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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

Abigail Carroll

(Basic; US: Sep 2013)

Why do Americans eat cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and steaks for dinner? How did prohibition “save” pretzels? When did dining rooms first appear in the average American home? Why did the Brothers Kellogg quarrel over cornflakes? What breakfast foods were once considered “biblical”?


These are the kinds of questions Abigail Carroll answers in Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Beginning in 1704 with the Mohawk Indians and moving forward to present day, Carroll looks at how breakfast, lunch, and dinner became the breakfast, lunch, and dinner most Americans are familiar with today. 


The book is full of fun facts. My personal favorite: a study found “that participants offered an assortment of three hundred M&Ms in ten colors ate 43 percent more of the candies than those given the same number in only seven colors.” Also interesting is a reference to a ‘20s-era cookbook that includes “over thirty peanut butter [sandwich] combinations, including peanut butter and apricot; peanut butter and tomato; peanut butter, cheese, and lettuce; peanut butter and egg; peanut butter and ham; and peanut butter and pickle”. 


Cornflakes, by the way, were divisive because one of the Kellogg’s brothers wanted to add more sugar (which would increase the stability and improve the taste of the product) but the other brother was more concerned about “nutritional purity”. Dining room tables (along with dining rooms) became norm in the mid-19th century, and at this time, grain was often the “biblically sanctioned” breakfast choice.


The quotes are often equally entertaining. American food, apparently, has always been something to poke fun at. In 1877, a European musician stated “nothing is easier than to eat a meal in the French, Italian, Spanish or German style. Nothing is more difficult… than to eat an American dinner in America.” A few years later a Frenchman noted “In England lunch means something. In America, it does not.”


Carroll also supplies interesting anecdotes, such as one with President Millard Fillmore and his wife, Abigail, who are “credited with modernizing the White House” by installing a cookstove in 1850. One problem—the staff hated it and “walked off the job in protest” and “only after the president himself went to the patent office to learn how to control the heat distribution did the head chef agree to use it.”


This anecdote also highlights an important theme in the book: how things—food items, food trends, food technologies—became accepted in American society. Carroll explains how meals went from being primarily functional situations where people didn’t sit around a table or engage in much conversation to more social occasions. She notes the obstacles (primarily work and school) to the traditional midday meal and shows how Americans moved to (and to be truthful invented) the quick and informal lunch most are probably still familiar with today.

One chapter is dedicated to the evolution of snack foods. Considering that Carroll originally planned on writing a book devoted entirely to snacking, it’s not surprising that this chapter is one of the highlights of the book. She reveals that in 2008, Americans spent $68.1 billion on snack foods, a food choice that 100 years earlier was considered dirty and only fit for the poor who had no choice but to eat their food on the street. Carroll shows how peanuts and hotdogs moved from circuses and ball games to the home, how hors d’oeuvres made it possible for people to entertain without servants, and the correlation between snacking and television.


And how did prohibition “save” pretzels? After it became illegal to offer free lunches, bars placed out bowls of pretzels. Their saltiness made them perfect drinking snacks, but the connection between drinking and pretzels gave pretzels a less than savory reputation. During World War I, pretzels took another hit: many Americans associated them with Germany. But that hit was nothing compared to what happened during prohibition: no beer, no pretzels. 


In the end, though, Carroll notes “But the pretzel’s downfall was actually its salvation. When the country went dry in 1920, pretzel manufacturers had to come up with new ways to entice Americans…They curried favor with housewives by advertising the twisted dough as a healthful children’s snack rich in minerals”. And it worked. Pretzel consumption doubled during prohibition, and once the booze was legal again, pretzel sales continued to grow. Soon they were hailed as the only thing to eat with tuna-fish salad, and Americans were also indulging in pretzel soup, lollipops, and pie crusts.


While the book is often fun, it does explore more serious issues. Carroll references nutrition in several places, and she discusses it more fully in the last chapter, “The State of the American Meal”. In this chapter, Carroll also notes “that children who eat family meals regularly have lower body mass indexes, and are less likely to smoke, use drugs, abuse alcohol, develop depression, and struggle with eating disorders. In short family meals have a surprisingly protective quality—some have even called them a kind of vaccine.” And (even without reading Carroll’s book) most Americans probably know that family meals are quickly becoming a thing of the past.


Carroll packs a lot of information into Three Squares. And while it might be a little dense in places, Carroll still creates an engaging book, where research and facts are balanced with stories about individual people and products. Some of the conclusions might be a little commonsensical, e.g., Americans needed to start eating smaller breakfasts when they stopped doing so much physical labor, but her final point is intriguing: “Why chart the future of the American meal? Why not let it determine its own course? Because the shape of a meal is also the shape of society.”

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