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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal Hardcover – September 10, 2013
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This history of American eating habits exposes how both native and foreign influences combined to shape popular folkways and attitudes about feeding ourselves over the course of the day. The first settlers had little choice but to eat much the same as Native Americans. With passing generations, colonists more and more adapted Britain’s familiar fare, including pudding and afternoon tea. Following revolutions on both sides of the North Atlantic, French ideas came to define the expected elements of a proper meal. Foods appeared on tables in courses, and words such as soup, dessert, and even picnic entered common English vocabulary. The greatest transformations of American mealtimes followed the Industrial Revolution’s regularizing of the workday, kitchen mechanization, and the rise of industrial food processing. The evening meal became the day’s most important since workers lacked time to return home in the middle of the day. Carroll also contributes to contemporary debates over family meals and snacking. --Mark Knoblauch
A fascinating, readable history.”
"An information-packed history of American eating habits [An] enjoyable history of American food culture."
Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country & Coca-Cola and Uncommon Grounds
In Three Squares, Abigail Carroll has filled a gaping hole in our fetish for food histories. There are books on peanut butter, pumpkins, pancakes, milk, fried chicken, chocolatethe list goes onbut now we have the big picture. Learn here how the Industrial Revolution, television, and Mad Men affected how, when, and what we eat. You'll never look at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks the same way again.”
Andrew F. Smith, author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine
Why do Americans eat what we eat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Abigail Carroll examines the American meal from colonial times to the present in Three Squares, providing delicious insights along the way. Three Squares is superbly researched, delightfully written, packed with insightsand easy to digest!”
Warren Belasco, author of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, and Visiting Professor of Gastronomy, Boston University
Combining scholarly rigor with lively storytelling, Abigail Carroll offers a fresh look at American culinary history. Resisting the nostalgia often associated with discussion of family meals, Carroll argues that American dining rituals are relatively modern and are constantly evolving to meet contemporary needs and values. This masterful synthesis will delight both professional scholars as well as newcomers to the exciting new field of food history. Highly recommended!”
Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork
I was enthralled by this account of how radically America's meals have changed over time, from dinner pails to TV dinners. This vividly written book makes you see that the American way of life at any given moment has been formed by meals. We meet the stander-uppers' who ate quick cold working meals at lunch counters and the nineteenth-century critics who feared that six o'clock dinner would destroy health.' Three Squares shows that the tradition of an evening family meal, taken at a table, is a relatively recent innovation; but one with the power to improve not just our health but our vocabulary. Family meals, it turns out, are more beneficial to children's word banks than play or having adults read to them.' With warmth and scholarship, Abigail Carroll persuades us that much depends on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as all the snacks in between.”
Barbara Haber, author of From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals
As Abigail Carroll so skillfully explains, the pattern of American mealsthree squares a dayis not a static entity but rather a social construction that has changed over time. By using imaginative sources and asking pertinent questions, Carroll traces not only the evolution of meals but of the people who have consumed them.”
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The term "square meal" may have originated in Britain, but its meaning is thoroughly American. In an 1856 newspaper advertisement in the Placerville Mountain Democrat, a restaurant called the "Hope and Neptune" averred that it had "secured the services of an excellent cook, and can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and a 'square meal'…"
Over time the meaning of a "square meal" became more expansive. Such a meal was a good value, a proper and appropriate meal, filling, simple, but containing a variety of foods necessary to good health. The two words "square meal" pretty much summed up Americans' attitude toward food -- for most, food was simply ample and high quality fuel.
As Abigail Carroll shows in her excellent book, what we eat and how we eat has been shaped mainly by changes in our capitalist economy and to a lesser extent by moral and health concerns. But in America, the sheer love of food and eating has not really been a major part of the equation.
For America's first settlers food was scarce, and the colonists had to adapt their customary eating habits to circumstances. New foods (squash, corn, vegetables) necessarily substituted for meat and grain. The settlers may have deplored Native Americans' propensity to eat several meals a day without any set schedule, but the new Americans were pretty crude themselves. Tables and chairs were lacking. Meals were often eaten without utensils. Family members may have dined together, but there seems to have been little conversation. As the author notes, "they remained mainly focused on the task at hand: refueling."
As the colonists became more settled and prosperous, meals became more regular, table implements (and manners) improved, and meat became a much more important part of meals. The opening of the frontier and the construction of the Erie Canal also meant more wheat production, and with the invention of the cookstove (replacing the traditional open hearth) there was an explosion of baked goods.
This was prior to the industrial revolution, when most Americans were farmers, and the heavy work of farming meant that a substantial mid-day meal was a necessity. But as industry boomed, and more and more Americans lived in cities, the large mid-day meal became an impossibility for many. Evening dinner gradually became the big meal of the day, and it assumed a special role, a time when the entire family assembled. As Carroll puts it:
No longer laboring together as an economical unit, family members needed a new way to bond, and dinner fit the bill. With husbands, wives and children inhabiting separate worlds during the day…coming together around a table in the evening took on heightened significance.
With this ascendance of the dinner hour and increasing affluence, most Americans purchased dining tables, plates and cutlery, while the more well-to-do acquired dining rooms and servants. In the early part of the 1800s, Charles Dickens found that "Nobody says anything, at any meal, to anyone." By the end of the century there was a complete turnaround. Families were expected to converse, and some even did so while dining à la française, "using a vocabulary of silverware and salad greens."
The sanctification of dinner necessarily meant a downgrade for lunch and breakfast, but snacking was particularly reviled. To snack was to disrespect the dinner hour and demonstrated one's lack of moral fiber.
As in other areas of life, Victorian Americans made the simple act of eating a moral issue. Alcohol was disparaged, of course. But even pastries and cookies were viewed with suspicion, sources of temptation, possible gateways to the "love of the bottle." This notion that certain foods are "moral" or "immoral" is still with us, albeit in a more subtle fashion.
Following the elevation of the dinner hour, the second major change in Americans' meal-eating was the reform of breakfast. For the earliest Americans breakfast was a casual meal, a large snack, often involving leftovers from the previous day. But as we became more affluent, breakfast burgeoned, becoming large and meat-centered. Unfortunately, the "traditional farmer's breakfast was no longer appropriate to a modern lifestyle, at least not for the majority of the middle class." Increasingly sedentary, we could no longer work off the food, and gastrointestinal problems became widespread.
One solution was to swap meat for grains. But while the first breakfast cereal, "Granula", was invented as early as 1863, it was not until late in the century that Will Kellogg, Charles W. Post and Henry Crowell began their push to completely overhaul the traditional breakfast, replacing lamb chops and eggs with boxes of cereal. Using the most modern packaging (Quaker Oats), advertising extensively (in one ad Post Grape Nuts saves a woman's life!), and playing to the public's concerns about germs and good health, these cereal makers were the forefathers of our burgeoning snack manufacturers.
Today, three square meals exist only in the military and in prisons. Even the concept of a single square meal is more and more exotic for many households. Busier work lives, fewer stay-at-home moms, the increasing power of advertising and television, and incessant efforts by manufacturers to "redeem the snack" have led to fewer and fewer square meals. The ideal of a solid family dinner, Carroll notes, "reached its zenith in the 1950s and has declined gradually ever since."
Somewhat paradoxically, while the cereal pioneers led us away from fatty high calorie breakfasts, their work helped establish our junk food nation. Some 90% of Americans snack today (about 60% in the 1970s) and we are more likely to snack than to eat breakfast. The boom in processed food has meant less interest in meals, poorer nutrition, and increased obesity.
In this history of the American meal alcoholic beverages (and beverages in general) are a sidelight, not much discussed. One wonders if those poor historical families had anything to drink with their meals! The book does include some interesting splashes of information though:
• A shortage of beer may have led the Pilgrims to disembark at Plymouth rather than their original destination, the Hudson River.
• Before prohibition, pretzels were a frowned-upon food (by the middle and upper classes, anyway), because they were sold by impoverished immigrants and a staple of saloons.
• Apart from banning wine sales, prohibition also put a dent in fine dining (as if America needed one). French restaurants simply could not survive without the sale of alcohol.
Three Squares: the invention of the American Meal is a dense and rich book. Carroll has synthesized a tremendous amount of information and presented it very compactly, with imagination and flair. There are enough leads in this book for a hundred dissertations. And apart from Carroll's vibrant text, who can resist chapter titles like "Why Colonial Meals Were Messy"?
The only issue I have with this work is for the most part the author ends the story in the 1940s. From my own experience with my family, I know our eating habits did not freeze in place in this period. From discussions with my grandmother (born in 1904) her family subsisted on mostly pork, chicken on special occasions and boiled vegetables in three daily meals; pretty much exactly as Ms Carroll describes for this time period. But then I think to my current family diet which the author only partially explains. So she explains perfectly well why we eat fairly light breakfasts and lunch in place of dinner, but the meals we eat include items my grandmother hardly knew existed such as pineapple, spaghetti, sushi, kimchi, bulkogi. I suspect the change I describe can be chalked up to tech advances such as refridgeration along with cultural infusions, but Ms Carroll only touches on these matters in passing. But even with these omissions, this book will definitely give you the "big picture" of how our eating habits have changed over the years.
I haven't enjoyed a food book so much since MUCH DEPENDS ON DINNER by Margaret Visser. In THREE SQUARES, Abigail Carroll has brought together thousands of facts about American foodways, most of them new to me, and woven them into a coherent and fascinating story. Now I know the lost history of toast at breakfast and what was so wondrous about Wonder Bread. (It was sliced!) Carroll lays bare the anti-French politics of Thanksgiving dinner, and recounts recurring waves of food fads, theories, and movements that shaped how we eat and how we talk about it, long before this moment's controversy about the Neolithic diet. THREE SQUARES is a good read. No recipes, but I'll keep it in my kitchen.