Sunday, March 9, 2014

Three Squares

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll

At some point in my adult life, I learned that not every culture had a concept of breakfast in the American sense. Lots of cultures had morning meals, but the idea of special foods for that meal was more unusual than not. I felt rather sorry for these societies - realizing full well that was a spectacular act of ethnocentrism on my part.

I turned to Three Squares to find some answers on why American dining is different. It's not a comparative work, although the American meal system is contrasted with the British and Native American styles in the colonial era and the French in the Victorian era. (One key point: Not only is having three meals a day not universal, the concept of a "meal" isn't even universal.) Rather, it's a historical effort, tracing the changes in American eating from colonial times to now.

The big takeaway for me was how differently Americans ate even 150 years ago. We tend to take our meal structure for granted, and even people who should be more creative with it, such as science fiction and fantasy writers for the page and screen, tend not to do anything more creative than promote teatime into a fourth meal.

The book is also full of some fun trivia. "Snack" and "lunch" used to mean the same thing - a snack. The "wonder" in Wonder Bread is that it is sliced. And one of the Kellogg brothers was excommunicated by the Seventh Day Adventist church for adding sugar to Corn Flakes.

Carroll has a PhD in American Studies, and it shows in the writing. The concepts and vocabulary aren't particularly academic and should be accessible to most readers, but the structure of each chapter has more in common with academic prose than creative nonfiction. Readers who don't read a lot of academic prose likely won't notice, though.

I would have liked to see more international comparisons, particularly as the book moved forward in time (are Canadian mealtimes in any way different? What about those Brits?). That said, that is my request, not the book she was trying to write, and to include that would have made it a much larger book.

The downside of this book? I've been wanting to eat nothing but breakfast for the last week.