The Mysterious History of the Fourth Meal – and Why it Might Be Coming Back

published Oct 23, 2015
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Most of us eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But this isn’t true all over the world, and it hasn’t always been the case even in America. Several historical references make mention of a mysterious fourth meal — a second or ‘reve’ supper.

Although we may think of our standard of three meals as the norm, it’s not just hobbits who eat more than three meals a day. People in Bavaria, Poland, and Hungary have second breakfast, and folks in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and some Spanish-speaking countries have a midmorning break called ‘elevenses‘. And the Brits, of course, have their afternoon tea, a light snack between lunch and dinner.

(This New York Times article makes mention of an American elevenses, but it wasn’t a meal per se — apparently Americans drank so much at the beginning of the 19th century that they needed a midmorning break for whiskey.)

NPR dug into our country’s culinary history a bit and found several references from the 19th and early 20th century to a second supper, eaten late at night. But food historian Helen Zoe Veit cautions that this probably wasn’t a common practice, since all the mentions of second supper are as part of entertainments at the home of wealthy people, and your average person would’ve been concerned with more mundane things, like getting to bed on time so they could get up for work the next morning. Also, in a time before electric lighting, staying up late meant burning extra oil or candles — an expensive proposition.

Another kind of fourth meal that was more widespread was a sort of pre-breakfast — some people (who presumably worked at home or close to it) would wake up, eat some cold leftovers, and then work for a couple of hours before sitting down to a nice, hot second breakfast.

Whether or not second supper was ever really a thing, all these references to late-night can’t help but remind of me of spending time at my parents’ house, sneaking bagel bites at midnight because eating dinner at 6pm just wasn’t going to cut it. I like to stay up late, whereas my parents are generally happy going to bed around 9:30 or 10 pm. Apparently I’m not the only one, because some people are trying to bring a late-night meal back.

Taco Bell tried to sell us on Fourthmeal in 2007, and even though they abandoned the campaign, there are plenty of entries for fourthmeal on Urban Dictionary, which seems to indicate some degree of cultural penetration. As in the 19th century, the second supper is still a custom particular to those whose privilege it is to stay up very late. But with more and more people working from home, and to some degree setting their own hours, second supper seems poised for a comeback.

What about you — do you find yourself snacking late at night? Or are three meals just plenty?

Read more about the second supper and its history at NPR.