Nicola here. Today I’m thinking about food. (Again! I think I blogged on a similar topic last time. Hmm… I do graze when I am writing so maybe that’s why food is in my mind.) Today, though, my subject is luncheon. Where I come from in the North of England it was customary to have “dinner” in the middle of the day – at lunchtime in fact – and have “tea” in the evening. We didn’t have “lunch”. In this respect we were carrying on a tradition that went back hundreds of years. Back in the Middle Ages one ate breakfast first thing in the morning. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was in the middle of the day around noon, and supper was between four and six pm. This schedule might vary a little depending on the hours of daylight, the demands of work and whether one was rich enough to afford artificial lighting in the evenings but the names of meals and their times were fairly standard.
So where did luncheon, or nuncheon, as it was known for a while come from? There are references to nuncheon as early as the 16th century. The word probably derived from noon and schench meaning a drink taken at noon. Luncheon was first used in 1652 but not shortened to "lunch" until 1829.
Luncheon or nuncheon was an extra meal, slotted in between breakfast and dinner. Peasants working long hours in the fields might be given a nuncheon of bread and ale to keep them going to dinnertime if they had risen at first light. By the 18th century ladies whose husbands were busy all day with political or sporting commitments might move dinner back to five or even six pm and then take a light nuncheon in the middle of the day to stave off the hunger pangs. It was the sort of snack one might stop for briefly on a long journey, as this reference to it from Sense and Sensibility in 1811 shows: "I left London this morning at eight o'clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time procured me a nuncheon at Marlborough." Cold meat, salads and ale could be procured in most inns. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth and Maria Lucas take nuncheon on the way home to Longbourn from Hunsford.
By the Georgian era in England, the hours for all the meals had been pushed back considerably, at least for those who were in the leisured classes. With evening entertainment and artificial lighting, people were rising later and taking their breakfasts at ten am or even noon, hence the fact that “morning” calls were often paid after breakfast in the afternoon. They took dinner at the fashionable hour of six pm and supper between nine pm and two am. Often supper was part of the evening’s entertainment, laid on by the hostess of a concert or ball.
By the turn of the nineteenth century it was not unusual for dinner to be as late as 7pm in town. “Country hours” with dinner at 4pm were still adhered to across a large part of England though. Many city dwellers looked down their nose at this unfashionable practice. In the towns as the time between breakfast and dinner lengthened, people were feeling hungry in the middle of the day. By 1810, luncheon was a regular meal. At least it was for society ladies. The nature of luncheon would vary from simple cakes and pastries (also available if you were out shopping) to a buffet of cold meats, cheese, pies, pickles, jam and preserves with tea, wine or ale to drink.
Unlike dinner, lunch was not a formal meal to which one would generally invite guests although if visitors turned up requiring refreshments a hostess might put on quite a spread of cold dishes and desserts. Lunch was also not something men were accustomed to eating. When the Prince of Wales started to make a habit of taking lunch with ladies he was ridiculed for both his gargantuan appetite and his effeminate habits. When Lord Sandwich called for a sandwich it was not because he wanted lunch; he needed a snack to keep him gambling through the night. Luncheon was most definitely not for the boys.
Meanwhile the middle and lower classes were still taking dinner at noon. Their meals were dictated by their work patterns and there was no room for lunch. This started to change with the industrial revolution. As people started to have further to travel to their place of work they began to carry a light snack with them for the middle of the day and take their dinner in the evening. An ideal food for this light meal was the aforementioned sandwich. First invented in 1726 by John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich (and what a pity they didn't paint him with one in his hand!) it had arisen because Sandwich wanted to eat bread, meat and cheese but still keep one hand free to hold his cards. The other players saw the way the earl placed the cheese and meat within two slices of of bread and asked for the same type of food, calling it “Sandwich’s”. It took a hundred years before the invention started to feature in the recipe books though. Interestingly Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary defined luncheon as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”
The popularity of the light luncheon was boosted by the idea of the picnic. The word first appeared in English in 1748 and like the sandwich it was associated with card playing, drinking and conversation. The picnic could also be taken outdoors, usually in connection with a hunting expedition. Early in the 19th century a group of fashionables established the picnic club, which met at the Pantheon in Oxford Street. They formed an orchestra and the “picnic” was a combination of entertainment and a cold buffet.
These days, of course, we have a number of meals. Breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. Our mealtimes, their names and the food we eat at them can be as variable as we like. I enjoy very much a summer picnic with cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and home made lemonade though this could be at lunchtime or in the evening.
Are you a fan of the sandwich? Do you enjoy a light lunch or picnic? And are there any Regency or Georgian set books you've read where the luncheon (or nuncheon) features in the story?