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The invention of the American meal: Why we don’t eat pancakes for dinner (anymore)

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Jamie Weinstein
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      Jamie Weinstein

      Jamie Weinstein is Senior Editor of The Daily Caller. His work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, the New York Daily News and The Washington Examiner, among many other publications. He also worked as the Collegiate Network Journalism Fellow at Roll Call Newspaper and is the winner of the 2011 "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest. A regular on Fox News and other cable news outlets, Weinstein received a master’s degree in the history of international relations from the London School of Economics in 2009 and a bachelor's degree in history and government from Cornell University in 2006. He is the author of the political satire, "The Lizard King: The Shocking Inside Account of Obama's True Intergalactic Ambitions by an Anonymous White House Staffer."

Why do we eat three meals a day and where did Americans’ eating habits come from? Those are questions scholar Abigail Carroll seeks to explain in her new book, ”Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.”

“I originally planned to write a book on the history of snacking in America, not a book about the American meal,” Carroll explained to TheDC in an interview about her new book. “I soon learned, though, that the story of the snack is wrapped up in a larger story about the meal — you can’t tell one story without the other, so in ‘Three Squares’ I tell both.”

Carroll said our habit of eating three meals a day is a “cultural construction, not a biological necessity.”

“When European colonists and settlers came to North America, they brought with them a tradition of eating three meals a day, but they encountered Native Americans who more or less grazed throughout the day — eating when they pleased,” she said. “This appalled the Europeans, who saw regular, set meals as a mark of civilization and thought of grazing as primitive and animal-like. But Europeans had not always eaten three meals a day. During the medieval era, breakfast was looked down upon and many simply ate two meals a day. During the Roman era, there was a one-meal-a-day ideal. Why we landed on three meals is hard to say, but what we can say is that fixed meals — and three of them per day — are a cultural construction, not a biological necessity.”

So why, exactly, do we eat pancakes for breakfast and not for dinner? And why don’t we eat ice cream for breakfast?

“Actually, pancakes typically showed up as dessert or a special holiday dinner in the 1600s and 1700s — not as breakfast,” Carroll explained.

“The day before Lent known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday has also been called Pancake Tuesday because pancakes were a rich, festive food people made to use up their milk and eggs before they started fasting. The Dutch introduced pancakes to the colonies — as well as doughnuts and waffles — and only in the 1800s did they begin showing up for breakfast.”

“As for ice cream, well why not?” she added. “We seem to like eating dessert for breakfast!”

See below TheDC’s full interview with Carroll about her new book and the American meal:

Why did you decide to write the book?

I originally planned to write a book on the history of snacking in America, not a book about the American meal. I had been conducting research for a museum exhibit on why we eat the way we eat, and I couldn’t find the answers to my questions about the history of snacking in any history books. No one had written a book about snacking, and I thought, why not write it myself? I soon learned, though, that the story of the snack is wrapped up in a larger story about the meal — you can’t tell one story without the other: so in “Three Squares” I tell both.