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Feb 14, 2011 08:28 PM

What is "dinner"?

What doe we mean when we talk about dinner (or supper to some)? For Americans dinner usually is a protein w/some starch and vegetables. In other countries it may mean something totally different.

For example, to a friend of mine, dinner is usually meat, a starch or 2, and a non-green leaf vegetable. When we go eat, say, Korean food for dinner, he gets a little thrown-off. The courses coming at random times, the lack of bread, no dessert befuddles him. I'm interested in learning about other culture's ideas on dinner, what it means, what they eat and drink, how important a meal it is (as opposed to other meals in the day). Please share your knowledge w/me.

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  1. There is no real standard, even in the Eurocentric Western world, even in the US, as to what and when "dinner" is, although most of us if asked would assert that what we grew up with is "normal". In some parts of the US it's the main meal of the day, in the evening on weekdays and midday on Sundays; in other parts it's always in the evening or midday. In France and Italy, in my experience, it has been the midday meal that is the main meal of the day, with a light supper often made up of leftovers from that, unless the evening meal is to celebrate an occasion such as a birthday. Then it is likely to be an elaborate meal of multiple courses and a formal structure.

    In our fairly poor Midwestern household, in which Dad was usually off working during the day, supper (or dinner) was in the evening on weekdays, midday on Sundays. Weekday lunch was soup or sandwiches for the most part, dinner a meat/veg/potatoes menu. Sunday dinner was often simply a reiteration of weekday suppers, but if some special dish were to be prepared, such as a braise of small game Dad had shot and brought home, Sunday is when it would usually appear. That was also when we were most likely to entertain company, friends or visiting family, and present our favorite dishes (even though they may have been quite plain, such as scalloped potatoes with ham) as special treats.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Will Owen

      Thanks, Will. What part of the Midwest are you from?

      1. re: cwe502

        East central Illinois. Maternal grandfather from a big German Mennonite farm family, grandma of Scottish and English descent; paternal grandpa part-Cherokee and Welsh from Kansas, Welsh-descended grandma ditto. Lots of country-moved-to-smalltown culinary habits. Many families we knew had supper at six sharp, as though it were a requirement; we generally made it by seven. Holiday dinners - TG and Christmas - were typically on the table around two. Sunday dinner could be late, too, given that preparation didn't start until we were home from church.

        1. re: Will Owen

          Being from Iowa, Will, I came from one of those families with the time requirement. Not so much for breakfast, but "dinner" was at noon and "supper" was at 5p. You could almost set your watch by it. My dad still prefers eating on that schedule, although now that he is retired (vs. when I was growing up and he always worked 2nd shift), my parents eat their larger meal in the evening rather than mid-day. It wasn't until I went to college that I realized most people ate lunch and dinner rather than dinner and supper. Of course that's also where I learned that most everyone else drank "soda" rather than "pop".

          1. re: cycloneillini

            See, the one industrial entity in our town was the Velsicol chemical plant; their afternoon shift change came at 5:00, and that's when the whistle blew. Everybody in town (and for at least five miles around) could hear it, and just about every day worker took that as his or her signal to quit and go home. Give'em an hour to get home and clean up, and there's your six o'clock supper. My dad was a self-employed sign painter and tended to get home a little later, usually after a tavern layover, and after those layovers took over Mom was working, so we generally ate nearer to seven.

            For us it was lunch and supper, as I've mentioned, but different families had different habits. But we all drank pop, except for one boy who decided on his own to start calling it "soda". Sixty years on he is still called "Sody".

    2. I am a child of immigrants from the UK who was raised in the US. Growing up, dinner was usually meat/starch/veg (I am including fish in the "meat" category). Sometimes for a quick weekday dinner we would go the breakfast for dinner route and have baked beans and toast (I think you need to be English to appreciate that) or "ethnic" and have tacos. Sundays consisted of a traditional roast meat (roast chicken, pot roast, etc.).

      These days in my house, anything goes for dinner. If we had a big lunch it could be as simple as some bread and cheese (with wine!) and we cook a variety of cuisines from around the world that don't follow the old English meat/starch/veg model. I think my lack of variety as a child made me into a chowhound!

      1. Growing up, long long ago, "dinner" [not "supper'] in my family was always the evening meal and was almost always rice accompanied by at least one protein dish of some sort [including fish] plus at least one vegetable dish (leafy greens or otherwise) and often a soup. This held true whether we ate at home or out, except for special meals/occasions when "Chinese Banquet" dishes were served (with no rice till the end with perhaps a plate of fried rice being served, if that). "Supper" was what a late night snack of some sort, if we were hungry, was called.

        As I grew up, moved away and into my adulthood, "dinner" is whatever I feel like eating in any combination and with whatever mashup of either ingredients or even different cuisines all at the same time that I might feel like. There is no specific and 'fixed'/invariant expectation of what constitutes 'dinner' like your friend seems to hold on to. Oh, I still do the rice+protein+(leafy)veg thing, but it is not an "expected" thing. Last night I had some fresh fettucine tossed with (warmed over) Rao's Sausage & Mushroom (bottled) sauce, with a side plate of marinated mushrooms+stuffed olives, also some dolmades (heh), as well as a few pieces of Chinese roast duck plus leftover blanched kai lan (or gai lan) drizzled with oyster sauce. :-)

        1. I thought at first this would be a terminology post, and I was all ready with 'my family called meals breakfast, dinner, and supper, but at school they called the midday meal "lunch" so I would refer to breakfast, lunch, and supper, till I became and adult and shifted permanently to breakfast, lunch, and dinner ..."

          hah. sorry. To me dinner is any meal that's an actual meal eaten after, say 3 or 4 p.m., but it kind of depends on whether I had lunch or not. If it's like snack plates or junk food or nachos or something I don't consider it "dinner" per se, just eating.

          1 Reply
          1. re: occula

            some English words for a meal have time connotation, some do not.


            In some parts of the Empire there used to be something called "elevenses", a mid morning snack.

            Breakfast (break the overnight fast) is always the first meal of the day. lunch, luncheon, nuncheon, nooning are or were taken at midday.

            Supper is served as the last meal of the day.

            Snack is served at any time of the day, but is small and usually cold.

            Dinner, like snack, is served at any time. What defines dinner is that it is the main meal of the day. In the olden days, in England and its colonies, this was taken at midday. Some old-fashioned families still have Sunday dinner when they get home from church. but nowadays, most families that still have a main meal of the day do it after everyone gets home form work.

            What changed things?

            In the eighteenth century it became fashionable for the upper classes who gathered in London during the spring when Parliament met to sit up late at night and party. This was a kind of conspicuous consumption: they could afford the candles. They would breakfast late, have a bite of nuncheon if they desired, have tea served with snacks in the late afternoon, then sit down to dine at an hour that drifted later and later, from 2, to 3, to... until the victorians were sitting down to dinner at 9pm. Just to prove how fashionable they were. Americans who wanted to prove how fashionable they were imitated London.

            Working people in the 19th century factories carried "dinner pails" to work if it was too far to go home for the meal and farm families continued to break for the main meal at the middle of the working day. Urban workers usually went home for dinner, then returned to their shops, factories or offices in the afternoon. Supper was the leftovers from dinner. Food didn't keep; waste not want not.

            This changed with the shift of the middle classes not only away from farming, but to cities with long commutes.

            We stopped being f

          2. Dinner is the last large meal of the day for me. In our youth, dinner was one or two protein dishes, one or two smaller vegetable dishes, a starch (rice possibly with flatbreads) and very rarely a dessert. Holidays of course warranted more courses and an earlier mealtime to allow us time after the meal to digest (and have seconds and thirds).

            In my adulthood, dinner can be an elaborate roast or a hearty sandwich, but it's dinner as long as it's meant to satisfy my hunger and be the last food of my day (usually between 6:30 and 8:00 pm). If I have a lighter meal meant to satisfy my immediate hunger around sundown, I call that snack "tea" in English, otherwise I call it "merienda." In other parts of the Anglosphere, folks call the generic evening meal "supper" and their main meal of the day "dinner." This is a dying usage with adherents only using it in my experience in portions of the Upper Midwest and upperclass South as well as parts of England.