryson notes in his book At Home, “What this meant in practice was that most people spent their afternoons dashing around in a similarly unproductive manner trying to catch up with them.”  That had the effect of pushing the dinner hour later.

Perhaps the most important factor was the transition from rural to urban life in the 1800s.  Back when you owned a farm — or worked on one that someone else owned — you were close to home at midday.  That made it possible to sit down to a big dinner at noon.

When farms were replaced by factories, though, and people went off to work in cities, the noon meal at home wasn’t possible, so the dinner hour was delayed.  Lunch filled the void.

A current exhibit at the New York City Library makes the claim that “Of the three meals that mark the American day, lunch is the one that acquired its modern identity here on the streets of New York.”  Sounds plausible to me, but what do I know?  Some people tell me I seem “out to lunch”.


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