Anthropologists have long understood that what people eat is closely tied to social and cultural markers — gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Throughout history, certain foods were strictly eaten by the working class, while others have been considered luxury items, reserved for those with time and money to burn. History and humans are fickle beasts, though, and our views about foods change, often as availability and trends do. This Labor Day, we look at dining in the working world, then and now.
Proclaiming breakfast as the most important meal of the day is an old nutritional saw, but it hasn’t always been a part of everyone’s daily routine. In an article for BBC History magazine, historian Ian Mortimer asserts that the Tudors helped shoe-in breakfast as a mainstay. In the 16th century, he writes, “men increasingly started working for other people, employed for a prescribed set of hours each day” that would begin at 5 a.m. and continue to 7 or 8 p.m. “The consequences are obvious: if a labourer cannot have his supper until 7 or 8 p.m., he is going to get hungry if he has his dinner at the traditional medieval time of 10:30 or 11 a.m. … People needed a solid breakfast to keep them going.”
Collard greens, sweet potatoes, okra, barbecue, and pork belly make regular appearances at hipster weddings and on the menus at trendy restaurants across the country, but these soul food staples trace their origins to the kitchens of American slaves. Crops like black-eyed peas and yams, for instance, made it to this continent on slave ships.
Posh polenta is a fixture on high-end Italian menus everywhere now. But it was once a dish so bland, nutritionally limited, and associated with peasants and the working class, though, that the word polentone or “polenta eater” became a common insult.
A calling card of New Orleans, the po’ boy sandwich — a baguette with a crisp crust and fluffy center stuffed with meat ranging from roast beef to shrimp — has its roots in the American workforce. Or so local legend has it. It’s said that local restaurant proprietors Benny and Clovis Martin fed free sandwiches to striking streetcar workers in 1929 and simultaneously coined the sandwich’s name. “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended,” Bennie reportedly said. “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’”
Perhaps the best example of a twist of food fate is the lobster. In his well-known essay, “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace calls lobsters “basically giant sea-insects,” noting that the word lobster “comes from the Old English loppestre, which is thought to be a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust [locusta] combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider.” Lobsters were once so plentiful they washed up and piled up on the shores of New England, and until roughly the 1800s, they were fed to prisoners, apprentices, servants, and the poor. An article in Mother Jones documents a phenomenon few modern diners would complain about: “In one Massachusetts town, a group of indentured servants became so upset at their lobster-heavy diet that they took their masters to court and won a judgment protecting them from having to eat it more than three times a week.” — Laurel Gladden