The mountains of the Appalachians have their unique history, and one of the things this history brought about is a language molded to fit the mountain way of life. While these can be subtle differences compared to everywhere else in the United States, there are nonetheless notable exceptions. Let’s look at these now as we ask, is the midday meal called lunch or dinner, and is the evening meal dinner or supper? 

Defining the Difference: Is it Lunch or Dinner?

For most English speakers living in the United States, lunch usually refers to the meal that occurs around midday. This meal is the gentle repast shared by most working people and bringing a lunch to work is a common thing to do. 

In fact, the three major meals of the day would seem to be defined. We have breakfast in the morning, which is there to break your fast from the previous night. There is lunch in the middle of the workday, and finally dinner for the evening meal. The family shares the last meal of the day with everyone gathered around the aptly-named dinner table. 

However, to many who grew up in the Appalachians, this is not the proper sequence of events. To them, breakfast is still the first meal of the day. But from there we have a deviation, with dinner being the midday meal, and finally, supper as the last meal of the day. 

It could quickly become confusing if you weren’t aware of the differences. For example, imagine if someone from the city asked a local to have dinner with them tomorrow and the next day those invited showed up at noon, unexpected. 

There are two schools of thought at work here. We have the breakfast, lunch, and dinner crowd (which we’ll refer to as BLD), and we have the breakfast, dinner, and supper contingent (which we will call the BDS). Lunch or dinner, dinner or supper, which ones are correct? To be honest, it’s hard to declare a clear winner. Let’s see what the evidence says. 

Tables and Paintings

Already we have uncovered one piece of evidence that should be critical in our analysis. That is, we previously mentioned that the big table where you eat the last meal of the day is called the dinner table. It might seem logical that you would eat dinner on that table, not supper. 

However, let me point out that Leonardo Da Vinci may have provided a little contradictory evidence. He painted a very well-known painting, with Jesus and his disciples having the final meal of the day. Most people can recall seeing this famous artwork, and you may even remember its title. 

I’ll give you a hint now; it’s not called “The Last Dinner.” No, that famous picture goes by the name “The Last Supper.” This fact lends weight to the BDS argument. 

When you consider the strong Christian roots in the Appalachians, it’s easy to see how this name became accepted for this meal. More than a few homes and churches had a copy of this proof hanging for all to see. The beliefs brought with them their own language influences. 

Buckets and Pails

So, dinner or supper seems to be a bit murky. What evidence is there to help settle the name for the midday meal? The BLD crowd might like to point to the familiar phrase, “lunchtime,” which defines the meal accordingly. People took their midday food to work with them in a container normally called a “lunch bucket.” 

Contrarily, many coal miners and other workers of the Appalachians carried with them a dinner bucket (or dinner pail) with them during the workday. Of course, if you have a dinner bucket with you, chances are you were going to eat during your dinner, which in this case was in the middle of the day. 

Lunch or dinner, we have tied again. 

My Own Experience

The question of the meals of the day is one area with which I have some personal experience. My father, who was a coal miner for most of his working years, always referred to it as breakfast, dinner, and supper. These labels were how I heard it said since I was young. 

However, my mother referred to it differently.  She was still from the Appalachian area but spent a little time in Portsmouth, Ohio in her youth. To her, it was breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Somehow, they managed to agree upon which meal of the day it was while avoiding any pre-defined labels. 

This silent agreement worked for them, even if it did serve to confuse us kids. I can remember talking with my dad on the topic.  Who knows, I might have even foolishly hinted that he was not correct when it came to lunch or dinner. As it was, I was never able to convince him otherwise, and at times I found myself using dinner or supper interchangeably. 

These days I am a complete BLD believer. But if I were to call my father up today and ask him what time he is going to eat dinner, I would get a midday response. I can bank on that being the case. 

A Look at History

If we look at history, we can trace the origins of the word “dinner” to roughly the 1300s. The word evolved from the French “disner,” which in turn borrows from the Gallo-Romance word “desjunare.” This word meant “to break one’s fast.” Does this remind you of another word we’ve been mentioning? 

Yes, the root word of dinner was, in the past, used to describe the first meal of the day, breakfast. This word has been with us for a while. In fact, dinner has covered the gamut when it comes to eating. It is no longer as simple as lunch or dinner. 

The Shift in Daily Eating

In western culture, food slowly became more readily available. As this happened, the meals became more robust. Consequently, larger and more elaborate meals took longer preparation time, putting dinner later in the day. 

With this shift in time, the word dinner shifted with it. Today we have the biggest meal of the day landing in the evening. In fact, many people tend to eat their biggest feast at 7 pm or later.  This regular late eating would have been unheard of in early times. After all, you needed plenty of light to prepare the meal, and resources were scarce. 

As time goes on, we may find that the evening meal will continue to shift later throughout the day. If so, I predict that the name dinner will continue its association.  Maybe soon we’ll see the local drive-thru open for midnight dinner. 

Nonetheless, in Appalachia today, you will find people who are as sure as ever that the midday meal is dinner, and the evening meal is supper. So, if you happen to visit the area and make plans to meet for dinner, make sure you get the time straight as well. Otherwise, you might miss it altogether. And given the fantastic food of the area, you probably don’t want to do that.