MEAL. Academic interest in meals, while crossing many disciplines, is concentrated mostly in the fields of social anthropology and sociology. The premise of much of this research is that whatever broader historical and social influences on food and eating may be identified in any cultural milieu, the taking of food is more often than not organized around some concept of the meal.
There is a modest literature that, while not focusing precisely on the meal, offers insights into the history of meals. Of undoubted importance is the reduction in the size of meals in Western civilizations. From the Roman poet Petronius's account of Trimalchio's feast in The Satyricon, through medieval banquets, to the gluttony of restaurant dining in France, the size of a meal in terms of the varieties and number of courses has declined, at least for the affluent social classes. One difficulty with historical studies of food and eating is their focus on aristocratic and bourgeois habits. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the diet of the poor appears to hold in variety and content less fascination, although John Burnett's Plenty and Want (1979) elegantly counters this view. Sociologisthistorians like Norbert Elias maintain that the diminution in the number of courses represents a trend to civilizing taste through self-restraint such that the epitome of "good taste" is, crudely put, reflected in a "less is more" philosophy, and gluttony and excess is associated with the bestial side of human nature.
A second theme of interest is the impact on meal taking of industrialization, whose main consequences in the food arena include "improvements" in food production, preservation, and transportation, and the exploitation and creation of markets for existing and previously unavailable foods. The growth of agribusiness and subsequent opposition to it has cast doubts on these supposed benefits of industrialized society.
What is perhaps less appreciated about the industrialization of food is the extent to which it has created and supported the embedding of male and female roles in the home and elsewhere. This leads, thirdly, to the profound effects of industrialization on patterns of family life. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the demands of industrialization have seen greater female participation in the labor force in much of the developed world that, taken together with the increasing application of technology to the culinary sphere, has had implications for food consumption. This is reflected in debates about the decline of the meal and the rise of snacking, or grazing, which, in recent years, have been linked to broader ideas about the "McDonaldization" of food and eating.
Functions of the Meal
No account of the role of the meal in society can ignore efforts to explain the apparent human need to dine communally. In a popular approach to understanding the nature of meal-taking, scholars have delineated five general functions of the meal and of feeding more generally. First, meals demonstrate much about the nature of status differences in society. The display and distribution of food as a means of demonstrating social status is common to many societies. The giving of food can be an act designed to heighten the status of donors by emphasizing the difference between them and the recipients of their largesse.
Second, whom one dines with and what one eats define social and status group membership and the closeness or distance of relationships between individuals. For example, a hot meal generally reflects closeness and intimacy and can be confined to immediate family and intimates (Douglas, 1972). Within the family, status and power differences determined by gender can be reflected in the distribution of food. Several researchers have demonstrated that high meat consumption is associated with men, and that women often give priority to male food preferences at the expense of their own tastes. In the workplace, class and status differences can be mirrored in a separate provision of food for managerial and related grade staff, and for "blue collar" workers (Murcott, pp. 45–53). Third, food has symbolic functions and meanings. Various forms of feasting serve to link individuals to the wider social fabric through shared understandings of cultural conventions (as, for example, with Christmas or Thanksgiving). Meals also offer opportunities for status symbolism, where food is a form of currency either literally (whereby animals are exchanged for goods and services), or through the medium of gift-giving (intended to elicit some reciprocal gift or service). Status symbolism is also conveyed in the case of dining out, in the selection by the host of a meal environment appropriate in its level of excellence and expense.
Fourth, meals give opportunities to demonstrate role performance. For a host, the meal allows demonstration of good taste and knowledge of what is relevant to particular dining situations. For all individuals, mistakes over etiquette and the actual eating of food can be embarrassing, discrediting a person in the eyes of others (for example, using the "wrong" knife or fork or employing the "wrong" terminology). Fifth, control of role performance is closely related to the role played by food in socialization. Meal times, as occasions when social groups are normally together, provide opportunities for the uninitiated—particularly the young—to observe what is acceptable in terms of food-related behavior. For children, meal times allow observation of what foods are routinely available for consumption and how these should be consumed; in other words, children are inculcated both formally and informally into matters of etiquette.
Structures of the Meal
The observation that in many societies, food consumption is organized around some concept of the meal led much early sociological research to focus on the nature and meaning of meal structure. The pioneering work of Mary Douglas offers theoretical grounding of the study of food and eating in localized empirical studies of dining. In her article "Deciphering a Meal" (1975), she identifies two contrasted food categories—meals and drinks. Meals are structured and named events (for example, lunch, dinner) whereas drinks are not. Meals are taken against a background of rituals and assumptions that include the use of at least one mouth-entering utensil per head; a table; a seating order; and cultural restrictions on the pursuit of alternative activities (such as reading) while seated at table. A meal also incorporates a series of contrasts: hot and cold, bland and spiced, liquid and semi-liquid. Both meals and drinks reflect the quality of social relationships. Drinks are generally available to strangers, acquaintances, and family. Meals, by way of contrast, are reserved for family, close friends, and honored guests.
Douglas's key empirical study with colleague Michael Nicod relates meal structure to meal content. Nicod recorded over various periods the dining patterns of four English working-class families, whose diet of the time centered on two staple carbohydrates—potatoes and cereals, in contrast to upper-and middle-class diets, which made greater use of a range of cereals, beans, and roots. Focusing on the type and cycle of meals within the domestic economy, Nicod identified three types of meal: Meal A, a major meal, served around 6:00 P.M. on weekdays and in the early afternoon on weekends; Meal B, a minor meal taken at 9:00 P.M. or 10:00 P.M. on weekdays and 5:00 P.M. on weekends; and Meal C, consisting of a biscuit and a hot drink. This last meal was a flexible component available at any time in the daily dietary cycle but most often taken both in late afternoon, on the return home of the principal wage earner, and before retiring for the night.
Meal Content and Cycles
Of the three types, Meal A is accorded the greatest analytic importance by Douglas and Nicod. A strong correspondence between the weekday evening meal and the Sunday meal was apparent. In both instances, the first course was the main course, always hot and savory and based on a tripartite structure of potato, centerpiece (meat, fish, eggs, with one or more additional vegetables), and dressing—usually gravy. The second course repeated these rules of combination except that it was sweet. The staple took a cereal form (pastry, sponge), the centerpiece was often fruit, and the dressing custard or cream. On Sundays and other special occasions, the second course was often followed by a third consisting of a hot drink and biscuit(s). This third course maintained similarities in rules of combination in that a biscuit has a cereal staple form enclosing a fruit or cream-type filling. In one respect, however, the pattern differed, in that liquids and solids were totally separated, in contrast to other courses, and the structure was reversed in so far as the hot drink appeared in a cup or similar receptacle, whereas the cold biscuit was on a plate.
Thus, according to Douglas and Nicod, meals possess the following elements. First, they have rules of nonreversibility in the archetypal meal. Second, the order of food runs from savory to sweet and from hot to cold in terms of the principal food items consumed. Third, quantity decreases with each course as formal patterning of foodstuffs increases. Regarding the latter, Douglas sees the first course as fairly amorphous, but as a meal progresses, this gives way to increasing geometric precision and structure (Douglas, 1982; Wood, 2000).
The "Cooked Dinner"
Whereas Douglas places equal emphasis on meal structure and meal content, it is the latter that has driven many subsequent and empirical studies of meal taking. Murcott's (1982) study of thirty-seven pregnant women in South Wales is almost as important as Douglas's work for the elaboration of a research tradition. Murcott found that the "cooked dinner," an elaborated model of Douglas's principal Meal A type, comprising meat, potatoes, at least one additional vegetable, and gravy, was regarded as a "proper meal," and perceived as essential to family feelings of health and well-being. Structurally, the cooked dinner was thought of as a meal in itself, was heavy and large rather than small and light, and hot, never cold. Thus, although a succession of courses was permissible, the cooked dinner as centerpiece could, in contrast to sweet-based items, stand in its own right as a meal. Fresh meat was a priority, and potatoes were always specified and itemized separately from other vegetables. Certain meats had common circulation—beef, lamb, pork, chicken—whereas others, notably turkey, were reserved for special occasions. Fish was not regarded as an acceptable substitute for meat in the cooked dinner form. While potatoes were invariably a constant (roast on Sunday, usually boiled at other times), slightly more flexibility was evident in the choice of additional vegetables. Even here, however, certain rules appeared to operate. First, additional vegetables were almost invariably green and from "above ground" (typically peas, beans, sprouts, cabbage, and occasionally broccoli and cauliflower). Second, additional vegetables were prepared only in addition to these and were generally from "below ground" (for example, carrots and parsnips). Together with meat and potatoes, the final ingredient necessary to the structural integrity of the cooked dinner was gravy, last in the cooking and serving sequence, and poured onto the plate after other items had been assembled, an action Murcott sees as linking and transforming items in the cooked dinner into a coordinated whole. Cyclically, the importance of the cooked dinner to Murcott's sample was emphasized in the fact that it was eaten on only three or four days of the week (including, invariably, on a Sunday) and thus had relative scarcity in the family dietary system.
The "Cooked Dinner" in America
The British work of Douglas and others is echoed in various American studies, which generally support a view of meals as central to domestic dining systems. In a 1942 study of food habits in Southern Illinois, researchers found that food consumption centered on three staples: potatoes, beans, and pork. The authors term this the "core diet" and note that around the core was, first, a secondary core, consisting of many foodstuffs that had recently become available for purchase from local stores; and, second, a peripheral diet of infrequently used foods outside of the core and secondary core (Bennett et al., 1943). All three of these concepts are used in similar form by Norge Jerome, who charts content variations found in meals and snacks for all of "normal" weekday meals, "Sunday dinner" and festive meals (for example, Thanksgiving). Jerome argues that the dietary order consists of core and staple items; secondary core items, which are added to or substituted for items in the core as circumstances and contexts vary; and peripheral dietary items, which are those items used infrequently, including ceremonial foods.
In a much more complex series of studies of Italian-American diet in Philadelphia, Judith Goode and various colleagues relate variations in the selection of different meal formats to meal cycles (food consumption patterns over time), community values, and activity patterns of households, building up a many-layered picture of the interrelationships between the role of food in people's lives and other aspects of the social order (Brown, pp. 66–68).
Gender and the Meaning of Meal Structure
For Douglas, the meaning of meal structure lies in its implications for family constitution. The patterning of food performs a regulatory function, encouraging family stability, a view with clear policy implications for dietary and nutritional intervention . For Murcott, an important symbolic feature of cooked dinners is the extent to which their preparation validates women's roles in family and marital contexts: "If a job defines how a man occupies his time during the working day, to which the wage packet provides regular testimony, proper provision of a cooked dinner testifies that the woman has spent her time in correspondingly suitable fashion . . . the cooked dinner in the end symbolizes the home itself, a man's relation to that home and a woman's place in it." According to Murcott, the overall responsibility for domestic affairs falls to the woman of the house, whose responsibility for the cooked dinner includes the process of accommodating family food preferences, especially those of the husband or male partner. Most women choose what food is purchased for family consumption, but, because of the need to balance factors such as family tastes and preferences, food cost, variety, and nutrition, this is often considered a burden rather than bestowal of authority to determine the domestic dietary cycle.
Second, women frequently subordinate their own food preferences to those of male partners. Men, especially if employed, are regarded as requiring food in quantity, and male energy needs are regarded as exceeding those of other family members and, in particular, of women. Researchers Nickie Charles and Marion Kerr found that very high consumption of meat was almost totally confined to men, while very low meat consumption was associated primarily with women and children. Several other studies have shown that women often go without food, particularly in families where there is financial hardship. Women's voluntary denial is further reinforced by societal pressures to maintain "ideal" body weight and image.
Third, the "absence" of cooked dinners or a female to cook for men can disrupt the social fabric. Two very different examples of this are found in instances of domestic violence and of "womanless men." Researchers have observed that the centrality of food in marital relationships can often lead to violence as men turn on women for perceived failures in the performance of those tasks that are accorded them and that men usually learn domestic cooking and practice that skill only when they have no woman to cook for them (Murcott, pp. 164–171, 172–177).
The Limitations of Structure
The investigations alluded to thus far are highly ethno-centric, useful for elaborating the parameters of the structural model of meal-based food consumption but limited in geographical scope. These studies also suffer from criticism of their over-reliance on evidence from studies of traditional working-class/blue-collar communities and families; an exaggeration of the extent to which women are the main providers and preparers of food, as these activities become much more democratically organized; and a failure to analyze the decline in meal taking and rise in snacking, or grazing.
Arguments supporting the decline of the meal have received impetus in the thesis of George Ritzer that the global fast-food franchise McDonald's has been in the vanguard of the rationalization both of cuisine and of social life more generally. For Ritzer, the interplay between technology and food production has led to fragmentation of private and public food consumption. In fact, Ritzer's early work on McDonald's and "McDonaldization" is the summation of an extensive literature on fast food arguing similar themes (Leidner, 1993). Implicit in Ritzer's analysis is a view of American domestic cuisine at odds with research on the British experience. The relative absence, however, of parallel detailed studies of food in American domestic life makes it difficult to assess uniformity and diversity of the meal-taking experience in the United States.
It was noted earlier that social scientific study of food and eating is a relatively young and under-researched field. Nowhere is this more true than in the study of dining out. The early work of Campbell-Smith (1967) promulgated the concept of the "meal experience" whereby customer satisfaction in dining out was attributed to multiple environmental factors and not food choice and quality alone. This view is probably no longer tenable. Studies of the restaurant "meal experience" suggest that consumers prioritize available food choice, price, and quality when dining out. According to researcher Joanne Finkelstein, dining out is a mannered act in which the participants rarely derive much enjoyment, since the very act of engaging in restaurant dining entails consumers subordinating themselves to the rituals and imperatives of the establishment, a condition Finkelstein calls "uncivilised sociality." Her analysis has attracted supporters (see Wood, 1995), but also detractors, whose own multi-method studies emphatically show consumer control and enjoyment of dining out. They also reject the arguments of theorists who argue that domestic dining and dining out have increasingly converged.
This convergence takes the form of public menus reflecting more and more the structured dining of the home with greater similarity of offerings and a concomitant overall reduction in the choices available to consumers. This "interpenetration" of private and public dining is supported by advances in technology, which have increasingly allowed foods eaten in the public domain to be purchased at the supermarket and consumed at home. Warde and Martens (2000) at least partially reject this view, instead concurring with Mennell (1985) that increasing variety is indeed a feature of public and private dining and claiming that writers such as Wood have exaggerated trends in convergence and the reduction of choice. This is despite finding some evidence of considerable similarities with domestic food consumption in the structure of meals taken outside the home.
Public to Private Again
Warde and Martens's arguments are often contentious but they set the pattern for future explorations of Western public food consumption in empirically grounded studies of actual consumer behavior. At the same time, a note of caution can usefully be sounded. The concept of meal and related structures as described in this article have for the most part been empirically demonstrated by reference to Anglo-American standards. Yet, similar structures (such as the centerpiece, carbohydrate staple, and dressing) compose many meal formats around the world even if they do not precisely mirror the "cooked dinner." Variation may not, in fact, be so great, since many cultures follow the stew or "ragout" model, combining centerpiece and dressing, and sometimes combining these with a carbohydrate staple (such as curries or certain pasta dishes), while others observe the carbohydrate "base" model (as found in pizzas, tacos, fajitas), where food is placed on the staple or enclosed within it.
Through the work of theorists of the latter half of the twentieth century, a social scientific study of the meal has emerged and, employing various models of structure, has advanced considerably. But many more diverse empirical studies remain to be done before we can gain confidence in any assertions about this fascinating and fundamental aspect of human existence.
See also British Isles; Carbohydrates; Class, Social; Combination of Proteins; Custard and Puddings; Dinner; Etiquette and Eating Habits; Fast Food; Food Studies; Gender and Food; Gravy; Holidays; Household; Lunch; Meat; Petronius; Potato; Restaurants; Sociology; Table Talk; Take-out Food; Tea (Meal).
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Campbell-Smith, Graham. The Marketing of the Meal Experience. London: Surrey University Press, 1967.
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Wood, Roy C. The Sociology of the Meal. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995.
Wood, Roy C., ed. Strategic Questions in Food and Beverage Management. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000.
Roy C. Wood
meal1 / mēl/ • n. any of the regular occasions in a day when a reasonably large amount of food is eaten, such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. ∎ the food eaten on such an occasion: a perfectly cooked meal.PHRASES: meals on wheels meals delivered to elderly people or invalids who are unable either to prepare meals or have meals otherwise provided.ORIGIN: Old English mǣl (also in the sense ‘measure,’ surviving in words such as piecemeal ‘measure taken at one time’), of Germanic origin. The early sense of meal involved a notion of fixed time; compare with Dutch maal ‘meal, (portion of) time’ and German Mal ‘time,’ Mahl ‘meal,’ from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to measure.’meal2 • n. the edible part of any grain or pulse ground to powder, such as cornmeal. ∎ any powdery substance made by grinding: herring meal.