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Three Squares: The Invention of the American…

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

by Abigail Carroll

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It may seem like the idea of three meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – have been a part of American life since the beginning. In actuality, however, our current foodways took hundreds of years to solidify into what they are today.

In the times before the Industrial Revolution when most of the United States was agrarian, lunch was a much more important meal with heartier dishes that could sustain manual labor for the rest of the day. Meals mainly consisted of stews, called pottages, as these could be made easily in a large pot over a fire. Not until the late 1700s, taking cues from the British, did Americans begin to serve meat, vegetables, and grains separately on a single plate.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold and more people moved from working on farms to working in factories, eating lunch at home became more difficult. People had to eat smaller meals that they could easily carry to work and eat between shifts. At this point, dinner became more important because it was the only time of the day when the whole family could gather together for a meal.

Historically, snacking was problematic because it might spoil ones appetite for dinner and threaten the togetherness of the family. Beginning in the early 1900s, commercially and mass produced foods began to creep into American life. As these foods became more ubiquitous, the idea of snacking began to change, in no small part due to advertising.

In the conclusion, the author makes a succinct and insightful statement. “How we eat in the future will reflect who we are today, and how we eat today will determine in part who we will become tomorrow. Whether we know it or not, the state of the American meal is in our hands” (p. 219).
1 vote Carlie | Apr 9, 2019 |
Over-long academic thesis on the "American" meal. This seemed like a great topical book about the meals that US (or "American" as the author uses). Why three meals? How did it become to be? How will the meal change? It started off really well, apparently as a project on the concept of the "snack." The author chose to expand it on the history of meals, mealtimes and more in the US.
Unfortunately while this could have been so much more, this book really reads like an too long thesis or magazine article that had been padded to fill out the book. I knew it was bad when I began flipping pages and seeing just walls and walls and walls of text. More pictures scattered throughout the book (instead of the usual set in about midway through the text) would have been helpful. For example, the author discusses the evolution of bowls and plates from bread to actual wooden pieces. However, they don't look like what we use today, obviously, so some sort of illustration would have been great.
It also would have been helpful if the approach had been different: for some reason the author sticks mostly meal by meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and mostly a historical retelling. As other reviewers note, there is a focus on how the British and French influenced meals but very little discussion about immigrants and how the foods and customs they brought changed and developed mealtimes and the content of the meals themselves. "Fast food" gets mentioned, but mostly prior to the rise of McDonald's and the like--McDonald's itself has an entry in the index that redirects the reader to another topic (!).
I couldn't help but compare this to another recent food book I read, Soul Food. I liked how the author there compared specific items of soul food, but organized it by the history, the changes over time, and how they were cooked. And while in this book takes a much broader view (instead of one specific cuisine within the American diet) I thought author Carroll could have really taken a page or two from there (although Soul Food was published one month before).
It's really too bad, because as a concept this would be a fantastic read. But it really needs more research in some areas, and perhaps dividing the entire book into thirds (or more) for each meal). As a resource this probably isn't a bad book to consult, but if you're looking for how fast food/food trucks changed how the regular worker gets their lunch or the movement towards natural/organic/non-GMO foods have influenced buying and eating habits, etc. the reader will have to go elsewhere.
Got it from the library and would recommend someone do the same unless they need it for a paper. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
A great social history of the ultimate social event - eating.

This book traces the development of the American meal, from the messy subsistance meals of the colonists to the more genteel English-insprired meals, from French influences in the multiple-course meal, to a midday "dinner" that turned into the quick lunch of today.


It's all here, from how utensils and plates developed, how snacking and TVs affected the picture, and more. As with most things "American," the influences came from all over, and got turned into a unique national style.

Whether your breakfast is tea and toast, or coffee, eggs, bacon and pancakes, Carroll explains how you got there.

See more of my reviews on Ralphsbooks. ( )
  ralphz | Apr 6, 2017 |
While the author has a variety of topics she wants to consider in this examination of American food ways, the real point is to consider the social freight that particular meals have carried. To put it another way, Ms. Carroll started out writing a history of the American snack, but found that if she really wanted to write about the snack she'd have to write about dinner. So in the war between the snack and dinner, while the snack, with its emphasis on convenience and cheapness seems to be carrying the day, Carroll winds up with the reminder that none of our conventions about appropriate eating are set in stone and that there is a viable median state between the poles of rigidly following a fixed set of meal times and giving into to ad hoc convenience. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jan 4, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465025528, Hardcover)

We are what we eat, as the saying goes, but we are also how we eat, and when, and where. Our eating habits reveal as much about our society as the food on our plates, and our national identity is written in the eating schedules we follow and the customs we observe at the table and on the go.

In Three Squares, food historian Abigail Carroll upends the popular understanding of our most cherished mealtime traditions, revealing that our eating habits have never been stable—far from it, in fact. The eating patterns and ideals we’ve inherited are relatively recent inventions, the products of complex social and economic forces, as well as the efforts of ambitious inventors, scientists and health gurus. Whether we’re pouring ourselves a bowl of cereal, grabbing a quick sandwich, or congregating for a family dinner, our mealtime habits are living artifacts of our collective history—and represent only the latest stage in the evolution of the American meal. Our early meals, Carroll explains, were rustic affairs, often eaten hastily, without utensils, and standing up. Only in the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution upset work schedules and drastically reduced the amount of time Americans could spend on the midday meal, did the shape of our modern “three squares” emerge: quick, simple, and cold breakfasts and lunches and larger, sit-down dinners. Since evening was the only part of the day when families could come together, dinner became a ritual—as American as apple pie. But with the rise of processed foods, snacking has become faster, cheaper, and easier than ever, and many fear for the fate of the cherished family meal as a result.

The story of how the simple gruel of our forefathers gave way to snack fixes and fast food, Three Squares also explains how Americans’ eating habits may change in the years to come. Only by understanding the history of the American meal can we can help determine its future.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:35 -0400)

The story of how the simple gruel of our forefathers gave way to snack fixes and fast food, "Three Squares" also explains how Americans' eating habits may change in the years to come.

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