DINNER. Dinner is the important meal in the daily or another cycle of meals, typically requiring more formal culinary arrangements, table trappings, and etiquette, and probably more abundant foods and drinks. While rural households have tended to share the main daily meal during daylight hours, industrial societies have pushed dinner into the evening, thereby making this meal more important than breakfast, lunch, tea, subsequent supper, or any intervening or alternative snack. Major meals within weekly, monthly, and annual cycles are often identified as "dinner" (Sunday meals, Christmas, and Thanksgiving). However, with rites of passage, dinner's importance may be transcended by something grander: a banquet, feast, wake, or wedding breakfast.
In the West, all family members attend the conventional dinner. In religious homes, the meal may be offered with grace. In some patriarchal versions of the family dinner, the head of the family sits in a carver (chair with arms) at one end of the table while a woman (generally the wife) serves the meal. The household might bring out a special set of matching crockery or "dinner service," especially when guests are in attendance. A succession of courses is served that often centers on a meat dish—most impressively, turkey, prime rib, or spring lamb—and some occasions conclude with a dessert course.
Beyond immediate family gatherings, a dinner can be elaborate, involving written invitations, keen anticipation (or dread) on the part of the guests, and requiring toasts and speeches. On such formal occasions, diners wear special clothing, such as a dinner jacket or tuxedo for men. As it is maintained by dedicated food-and-wine societies, dinner extends through many courses of exquisite foods and matching drinks. Courting couples become acquainted over restaurant dinners and cook together for newly shared friends. Homecomings, departures, graduations, new jobs, business deals, and the like are ready excuses for a dinner date, often outside the home.
In the language of anthropologist Mary Douglas in her essay "Deciphering a Meal," dinner is a "stressed" event. She found her everyday, culinary pattern to be "one element stressed accompanied by two or more unstressed elements" (p. 67), that is, she cooked one main meal (dinner) and two minor meals (breakfast and lunch). Further, dinner tended to comprise one main and two minor dishes, and each dish had one centerpiece food and two accompaniments. This approach to dinner was no more than the pattern within a "certain segment of the middle classes of London" when Douglas wrote in 1972.
Meals are highly culturally variable, with one, two, three, four, or more meals per day being quite common. Meals vary considerably in timing and format, with fixed hours being a modern obsession. The daily meal routine differs among town and country settings, social classes, and between the sexes. In ancient times, monarchs dined behind screens as the gods had done; then they came to sit in full view or "in state." Women and men have dined apart in many cultures, perhaps in separate rooms or with the men going "out," leaving women and children at home. Women and men have also alternated flirtatiously around tables as "roses and thorns." The patterns of dining of present-day diners and their immediate forebears have remained constantly in flux.
Given the difficulty of establishing general principles of dinner, let alone transferring the concept to other cultures, this entry concentrates on a recognizable Western tradition that took shape in the nineteenth century. During that time, wealthy families agreed on smaller evening dinner parties, while working-class families gathered in their homes for dinner after a hard day at work or school. Much gastronomic attention has been devoted to this central social occasion, yet as meals are always evolving, questions arise regarding dinner's survival.
The Invention of Dinner
Throughout history, city dwellers tended to dine later and longer. Also, many travelers made the evening meal their main meal, as this was the time when they and their horses generally settled into an inn. In agrarian communities, however, where work began at daybreak, the first and principal meal occurred in the middle of the day. In medieval Europe, this midday meal was ideally eaten at the ninth hour after sunrise or "none," from which the word "noon" derives its meaning. This meal might have been taken in the fields and, especially in hotter climates such as the Mediterranean, been followed by a siesta.
President Thomas Jefferson illustrated the typical routine of an eighteenth-century rural gentleman. During his retirement at his home Monticello, he had two main meals per day: breakfast at around 9:00 A.M. and dinner at around 4:00 P.M. In a letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko on 26 February 1810, Jefferson described this routine: "My mornings are devoted to correspondence. From breakfast to dinner I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms; from dinner to dark, I give to society and recreation with my neighbors and friends; and from candle-light to early bed-time I read."
Consuming two substantial meals—a late breakfast and a dinner (around 3:00 or 4:00 P.M. in the country and as late as 6:00 P.M. in town)—was also the pattern in England. During the nineteenth century, however, Arnold Palmer indicates that mealtimes became very uncertain. Eventually 8:00 P.M. became fashionable for dinner, a move that was in response to the longer business day and later parliamentary and court sittings. Workplaces were increasingly located at a greater distance from households, making it harder to return home for a main meal before work ended. This change was not a problem, as the evening meal was more easily lit with gas and electricity rather than the candles of the previous centuries. A more substantial luncheon occurring around 12:30 or 1:00 P.M. eventually filled the emerging hole in the middle of the day.
Confirming a similar pattern in the United States, Harvey A. Levenstein claims in Revolution at the Table that a new fascination with sophisticated food helped move dinner well into the evening. Before the 1870s, dinnertime was usually in the early or mid-afternoon, followed by tea and supper. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, "upper-class males liked at least to appear to be engaging in productive activities during the day" and wanted their main meal afterward (p. 17).
Meanwhile, the emerging working class settled into their principal meal immediately after work, which was generally around 6:00 P.M. In the new world of highly differentiated production and consumption, social reformers and others, often with religious motivations, depicted the ideal family around their humble but sufficient table—the husband having put food there through his honest labors and the good woman through her thrifty shopping.
A similar movement occurred in France and was detailed in "Food Allocation of Time and Social Rhythms" in the journal Food and Foodways. The social elite used the same words for meals for several centuries, but they fluctuated in times, content, and relative importance. Most strikingly, each meal gradually moved later in the day until it replaced the next one. In particular, dinner (dîner ) shifted from around 10 A.M. in 1550 until it reached late afternoon around the time of the Revolution, finally replacing supper (souper ), which had previously been shifted from late afternoon to evening (p. 268). As a further complication, the schedule differed between social classes so that, according to a mid-nineteenth-century account, "the people déjeune, the bourgeoisie dines, the nobility sups. A man's stomach gets up earlier or later depending on his distinction" (p. 210). The French word déjeuner has been left untranslated rather than choosing between "breakfast" and "lunch."
A second major change in the wealthy European table contributed to the emergence of a recognizably modern dinner. This was the replacement of a series of grand tableaux of dishes, which servants would offer around, called service à la française (French service), with the succession of individually plated dishes, often served at smaller tables. This type of service was termed service à la russe (Russian service).
"Dinner, being the grand solid meal of the day, is a matter of considerable importance; and a well-served table is a striking index of human ingenuity and resource," extolled Isabella Beeton in 1861 in the long-lasting English "bible," the Book of Household Management in London (p. 905). In her sample "Bills of Fare," breakfasts warrant a mere half-page, although this is twice as much as luncheons. Three pages are devoted to "Ball Suppers" for sixty persons. In comparison, dinners occupy forty-seven pages. This section lists each month's menus, which are divided into five successive sets of dishes: "First Course" (soups and fishes); "Entrees" (various "made" meat dishes, such as pork chops and lobster ragout); "Second Course" (impressive meats such as roasts, hams, and pies); "Third Course" (game "removed" or replaced by sweet dishes); and "Dessert" (fruits and ices). Diagrams show how each course is to be arrayed on the table around the central vase of flowers.
In deference to the direction in which dinner was heading, Beeton's book has a few concluding suggestions on service à la russe. The menus run through a simplified version of the service à la française progression that would become the standard dinner, namely, soup, fish, meat, and dessert. (Evocatively, the four courses make an evolutionary ascent from the primordial stew to the ethereal.) Yet confusion rules because, to cite one small complication, the British and Australian "entrée" precedes the main dish, which is the "entrée" for Americans. Cheese is a common additional course, before dessert in the French system and after dessert in the English.
In addition, Beeton's monthly suggestions conclude with "Plain Family Dinners," where she gives two menus for each day of the week. These comprise either two dishes (a meat dish plus sweet pudding) or, more often, three (with the addition of preliminary soup or fish dish). In the early twenty-first century, three-course dinners remain standard. For example, in the American classic Joy of Cooking, the successors to Irma S. Rombauer suggest lunch and dinner menus, both possibly with only two courses, whereas dinner usually has three (pp. 22–23). Lunch is lighter and more likely to include something obviously ethnic, particularly Italian (for example, minestrone). Dinner perhaps opens with soup (Greek lemon soup), salad, or fish, followed by a meat dish (lamb chops with roast garlic and cognac) accompanied by perhaps two vegetable dishes (pommes Anna, turnip purée) or rice or sometimes bread. Both lunch and dinner conclude with a tart, cake, or other dessert (such as apple spice cake).
The gastronomic literature that blossomed in the early nineteenth century promoted the intimate bourgeois supper that became the modern dinner. Writers of this period stressed the dependence on a good cook, the host's responsibility for the well-being of guests, the guests' responsibility to be punctual, and the optimum number at table in order to preserve "general" (that is, shared) conversation. Instead of large, aristocratic gatherings, the ideal number of guests became "not fewer than the graces [three] nor more than the muses [nine]."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who published The Physiology of Taste in 1825, assumed that a dinner (dîner ) could be the "last affair of the day" and should conclude between 11:00 P.M. and midnight. Brillat-Savarin's "Meditation 14" includes twelve rules to optimize the "pleasure of the table," such as a room temperature between 13–16 degrees Réaumur (around 60–68°F), a progression from the most substantial foods to the lightest, and from the simplest wines to the most heady, and so on. Guests had to number "no more than twelve, so that conversation may always remain general," although he plainly enjoyed even smaller dinners that met just four conditions: "food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time" (1949, pp. 192–193).
A decade later, in London, Thomas Walker wrote about "aristology," or the art of dining, in his weekly newspaper The Original. In urging that dinner invitations make clear who is attending and what will be served, Walker included: "we shall sit down to table at half-past seven," yet he preferred the old system of an afternoon dinner (with male colleagues) and a separate supper as an opportunity for "wit, brilliancy and ease." As for guests, he stated: "Eight I hold to be the golden number, never to be exceeded without weakening the efficacy of concentration."
Walker's enthusiasm was not restricted to simplifying the dinner of the wealthy. As a police magistrate, he believed that the cure for poverty was self-dependence, which required the cultivation of domestic economy. In the "cheerless home," he wrote, the wife was absent or intoxicated, and possessions were often taken to the pawnbrokers. Coming home to angry words, then blows, the husband fled to the public house, where the wife came to collect him but also tended to stay herself. Meanwhile, in the "well-ordered" home, the returning husband found a "kindly woman, a cheerful fire, quiet children, as good a meal as his means will allow, ready prepared, every want anticipated."
The ideal of the modern dinner—ranging in style from the elegant dinner party to the virtuous, homely repast—was in place before the twentieth century. The advocates of this ideal helped set the stage for the "proper meal," to which British diners became committed, as evidenced in surveys such as Women, Food, and Families by Nickie Charles and Marion Kerr. People expected a hot course of "meat and two veg," which would be cooked by the mother or wife. However, dinner's relatively stable form was already breaking up again.
In the early twenty-first century, Sunday dinner has been giving way to more casual alternatives, notably brunch. Except for the exceptional "dinner party," the evening meal has become less rigid in expected fare, manners, and even attendance. Where morning newspapers had once intruded upon breakfast, prime-time television now interrupts dinner conversation. With both parents having to work, children often turn into individualistic snackers.
The conventional dinner has been perhaps an unnecessarily private refuge of the nuclear family or a showplace for privilege, with items such as fabulously expensive wines. The expansion of the food-service industry with street outlets, informal cafés, and restaurants has opened up an often more pluralistic, democratic marketplace that has restored the street life of the past. Yet many studies have demonstrated that family dinners assist in the socialization of children; psychological research has found that children who share meals are better adjusted and do better at school. At the same time, epidemiological studies (some of which are summarized in the article by James S. House and colleagues) have suggested that people who share meals with others live longer than solitary eaters. Treating late twentieth-century meal trends as alienating, Australian gastronomic author Michael Symons argues in The Shared Table for more "authenticity," in the sense of meals that bring people closer to each other and their physical world; that is, dinner makes us human.
These are not trifling particulars, as Thomas Walker, in The Original on Wednesday, 9 September 1835, maintained:
Dining is an occurrence of every day of our lives, or nearly so, and as our health and spirits depend in great measure upon our vivid enjoyment of this our chief meal, it seems to me a more worthy object of study than those unreal occupations about which so many busy themselves in vain.
See also Breakfast; Etiquette and Eating Habits; Lunch; Meal; Table Talk; Tea (Meal) .
Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations in Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by M. F. K. Fisher. New York: The Heritage Press, 1949. Originally La Physiologie du gout, Paris, 1826, although appearing in 1825.
Charles, Nickie, and Marion Kerr. Women, Food and Families. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.
Douglas, Mary. "Deciphering a Meal." Daedalus 101 (1972): 61–81.
"Food Allocation of Time and Social Rhythms." Special double issue. Food & Foodways 6, no. 3–4 (1996).
House, James S., Karl R. Landis, and Debra Umberson. "Social Relationships and Health." Science 214 (July 1988): 540–545.
Palmer, Arnold. Movable Feasts: A Reconnaissance of the Origins and Consequences of Fluctuations in Meal-times with Special Attention to the Introduction of Luncheon and Afternoon Tea. London: Oxford University Press, 1952. Second edition, 1984.
Rombauer, Irma S., Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Joy of Cooking. Revised edition. New York: Scribners, 1998. Original edition, 1931.
Symons, Michael. The Shared Table: Ideas for Australian Cuisine. Canberra: AGPS Press, 1993.
Wilson, C. Anne. Luncheon, Nuncheon, and Other Meals. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1994.
din·ner / ˈdinər/ • n. the main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening. ∎ a formal evening meal, typically one in honor of a person or event.