- The Invention of the American Meal:An Interview with Abigail Carroll
In Recent Years the History of Food has become a major scholarly enterprise. A welcome addition to this expanding literature is Abigail Carroll’s Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (Basic Books, 2013). Carroll focuses more on how we eat than what we eat. She reveals that our eating patterns have never been stable and that our current eating habits are relatively recent inventions. Carroll is an author and food historian who has taught in the gastronomy program at Boston University and has published articles in a variety of publications, including the New York Times. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies from Boston University and makes her home in Vermont. Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed Carroll in October.
What has been the connection between meals and our identities as Americans?
Food has always been closely intertwined with identity, and our choices often serve as expressions of who we are in terms of class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and, of course, nationality. Corn, for instance, became symbolic of American identity in the late 1700s—think of Benjamin Franklin’s “Defense of Indian Corn” (1766) or Joel Barlow’s mock-epic poem “The Hasty Pudding” (1793). But in Three Squares I take this one step further and argue that meals, not just the particular foods that constitute them, serve as expressions of identity and help constitute our relationship not only with our actual families, but our national family. No meal exemplifies this better than Thanksgiving dinner, and the American dinnertime ideal of the 20th century looked to the Thanksgiving repast as its model.
What prompted you to write the book?
When I was conducting research on the relationship between snacking and obesity for a museum exhibition, I realized that no one had written in depth about the history of snacking. As someone who has always been interested in food and what it means to be American, I came to believe that a history of snacking would reveal fascinating insights into the historical formation of American identity. So I set out to write the book I envisioned, but as I delved into my research, I realized that the story of snacking is deeply entwined with the story of the meal—you can’t tell one without telling the other. So in Three Squares, I tell both.
What were eating occasions like in colonial America and the early republic?
Meals were mostly about refueling. Only later did they become important as occasions for teaching manners to children and for family bonding. For the vast majority of people in early America, eating occasions were informal, rustic, and not socially important. Many households lacked tables, chairs, and utensils, so households made do with laying a board on a trestle; sitting on a bench, stools, or crates; and relying on fingers and bread as utensil stand-ins. Joining the immediate family at many meals were hired help, apprentices, travelers, and extended kin. Since households tended to work together during the day to keep up the farm or artisanal family business, members did not feel the social need to catch up at meals, and conversation was commonly sparse.
Why was the most important meal in those times at noon?
Because of agrarianism and the centrality of the hearth. People rose very early and accomplished numerous chores even before a 7am breakfast. By 11am or noon they were ready for a substantial feed. Genteel colonists, who could afford to sleep in, dined later, often around 2pm. But agrarianism was not the only factor in the midday dinner. The hearth also played an important role. Preparing a hot meal meant the careful preparation of a kitchen fire and substantial labor over that fire. Such work lent itself well to the morning when the homemaker’s tasks could benefit from natural light. Cooking in the later afternoon or evening would have been difficult with the setting of the sun. Not only was artificial light (candles and oil lamps) a poor substitute for natural light, it represented a precious resource most homemakers went...