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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

3.51  ·  Rating details ·  366 ratings  ·  65 reviews
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 o
Hardcover, 344 pages
Published September 10th 2013 by Basic Books (first published September 1st 2012)
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Daniel Cohen
Mar 03, 2014 rated it it was ok
With a suitably relentless editor, this could have been a terrific magazine article on how Americans came to eat what, when, and how we do. As it stands, it reads like a padded-out academic paper. Even though the book is a modest 219 pages (with a fat wad of endnotes and an extensive bibliography filling out another 80 or 90 pages), slogging through to the end became a chore.

Which is too bad -- I really had high hopes for this one. Setting aside the dry writing style and the tendency to repeat
Jan 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
I will be moderating a talk with this author at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April. So while this was "assigned reading," chances are I would have picked this up on my own given my interest. Carroll takes a look at the three meals, plus snacking, with a historical look plus an eye to the future. The next time you sit down to dinner and start with salad and end with dessert, that is a nod to our French ancestors! I found it compelling and quite readable for readers not into history and/or ...more
I'm sure there are more in-depth cultural studies, but Carroll did a good job of tying in the cultural movements and philosophies of American society through the centuries and showing how it affected prevailing attitudes about food. The chapter about snacking was especially entertaining and interesting to me, including the fact that pretzel sales went way, way down in the years of Prohibition, or that the Victorians (well, whatever we would call Americans of that era) considered snacking outside ...more
Dec 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
Unlike some food books that trace the story of a single food or ingredient, the book traces the story of what Americans eat from the arrival of the Europeans to New England to the present. Carroll states in the preface that she initially started to write a book on snacks, but it turned out that one can’t really talk about snacks without talking about meals. Thus the book spends quite a bit of time talking about dinner, lunch, and breakfast before getting the chapter (number 7 out of 8) about sna ...more
This will seem like an awful pun but this was a really meaty read. The book looks at the history of American meals and snacking and parallels the history of America itself. Meals met the needs to the times – from large, sustaining fueling for long farm days to quick, portable eats suitable for factory and other city workers. There were a few points where the work dragged a bit but I think that was less due to the writing then the fact there were sections that I already knew a bit about. Well res ...more
Diane Mueller
Dec 19, 2013 rated it liked it
I love to learn interesting facts about odd things and that is what keep me reading to the bitter end. Yet I found this to be one of the greatest books I ever read for insomnia. I could not get through a chapter without falling asleep. It was dry and it bounced all over the place. Lots of interesting facts but the format could of been much better.
The topic of this book is utterly fascinating - and there were some surprises in it, in regards to what you would assume to be a fact of history, but that isn't actually true.

However, this was written in a very dry and academic tone - it could have done with a co-author, one who is a bit better at writing narrative non-fiction.
Adam Avery
Oct 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Fantastically fun read full of food fact nuggets to share with friends.
Joyce Lee
Oct 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: research
I learned many interesting facts from this book about how the American meal has become what it is today. Even though Carroll had strate chalky organized the book into the evolution of of the meals we know today (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the snacking), I found that her subsections within each chapter a bit disorganized (hence the -1 Star). Rather than present facts chronologically, she would introduce different foods and their various timelines in a different order. I’ll be summarizing the b ...more
Jun 01, 2017 rated it liked it
I learned a lot of interesting things in this book (I had no idea that tables and chairs were very uncommon at the dawn of our country, and that the Victorians believed snacking was a sin), but the final chapter or so of the book came off kind of...preachy. It was talking about the rise of obesity, our obsession with snacking, and so on. Definitely things that tie into this book, but again, kind of preachy.

Also, a good half of the book is foot-notes, and references and so it wasn't really the le
Anson Cassel Mills
May 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
The thesis of this fine, well-researched discussion of American foodways is that modern dining behaviors are relatively modern. Perhaps because I’m not a connoisseur myself, I was most engaged by the early chapters, which describe the often rough-and-ready dining habits of the colonial and early national periods. Some of the later chapters seemed a bit labored to my taste, though there are interesting treats and tidbits throughout. The author has included a helpful summary of her arguments in th ...more
Rogue Reader
Nov 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: food-writing
Carroll started out writing of snacks and ended up with the full meal, all three of them and more. Nicely positions economic and industrial changes with respect to food, meal times and eating habits. International in scope but a US focus. A quick read with lots of footnotes, a great bibliography and a couple of photos.
Jan 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating and readable history of the evolution of the American meal pattern. The emergence of lunch and snacking, the change from grabbing on the go to sitting down together to grabbing on the go, and the use of psychology and biology to get us to eat more make for enjoyable reading.
Malinda Jane
It was a fine read, but it was sprawling. It seemed as though it was intended to be chronological in how it followed the trajectory of how meals evolved, but somehow became organized by type of meal. A bit rushed and not well laid out, but there were some interesting tidbits.
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this look at what, how, when and why Americans eat what we do (and did.) For me, it was just the right mix of scholarly evidence without becoming bogged down in footnotes. So interesting!
Alyson Chatterjee
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
As a fan of food and American history, this book married two of my favorite topics. Although I agree that it stands as a padded out academic work that requires focus and re-reading of certain lines to get profound ideas, I found it really interesting and enjoyable at the same time.
Mar 21, 2021 rated it liked it
This book appeals to me in the fact that I find meatiness and traditions interesting. But, the author lacks integration of facts in an interesting way. Sometimes I feel like I was reading a high school book report. And some information was contradicting.
Neato. I feel like there is a lot more food history there to be explored in other work but Carroll lays bare so many assumptions about meal timing and composition from early colonial to mid-90s/early-2000s.
Paul Friebus
Interesting content, but a pretty unexciting narrative style. The author really needed a better editor.
Kylie Briggs
May 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting but felt...I don't know, disjointed - not as engrossing as some other books I have read onn this topic ...more
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good lunch reading but a little slow in places
Jul 14, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction, limbo, food
Reads like a string of academic essays with content repeated every chapter from the previous chapter.
Emerald Dodge
Nov 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Three Squares is a great book.
Taco Vink
May 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: food
Feb 22, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Over-long academic thesis on the "American" meal. This seemed like a great topical book about the meals that US (or "American" as the author uses). Why three meals? How did it become to be? How will the meal change? It started off really well, apparently as a project on the concept of the "snack." The author chose to expand it on the history of meals, mealtimes and more in the US.
Unfortunately while this could have been so much more, this book really reads like an too long thesis or magazine ar
Jeff Swystun
Jul 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was an intriguing read. I love social histories and have often wondered how we arrived at the structure of meals we have today. For some time I thought it was due to the changing nature of the family unit and that is true to a point. Author Carroll provides evidence that it was business (agrarian to urban jobs) more than anything that influenced what we now call breakfast, lunch and dinner.

She sets out to prove or bust the popular assumptions about the way we eat. Indeed, she points out tha
Sep 10, 2013 rated it really liked it

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 reci
Desiree Koh
Feb 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Unlike eating, this book isn't really a pleasure, guilty or not. But it's a fascinating pantry of history, morsels that have held true since the arrival of the pilgrims. Remarkably, the way Americans ate and how their eating habits have evolved have parlayed into Westernized societies that have developed since.

Carroll writes with the earnestness of a food historian, but not the ravenous aplomb of a food writer. Feast on the first three-quarters of her book - how baked beans and pies came to be i
Nov 14, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, culture
It's easy to think that the way we eat, with some minor variatios, is just the way things have always been. This informative little book shows that the concept of the American meal has changed greatly over the past two centuries. Some of our modern meals didn't exist then (lunch), some have moved to different times of day (dinner) and the third has been renovated beyond recognition in several forms (breakfast). And what goes around comes around; it seems that in the past few decades we've re-ado ...more
Aug 13, 2016 rated it it was ok
The book reviews the history of meals (primarily in the US). The first chapters (about the evolution of the main/largest meal moving from the middle of the day to the evening) was poorly written, the author skips around so much time-wise (1700s, 1900s, back to the 1800s, etc.) and country-wise (US, Europe, back to the US, etc.), I almost stopped reading the book. However, I did slog through, and found the later chapters on lunch, breakfast, and snacks much more interesting (and readable).

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Abigail Carroll is author of A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Eerdmans 2017). Her poetry has appeared in the anthology Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press 2016) as well as in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including the Anglican Theological Review, The Christian Century, C ...more

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