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What do you call your evening meal: dinner, tea or supper?

13 April 2012
What do you call your evening meal: dinner, tea or supper?
What do you call your evening meal: dinner, tea or supper?

‘Tea’: a main meal, or something that should include scones?

‘Dinner’: a midday meal, like ‘school dinners’, or what we eat around 7pm?

‘Supper’: a bowl of cornflakes before bed, or a proper evening meal?

No-one agrees. At lovefood HQ, two of us call our evening meal ‘tea’, and the other two call it ‘dinner’. Of the two who call it ‘tea’, one comes from Manchester and the other has a very influential mother from Staffordshire. So it’s a north-ish/south divide thing, yes?

Posh nosh

tea
tea

No. Not according to Kate Fox, who in her book Watching the English (2004) related what we call our evening meal directly to our class. She concludes:

Tea: If you call it tea, and eat it around 6:30pm, you are very likely to be working class. The higher classes use ‘tea’ to mean ‘afternoon tea’ (a working class word), which consists of tea, cake, scones (pronounced with a short ‘o’), and dainty sandwiches.

Dinner: It is only the “higher echelons” of English society who call it ‘dinner’. [Perhaps Heston Blumenthal’s latest restaurant wouldn’t be so pricey, had he called it ‘Tea’ instead]. Referring to your midday meal as dinner is considered a “working-class hallmark”.

Supper: If you call your informal, family evening meal ‘supper’ (pronounced ‘suppah’), you are probably upper-middle or upper class. ‘Dinner’ for those same people is used for more formal evening meals. Who'd have thought nosh could be so posh...

Kitchen supper

maude
maude

God help a foreigner invited to ‘tea’. Do you turn up at 6:30pm ready for a feast, or 4pm with jam and cream? Kate advises that you ask what time you are expected; “the answer will help you to place your hosts on the social scale”. Crumbs. Are we really so judged by what we call tea/dinner/supper?

MP Francis Maude certainly was, when he referred to David Cameron’s recent dinner-with-the-donors saga as a mere “kitchen supper”. Apparently a ‘kitchen supper’ is quick, straightforward food with no first course. We can’t really imagine Cameron entertaining with chicken kiev – can you?

Luncheon

ploughman
ploughman

We haven’t mentioned lunch. What does it say about me if I use the word lunch or, heaven forbid, ‘luncheon’? A few facts:

1. The word ‘lunch’ has been around since the 1820s, and is taken from the more formal word ‘lunchentach’ – a meal aimed to fill the gap between more substantial feasting.

2. The upper-class English enthusiastically adopted the word in the 19th century, when ladies whose husbands would eat at their gentlemen’s club took the opportunity to lunch with each other. And lunch was still referred to as a meal “given by and for women” in Emily Post’s Etiquette, published in 1945.

3. A ‘ploughman’s lunch’ (cheese, cooked meat, pickle and bread) is class-less, apparently. It was the brainchild of the-then Milk Marketing Board, which promoted the meals nationally to boost sales of cheese.

In conclusion

We don’t know what to think. Kate Fox seems pretty certain that it’s a class issue; but what about the influence of parents or friends? And perhaps some people just don’t like the word ‘supper’? And there must be some regional aspect, given that everyone in Coronation Street calls it ‘tea’, whereas it’s ‘dinner’ down south in EastEnders.

What do YOU call it?

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