Culinary Confusion

by Seán on December 1, 2006

by Seán | December 1st, 2006  

dinnerSo there is one thing here in Ireland that, until today, I have been quite confused about: the names for meals.

Don’t get me wrong, the terms breakfast, lunch and dinner are used here, but so is “tea” (to refer to a meal). And what about “supper,” the term I grew up using interchangeably with “dinner?”

So what means what?

Well, today a coworker of mine asked me if a local cafe served dinner. I told her that I was certain they closed around 5pm; she was out of luck. She frowned at me, obviously confused by my answer. She passed that confusion back to me when she explained that she was looking for her afternoon meal at the cafe. Thus began a protracted conversation about the terms used for meals in Ireland.

Another anecdote: my great-aunt Kay in Dublin would always need someone to go around to bring her an evening meal. My cousins referred to this meal as “tea.” I know it wasn’t just a hot drink she was having, but certainly food as well. Now, I was familiar with the custom in Ireland of stopping work at 10am for a tea break – that’s called “tea” as well (but this didn’t seem to correlate to my aunt’s evening meal). I was also familiar with the origins of the 4pm meal begun in England a few hundred years ago when the British India Company’s tea imports began to have some semblance of regularity; a meal also called “tea.” I think it’s this that has somehow evolved in Ireland into the practise of referring to one’s evening meal (always served well after 4pm) as “tea.”

Well, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

So what about this use of “dinner” instead of “lunch?” Well, it would appear that if one goes for “lunch” in Ireland, it’s a smaller meal, usually a sandwich. If one goes for a hot meal with meat, potatoes and veggies (for example), THAT would be called a “dinner.”

Not so fast – if one would have such a large, prepared meal in the evening that would also be called a “dinner.”

So, “dinner” in Ireland refers to the type of food being eaten, not necessarily WHEN it’s eaten. A “dinner” may be had in the afternoon or the evening. “Lunch” refers both to the time and type of food being eaten: a light afternoon meal. A light meal served after four in the evening is a “tea” (the British 4pm meal with cucumber sandwiches, in case you’re wondering, is called a “high tea”).

So far, so good. Lunch, dinner and tea – got it.

“Supper” then. Simple: not used. You’d be considered ridiculously posh to refer to your evening meal as “supper.”

“Brunch,” you may ask? Nope. Not used. Weellllll, maybe occasionally used in posh restaurants in Dublin or something – but that’s the US’s influence and definately not a common Irish thing.

So, here’s a rundown of the average Irish day of eating:

Most folks in Ireland traditionally worked with their hands – hungry work on the farm or in the field. So, traditionally, a body would get up early and have breakfast; a hearty meal to get him going for the day. Then, around 10 or 11 the worker would stop for a cup of tea; tea. Later in the afternoon he would return home and have a meal that was hot and almost invariably involved potatoes and sometimes meat; dinner. After the day’s work was done, there would be a light evening meal, also called “tea.”

This is where the names for meals come from in Ireland. Like everything else, this is changing with the times. The Irish workers afternoon meal is becoming smaller and shorter, in line with office culture worldwide. “Lunch” is used a lot more often to refer to this meal, regardless of what is being eaten. Larger, hot evening meals are becoming more common as well – moving the term “dinner” more exclusively to the end of the day.

{ 1 trackback }

Shack Lunch - Places to Eat - Athlone, dinner, irish pub food - Ireland Logue
March 24, 2007 at 3:37 pm

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: