The timing of meals

Posted by Helen Monday, June 02, 2014 ,

The history of food in its various aspects is of great interest (or ought to be) to anyone who finds social history of importance. I have no desire to argue about the relative importance of political, diplomatic, social or economic history as they all contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the societies we study. The idea that there is something inferior or, heaven forfend, unmasculine about social history has always puzzled me, especially when I think about such luminaries as Thomas Babington Macaulay or G. M. Trevelyan.

The book I have just finished is of a lesser breed: it is called Movable Feasts by Arnold Palmer and deals with the changing times of various meals, especially breakfast and dinner and with the slow introduction of lunch or luncheon (originally nuncheon) and afternoon tea into the timetable.

The book, written and published in the fifties is charming and often informative but suffers from that playful coyness that we can find in a good many books on food of that period despite the efforts of such writers as Elizabeth David, Patience Gray and others. There are, however, some interesting facts culled from letters, diaries and works of fiction from the 1780s to the First World War in the way the timing of various meals moved, sometimes later, sometimes earlier.

As the author explains, mostly his account is of the aristocracy and the gentry, with some interpolation of city gents and businessmen because, on the whole, we know more about them (though, as it happens, the timetable of working classes, farmers and even farm labourers is not unknown).

The book was reprinted in 1984 with an introduction by David Pocock that consisted of some comments about post-fifties eating habits and possible future developments. We can always assume that any predictions for the future are going to be wrong and Mr Pocock's are no exception. How could he possibly have known the interest in more traditional food, the growth of local food shops and of farmers' markets and, on the other hand, the development of luxury and complex convenience foods? One cannot really blame him for that.

What I did find slightly odd was the information he received from his Mass-Observation correspondents on which he based his own observations. Because these were observations sent in by various individuals they could never give an adequate picture but they are strange, nevertheless. According to these observations, people had stopped eating lunch, subsisting on a diet of tea and biscuits. The seventies and eighties were the heyday of the big business lunches but, presumably, people who indulged in them did not send in reports to Mass-Observations. But even people who were not in the business lunch category must recall the sandwich shops and their queues, the boxes of packed lunch that one took to work and the cups of soup one bought from various shops. Lunch at one's desk did not consist of nothing but biscuits. It consisted of sandwiches, maybe salads, soup, tea or coffee and it was eaten at the desk in order to have time to do something else when going out for a lunch break.

Mr Pocock also talks of the demise of the afternoon tea. While it rarely exists in its full glory at people's homes, it never really died out in various hotels and restaurants. In the last couple of decades it has had a great revival with every hotel, restaurant, cafe, especially museum cafes competing with each other in the production of afternoon tea (sandwiches, scones and cakes) or cream tea (just scones with jam and cream) plus a far greater variety of beverages than our ancestors could imagine.

It is Mr Palmer in the main body of the book who mentions another disappearance, that of muffins. They were not to be found anywhere in the British Isles in his day. Well he would be pleased now: muffins are available in every bakery and every supermarket. Their return was, I suspect, via the American brunch in which "English muffins" play an integral part.

Predictions are always difficult and should not really be indulged in by people who write about history; they should know that the past does not predict the future and, in any case, when it comes to food, names of meals and their times, the changes in the various centuries have been so great that it would be foolhardy to make a decision what to use as a basis for a prediction.

I would have wished fewer references to Henry James and some to Saki, who is a mine of information about lunches in the Edwardian years and who actually has a highly entertaining story called Tea. The story contains several different items of interest. We find out that 4.30 was the sacred hour of tea in all good houses and it usually involved a good deal of silver and porcelain as well as tinkling laughter on the part of the hostess; that even a young lady who was living on her own had tea at that hour but it may well have been a "picnic tea" in the kitchen; most interestingly, though, we find out that such a young lady, though from a good family, who had to work for a living, creating couture hats, could still afford caviare for tea.

Or what of Harold Nicolson's delightful essay Edwardian Weekend in his 1926 collection Some People? There could be no doubt in any reader's mind of the importance of afternoon tea or any other meal to the Edwardians. In fact, the only conundrum faced by anyone who read that essay is the possible state of those people's stomachs and livers.

Sadly, Arnold Palmer does not refer either to Saki or Nicolson but he culls many interesting bits of information from Dickens (naturally, since it is food), from Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen as well as the tiresome Henry James.

He also has several stories of his own childhood memories and of memories of people older than himself who could recall late nineteenth and early twentieth century habits. Undoubtedly, these memories constitute the most amusing part of the book and the most informative.


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