What’s for lunch? Midday meal has grown into a distinct event

by Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Jul 17, 2013 - 02:49 PM

Photo: This Thai dish and sushi lunch combo from Bangkok Noi in Gloucester was created by Chefs JJ and Peter. It includes chicken, Pad See-ew, fried rice and three Nigiris—spicy tuna, spicy salmon and California roll. Photo by Anna Lynch

This Thai dish and sushi lunch combo from Bangkok Noi in Gloucester was created by Chefs JJ and Peter. It includes chicken, Pad See-ew, fried rice and three Nigiris—spicy tuna, spicy salmon and California roll. Photo by Anna Lynch

This meal we call lunch has a complex definition. We call it lunch, a word used since 1823, but its name is an abbreviation of luncheon which the Oxford English Dictionary of 1580 defines as a meal that was inserted between more substantial meals. In 1755 Samuel Johnson had defined it "as much food as one’s hand can hold."

The New York Public Library’s Lunch Hour NYC exhibition stated, "It was around 1850 when lunch became a regular fixture between breakfast and dinner."

By the turn of the century, lunch was taking place between 12 and 2 o’clock, more or less. It was finally a real meal associated with certain times, foods, and places. Lunch can be snacks, a full meal or pick-ups, and it doesn’t have to include a hot dish as our grandmother always insisted that it did.

During the 19th century when the workplace was removed farther from home, working people began providing themselves with something portable to eat at a scheduled break in the middle of the day. The lunch pail was adopted by the late 1800s. Even children copied the idea and made their own lunch pails out of tin boxes that used to hold cookies or tobacco. The first character-licensed lunch box came out in 1935; it featured Mickey Mouse.

In New York City, being the country’s leader for many years in what was new in foods, the first Automat that dispensed sandwiches, hot dishes and dessert through coin-operated compartments opened in 1912 (and stayed in operation until 1991). When wrapped sliced bread first appeared in 1930 it made sandwiches a lunch for everyone.