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The little differences (11): Time to eat – but when?

Whether simply for nourishment or out of enjoyment – both locals and expats want to eat. What can vary, however, is who eats what meal and when.

By Martin Pütter

One scene made me laugh when I recently watched “The Fellowship of The Ring” (Part 1 of the “Lord of The Rings” trilogy) again. At one stage after leaving the Shire, Peregrin “Pippin” Took is clearly annoyed that he has to forgo a second breakfast and asks: “What about elevenses, luncheons, afternoon tea, dinner, supper?” A short instant later he gets hit by an apple on the head that Aragorn has thrown him (here’s the link to a YouTube clip of this scene). It was less the direct hit with the apple than the listing of the various meals that amused me – and it reminded me about another little cultural difference between the locals in Basel and the expats: the various meals and they times they are eaten.

It was my friend Bob who first alerted me to this a couple of years ago, asking: “Why do the Swiss eat lunch already at half past eleven?” I was about to disagree when I remembered two things. During my three-and-a-half years’ deviation from journalism (working in the professional services industry) I had colleagues who, without fail, would go for lunch at exactly half past eleven. And on the (luckily so far only very) few occasions I was hospitalised, lunch was always served at half past eleven as well. On the other hand, from my time in the UK I remember that lunch there is usually at 1pm – and no pub would serve lunch before that.

The difference in time (i.e. when a particular “meal” is taken) is not restricted to lunch. As “Pippin” (see above) points out, there is “elevenses”. It is taken at 11am, mostly a mug of tea or coffee and perhaps some biscuits. The Swiss, however, call their break between breakfast and lunch “Z’Nüni.” This, literally, means “at nine (o’clock)” – but nowadays it can be at 10 am (but is still called “Z’Nüni”).
Different countries, different times for meals

And then there is the afternoon break. The English call it “afternoon tea” – according to Wikipedia it “is a light meal typically eaten between 4 pm and 6 pm”, but some also call it “five o’clock tea”. The Swiss, on the other hand, have their “Z’Vieri”, which, translated literally, means “at four (o’clock).” According to cliché, the Swiss would take this on time. But many clichés are worn out nowadays.

However, to complicate matters, there is (or was) a regional and a class distinction in the British Isles. High tea or afternoon tea, as introduced by the Duchess of Bedford in the mid-19th century, was a meal for the wealthy classes, to still the hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. For other people, particularly in Scotland, the North of England, the Midlands and in Ireland, tea was or still is a (light) evening meal. My TBJ colleague Nigel Hulbert explains: “When I was growing up in the [decade omitted – the editor], the Midlands regional / working class usage was still very much to call the main meal of the day – at midday – ‘dinner’. (…) The evening meal (‘tea’) would be sandwiches or bread and cheese (and tea of course). (…) ‘Tea’ would be around 5 to 6 pm.”

However, the difference in times when meals are taken seems to be gradually disappearing. People now quite often eat whenever they are hungry, no matter what time, no matter where – instead of stopping work, some people will get a snack from a vending machine and eat it at their workplace. Something else is also slowly disappearing, as my US-born friend and former TBJ colleague Mary Alakhdar noted: “What I found interesting about meals is that restaurants frequently close between lunch and dinner, not opening for dinner before 6 pm. In the U.S., people are out and about, some eating a late breakfast or regular breakfast, and then wanting to stop in an eatery mid afternoon for a meal and then just have a snack before bed. Almost all restaurants serve right through the day (…)”. Yes, many restaurants in the Basel area still close the kitchen between lunch and dinner. But the queues at fast-food restaurants and kebab shops that are open 24/7 are hinting that eating habits and times are changing here as well.

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