Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

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by Abigail Carroll

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jenny Rosenstrach
Using the dinner plate as a mirror of one's identity isn't a novel concept, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. In the engrossing Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, Abigail Carroll lays down some historical context, reminding us that in America who you are and where you came from are less important than where you are now and where you hope to go—preferably as efficiently and in as well-packaged a form as possible.
Publishers Weekly
Why do we eat a large dinner at night instead of a mid-day meal followed by siesta as our European counterparts do? How did our custom of consuming orange juice and cold cereal become an American staple? These questions of “how, when, and why” of the distinctly American custom of consuming food is the subject of Carroll’s newest book. By tracing the history of sustenance throughout the history of the nation, from the earliest settlers to today, Carroll makes the argument that perhaps “our knives and forks may prove to be cultural tools more powerful than we have yet dared to dream.” Despite a well-researched and well-presented history of the concepts of the four main meal categories, “dinner, lunch, breakfast, and snack,” the book reads more as an exercise in tracing what has passed without persuasive data for what will occur in the future. There is definitely more that went into how and why Americans consume their food the way they do, as Carroll demonstrates. However, by adding a conclusion that fails to take into account the modern age, with globalization and an America with a larger focus on uniqueness/authenticity in its food market, the conclusion that there is one specifically American way of eating does not feel satisfactory. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Concord Monitor
“A fascinating, readable history.”

"An information-packed history of American eating habits… [An] enjoyable history of American food culture."

Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country & Coca-Cola and Uncommon Grounds
“In Three Squares, Abigail Carroll has filled a gaping hole in our fetish for food histories. There are books on peanut butter, pumpkins, pancakes, milk, fried chicken, chocolate—the list goes on—but now we have the big picture. Learn here how the Industrial Revolution, television, and Mad Men affected how, when, and what we eat. You’ll never look at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks the same way again.”

Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork
“I was enthralled by this account of how radically America’s meals have changed over time, from dinner pails to TV dinners. This vividly written book makes you see that the American way of life at any given moment has been formed by meals. We meet the ‘stander-uppers’ who ate quick cold working meals at lunch counters and the nineteenth-century critics who feared that six o’clock dinner would ‘destroy health.’ Three Squares shows that the tradition of an evening family meal, taken at a table, is a relatively recent innovation; but one with the power to improve not just our health but our vocabulary. ‘Family meals, it turns out, are more beneficial to children’s word banks than play or having adults read to them.’ With warmth and scholarship, Abigail Carroll persuades us that much depends on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as all the snacks in between.”

Barbara Haber, author of From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals
“As Abigail Carroll so skillfully explains, the pattern of American meals—three squares a day—is not a static entity but rather a social construction that has changed over time. By using imaginative sources and asking pertinent questions, Carroll traces not only the evolution of meals but of the people who have consumed them.”

Andrew F. Smith, author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine
“Why do Americans eat what we eat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Abigail Carroll examines the American meal from colonial times to the present in Three Squares, providing delicious insights along the way. Three Squares is superbly researched, delightfully written, packed with insights—and easy to digest!”

Warren Belasco, author of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, and Visiting Professor of Gastronomy, Boston University
“Combining scholarly rigor with lively storytelling, Abigail Carroll offers a fresh look at American culinary history. Resisting the nostalgia often associated with discussion of family meals, Carroll argues that American dining rituals are relatively modern and are constantly evolving to meet contemporary needs and values. This masterful synthesis will delight both professional scholars as well as newcomers to the exciting new field of food history. Highly recommended!”

Sandy Oliver, author of Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century
“With Three Squares, Abigail Carroll gives us a very long view of American dining habits, beginning with life in colonial times and ending in the 21st century. With sometimes startling descriptions of the ad hoc eating that occurred on either side of a main noon meal in our earliest years, we witness the impact of away-from-home work in industry and commerce that appropriated the middle of the day and left us with ‘cold, quick, and cheap lunches.’ The story of breakfast cereal and snack foods and the erosion of the properly set, middle-class dinner table with everyone minding their manners caps this fascinating narrative.”

Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School, and consultant to The Family Dinner Project
“You will never look at your three meals a day, or snacks throughout the day, the same way after you read this fascinating, well researched book. For anyone interested in food, this book is a must. It tells the historical stories and elucidates the business forces that underpin our current eating practices.”

Kirkus Reviews
An information-packed history of American eating habits. "We live in a food environment shaped by culture and history," writes Carroll in her first book, a heavily researched and wide-ranging history of American meals and snacking that takes us from colonial times to the present day. She begins with the "messy" simple meals of the early colonists and Native Americans, followed by the rise of more formal habits and dishes. Later chapters concentrate on the stories behind individual meals. Carroll discusses the transgressive status of snacking in relation to the sacred and patriotic family dinner; the invention of the fast and often cold lunch; and the evolution of breakfast from a simple meal to an indigestible meat-based feast to a lighter spread formed by modern marketing and convenience foods. She discusses home cooking, street food, restaurants, foreign influences, domestic management, kitchen technologies and utensils, the servant problem, and the roles of housewives, health reformers, nutrition scientists and marketers. She ends with a survey of the commonly described dysfunctions and trends of our current food culture, relating them to the past and encouraging a better awareness of our history so that we may make more conscious choices for ourselves. The rich variety of stories and information about the contents, structure, setting and meaning of American meals can be a little overwhelming, and general readers may want to take this book in small bites. On the other hand, there are many anecdotes to enliven the text, and much genuinely original and intriguing information throughout, from the cultivated fasting skills of Native Americans to the tidal wave of new snack foods flooding American life today. A dense but enjoyable history of American food culture.

Product Details

Basic Books
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Product dimensions:
9.40(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Abigail Carroll holds a PhD in American Studies, and her writing has appeared in a variety of journals and publications, including the New York Times. She lives in Vermont.

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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
sams-kitten More than 1 year ago
Three Squares Abigail Caroll The modern demise of the family dinner is much bemoaned these days. But how long has this really been a tradition? When did it start? Why did it happen? These and other questions are answered in fascinating detail in Three Squares. Caroll takes a historical view of thr American meal, beginning with pilgrim pottages and moving thru Victorian dinner parties and factory lunch pails to TV dinners and our current dinner habits. She draws on first-hand accounts of recipes and menus for a glimpse into what was considered acceptable dining across centuries of American gastronomic history. This book gives a broad view of dinner's development, illustrated with many interesting details. For example, did you know most pilgrims would've subsisted largely on one-pot meals of grain, suet and greens all boiled together (sounds awful!) Or that Thomas Jefferson was considered a bit odd for the variety of fruits and vegetables he grew at Monticello? Victorians threw elaborate dinner parties as measures of class and wealth but believed enjoying food too much was a moral weakness. Up until 100 years ago, steak was a popular breakfast food. All of these facts and more fit into an informative big picture story. Along the way, Caroll also writes about the roles of women/housewives towards food preparation. Our ideal of Mom making dinner for Dad when he comes home from work and the kids when they come home from school is actually a relatively recent concept, albeit a logical conclusion of the past 300 years of eating habits in America. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes food or books about food- or is just curious and wanting to learn something new. I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed myself in the process. Now let me make myself a snack....   You might like: Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan. At Home, Bill Bryson.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic read. Full of fun food nuggets to share with my friends and family!