austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Bedtime, overtime, half-time too

[ I'm posting quite early for good reasons. I'll explain later. There is no need to panic; it's just fun. ]

Mealtime is surely a great pairing of syllables. Yet how much do we really know about mealtimes? If a person in the early sixth century were to tell you, ``I'll see you at breakfast'', would you know what was meant? Of course not, since you haven't got any business being in the early sixth century. Yet even if you were there with a responsible tour guide doesn't guarantee that you'd have any idea when to actually meet.

Although mealtimes seem like traditions fixed since time immemorial, that immemorial time was closer to about 1956 than most people admit, and it wasn't fixed so much as it would make the life of the person who runs the elevator down to the cafeteria easier if we scheduled better. That person deserves lunch too, after all. But meals have been much more flexible in their scheduling and content and we only hold up the ideal so that we can be provided with something to not live up to and where necessary feel shame about. You might not feel shame about having lunch at 3 pm, but that's all right. You can feel proud that there's probably someone who would be upset about it if it were generally known, and you might not have to have that person to lunch.

The most dramatic mealtime migration was in the early 19th century as the busy residents of New York City decided that having ``dinner'' at noon was too much of a bother. It was first bumped to about 2 pm to avoid the lunchtime traffic rush, and then to about 5 pm, and then to about 8 pm, and finally was in 1934 moved to 11:30 am the previous day. This ended the half-day of work on Saturdays, as Sundays were when the popular brunch was unstoppably brunching its way into things and you can't sensibly brunch at work, and so the modern weekend was born.

All this shuffling about confused supper, which started at four hours past dinner. But traffic problems in the days before the elevated train bumped it to five and then six hours after, forcing people to get ready for supper at two in the morning. That was obviously ridiculous so they swapped it for a quick, supper-like meal eaten at dinnertime, and people sought a way to identify things slightly differently so they would know when someone at dinner had come from a fictional midwestern city like Chicago or Minnesota. The search continues.

Lunch has often been around noon, although noon is a problem. Sure, it looks like it's at 12:00, but that is merely a byproduct of the French Revolutionary Calendar. What noon should be is nine, which is not to say nine in the morning or evening. Instead the nine should be the number of hours past sunrise, unless that's sunset, which puts things somewhere around three or four. What noon is doing at 12:00 remains a mystery.

Breakfast is another interesting case. In the old days people were fasting all the time due to religious devotion and due to the famine meaning there wasn't anything to eat anyway. Calling it a fast made it more dignified than starvation. But even when there was food there were religious prohibitions against eating meat on Tuesdays or Fridays, against eggs or milk on unseasonably warm days, against things with the letter ``r'' in them before the Apocalypse, and so on. Starved and seeing nothing but breakfast to eat, then, several orders of monks in the 13th century declared the letter ``r'' when it appears in ``breakfast'' to be a kind of bread, and so they were able to eat without risking a venial yet tasty sin.

Now, thanks to the removal of New York City's elevated trains, we can eat pretty much whatever meal we want whenever it is we want it. However, it does mean it's harder to start a new meal or mealtime since there's so little of the day clearly in need of the fresh chance to chew. Research is continuing, though, and the introduction of new hours into the day may be just the thing we're looking for.

Trivia: Erie Canal construction began 4 July 1817 just outside Rome, New York. Source: Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, Peter L Bernstein. (And congratulations to the United States as it celebrates the day in 1776 when John Adams mercifully sat down.)

Currently Reading: Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876 - 1915, Thomas J Schlereth.


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