When you were a child, were you called in for supper or dinner? Even as interest in the term “supper” has faded, it turns out that there is actually a difference between supper and dinner. Of course, if you were called in for supper, you know this difference well, but if you were from a dinner family, it might not be so obvious.
While many would be apt to say that supper is an especially Southern thing, that’s simply not the case. Let’s start with the basics of the big meal to tackle the dinner/supper conundrum.
Dinner does not imply a time of day and simply references the main meal, or the largest meal, of the day. One can eat dinner at any time, and since there is no time implied (afternoon or evening), dinner has become the modern catch-all term for the evening meal. As Dictionary.com points out, “the word ‘dinner’ comes from the Vulgar Latin word disjējūnāre, meaning ‘to break one’s fast.’” While this is most closely related to breakfast in English, the meaning of dinner still influences how we use it and it has become the most popular word for the largest meal eaten of the day.
Despite dinner’s catch-all phrasing, supper comes from the specific Old French word souper, which means the evening meal in the English language. Because the time of day is explicitly stated, it is related to the late afternoon or early evening meal. Supper is most often a light meal. One of the most intriguing differences between dinner and supper is the time of day they imply for guests when you are having a gathering.
In some rural parts of the country in the 1800s, dinner actually meant the midday meal (lunchtime) and supper referred to the evening meal of dinner. In fact, I remember being a kid on a trip to Kentucky and hearing lunch referred to as dinner, with the promise of a supper club later. How confusing is that?
So what are the regional divisions of the terms? It’s not necessarily an American South or Midwestern tradition, but instead is a farming families’ trademark. Because the Southern and Midwestern states were heavily agricultural, supper was implicitly the lighter, late evening meal and dinner was the larger, main meal of the day.
According to food historian Helen Zoe Veit in an excellent NPR interview. Dinner was traditionally the noon meal, and the biggest meal was in the early afternoon during the 19th centuries to fuel the farmers, their workers, and their families so that they could finish out their day strong and steady.
With its agricultural history, it’s no surprise where the search term ‘supper’ on Google is most active. Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa take home the cake for the most frequent search results.
Supper in these homes also referred to the soup cooking on the stovetop, often all day long, for a lighter meal before bed. As more American families moved away from farming and agricultural endeavors, the large meal of dinner took the place of suppertime because it was the only meal each day that middle class families were able to share together after working and attending school outside of the home.