Growing up in the rural South, you would hear people use one of two words to describe the noon or the evening meal. As I’ve gotten older, the words seemed to be used interchangeably for both meals. Dinner, Supper, or Lunch, it’s enough to confuse any (Non) Southerner. I’m here to set the record straight.
We’re all products of our upbringing, and in my house, we used the terms breakfast, lunch, and supper to refer to the three major meals of the day. The words were straightforward, and the meaning of each was simple to understand. And I was indeed familiar with the term “dinner,” often associating it with dinner parties, or more formal meals served when my parents entertained other adults.
When I moved into my college freshman dorm, some phrases and words used by my new friends perplexed me, and one of the most confusing was when someone asked if I wanted to eat dinner when it was time for lunch. He grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. Recently I discussed with someone about the correct use of these words and which ones best described our daily dining experiences. Our conversation concluded with no agreement on what to call each meal. That’s when I decided to research the subject and conduct my own (un)scientific poll.
We’ll deal with dinner first. Understanding the words meaning may help us decide what to name our meals. According to the online version of Webster’s Dictionary, the principal meal of the day is dinner. Another definition is “a formal feast or banquet.” But wait, sometimes my main meal is breakfast, but let’s agree we’re talking about either of the two later meals.
Supper, well that’s a bit more complicated. The meaning of supper is the last meal when dinner is taken earlier or used to describe a social event such as a “church supper.”
Besides a regional divide, there is also a generational difference in how we describe mealtimes. Older people, especially those in rural areas, typically announce that “Supper’s ready,” at the end of the day. I’m assuming they already had dinner earlier in the day.
I recall touring an antebellum home in Charleston, South Carolina several years ago and our guide explaining the family enjoyed their principal meal around 3 p.m. each day. The men of the house typically left early in the morning to ride out to their plantations to supervise their workers. They would arrive home in mid-afternoon, starved because they had not eaten much all day and were ready for a large, more formal meal with their family. Several hours later and just before bedtime, small snacks such as fruit was served to tide everyone over until morning.
In our modern farm era, many times the most substantial meal is served around noon to keep everyone nourished the rest of the day. However, the vast majority of us that don’t work on farms or perform manual labor still call the two to three meals we partake of daily by some word, and I’m still not sure which is correct since my primary or primary meal varies daily.
My friend Shea Goldstein of DixieChikCooks.com uses the slogan, “A Southern Belle who’s thinking of what’s for dinner while eating lunch.” I understand that phrase; I think.
As I was finishing this article, I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi, where some of the best southern dishes in the universe originate. I felt confident this controversy could be solved here. It just so happens I ran into Annie King and Lauran Ellis near Oxford’s downtown square. I thought these two twenty-something professionals might agree on the issue given their similar backgrounds and the fact they’re both expecting in the coming months, which means they’re most likely always thinking about food.
Lauran said her parents used lunch and supper to describe their meals and she does the same. Yes!, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Annie’s husband grew up in East Texas, saying his parents they also called the days two last meals lunch and supper. However…her parents said lunch and dinner, which she confirmed is how she and her husband refer to their mealtimes. Now we’re right back where we began – with no consensus on what to call our meals.
Here’s my dilemma. Earlier this week I had a light breakfast, a three-vegetable lunch at Ajax Diner and didn’t eat an evening meal (only grazing) so fitting “dinner” in my mealtime description wasn’t easy. The next morning I ate a sizeable first breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast, a sister restaurant to Oxford’s acclaimed City Grocery, that I’ve wanted to try for a while, and the plan was for that meal to be the days most significant since I had a tennis match later that evening.
Before leaving the restaurant, I asked my server how he and his family referred to their daily meals. Unfortunately, his response didn’t bring any clarity to my poll. His mom went in one direction, and he another.
Are you still confused? Me too, so I’m sticking to breakfast, lunch, and supper and I’ll keep dinner reserved for special occasions. So much for not “setting the record straight.”
Do you have a preference on what you call your meals?