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How Many Daily Meals Did We Once Eat?

An elaborate buffet at the Ellicott Club in Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1901.
Library of Congress
An elaborate buffet at the Ellicott Club in Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1901.

For several years now, a popular purveyor of tacos has suggested that Americans who get the munchies late at night are participating in a contemporary dining ritual called "Fourthmeal."

New research from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., suggests that Americans eat throughout most of their waking hours, the Los Angeles Times reports. But the notion of taking more than three meals a day just might have some historical precedence.

Here and there in old newspapers and books we find mentions of something called "second supper" or, as Shakespeare referred to it, a "rere," or subsequent, supper.

  • In Oakland, Calif., for instance, the local Tribune reported on April 19, 1884, that Mrs. F.G. Beckett of East Oakland held a "musicale" at her home. She invited young and old folks alike. The youngsters performed musical pieces for the oldsters, then everybody sat down to a "delicious supper." The young people went home, but "the elderly members of the assembly remained and dancing became the order of the evening." At 11 o'clock, the reporter noted, "a second supper was served to the older guests."
  • The elite society of Newport, R.I., gathering at the opulent home of Grace Vanderbilt — according to the Indianapolis News of Aug. 26, 1902 — enjoyed a late-night production of a musical comedy, a second supper and "then general dancing until morning."
  • Writing in the 1848 Frank Forester's Field Sports of the United States, William Henry Herbert suggested that the bird known as the rail makes for "capital eating." He recommended drinking red wine when eating rail cooked in its own gravy. "He shall sit lightly on your stomach, even if partaken at a rere supper."
  • So did Americans used to eat four meals a day? The answer, as it turns out, may be yes ... and no.

    Four Squares

    "I don't know that second suppers were ever widespread," says food historian Helen Zoe Veit, who teaches at Michigan State University. "For one thing, being up so late in the first place would suggest that people eating a late-night supper, unlike most 19th century Americans, weren't having to get up early in the morning to work. For another thing, having a second supper before widespread electrification would have been something of a luxury since it would have required having enough fuel to illuminate a room well after sundown."

    Veit says that like the examples above, "most of the time I've seen a mention of a 'second supper' it's been as a social event — a special meal eaten at the end of a party or after coming back from an outing —rather than as a normal part of a four-meal-a-day schedule."

    In the 18th and early 19th centuries, she explains, "Americans regularly ate a light supper as their evening meal because they were eating dinner — the biggest meal of the day — around noon."

    The main reason this started to change, she says, "was that more Americans were working outside of the home and farm, so they couldn't readily return home to cook and eat in the middle of the day."

    As for a fourth meal, some Americans, she adds, "did eat a separate meal first thing in the morning, when they would have quickly eaten cold leftovers before doing a few hours of work, only sitting down later in the morning to a larger, hot breakfast ."

    Which may partially explain why that certain taco hawker decided last year to roll out a new menu — for breakfast.

    Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing

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    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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