What you call the evening meal reveals a lot about where you come from – and maybe even where you’re headed…
When I was 19, I went out with quite a posh girl. Not only did I lose my virginity with her while watching Life On Earth on the telly, but I also received a crash course in dining and class mobility. On evenings when I was to visit her, I would eat my tea with my family first. Tea, in this case, not being Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches, but the working-class evening meal, served perhaps between six and seven o’clock. After tea, I would ride my motorbike over to her parents’ Elizabethan manor house and there I would partake of supper. This was good news to a growing country lad who could easily eat five large meals a day.
Supper, as in “kitchen” or “country”, is upper class. It implies that this is just a casual family meal, maybe with close friends. It may involve a simple starter, wine, and cheese and fruit to follow, but would probably not involve a white tablecloth and starched napkins. Supper is elegant sufficiency. It has overtones of Billy Bunter’s midnight feasts, Hogarth prints or officers on campaign. The real significance of supper, I think, is that it implies the user is familiar with an altogether grander style of meal held in stately halls, the formal dinner with copperplate invitations, waiters, silverware, port and speeches. The word supper, I think, implies a subtle rebuke to the aspirational classes who are gauche enough to hold dinner parties at home.
Me and my kids call it tea. My wife calls it dinner. She went to uni, I didn’t. She’s middle class, I’m not. As for supper? What is that, exactly? As a kid, I ate Irish stew. As unemployed teenagers, it was something with beans. After that, until I left home, it was, “Make it yourself!” That’s when it started to get tricky. I still eat shit, to be honest. You can move the boy to London, but he’ll always be a northerner.
Growing up in Yorkshire, breakfast was a fry-up at the start of the day, dinner was at lunchtime (often a cold collation of what, in hindsight, was probably slices of giant sausage made from BSE) and tea was at the end of the day – a lard-based feast of something like suet and mince roly-poly with gravy and carrots, followed by treacle sponge topped with cream, ice-cream and custard. Supper was Ovaltine and a biscuit at bedtime.
When I descended to the south and Oxford, in the first week my tutor invited me and my tutorial partner, who was also from the north, to dinner. We duly turned up in the middle of the day to be greeted by kindly astonishment and a gracious attempt to explain how things worked in the sophisticated world we were about to enter.
Emboldened by this new knowledge, the next time I was invited to dinner, this time by fellow students, I arrived at the appropriate time – the evening – but wearing a long gown, admittedly one from C&A, but somewhat in the style of pictures I’d seen of Oxford drinking clubs and summer balls. Unfortunately, my worldly-wise hosts were wearing jeans and serving spag bog on a kitchen table decorated with candles in old wine bottles.
Things got better for a while, but when I moved to Los Angeles, the whole nightmare started again. People wanted to have power breakfasts in the middle of the night – 6.30am! – meet for lunch before noon and the earliest I was ever invited to dinner was 5.30pm. Even then, it didn’t seem to be quite acceptable actually to eat anything. The concept of “supper” doesn’t really exist in LA, as far as I can make out. People don’t seem to cook very much, so either it’s dinner in a restaurant or a posh, carb-free dinner in someone’s house done by a cook, but again, quite often ridiculously early and all over by 9pm. The closest thing to a Cameron supper is going round for “take-out” or “carry-out”, which means you just hang out informally and eat something that arrived in a van.
Back in London, I find myself using the word “supper” quite a lot, usually to suggest the sort of informal, just-a-bunch-of-incredibly-cool-friends-round-the-kitchen-table soirée I aspire to, with something I’ve knocked up from the Ottolenghi cookbook. In reality, I’m more likely to spend the evening eating spoonfuls of odd things out of the fridge while watching telly in pyjamas. But at least you don’t have to call that anything.
I remember my parents giving dinner parties in Brussels, in the 1970s, during the tragic Ice Storm period of my childhood. My mother would cook. My father would carve, occasionally with an electric knife, like a baby buzzsaw. They divorced when I was 14. I learned from my mother that the best parties have nothing to do with “fine dining” – I have to this day a horror of hushed tones and chinking cutlery – but lots of wine, rowdy guests, and rough peasant food with plenty of things to pick at even after pudding. It’s a model I try to follow myself, although for some reason even “kitchen supper” can take three days, not counting all the time one spends convening exactly the right cast, and clearing up. I still do “kitchen suppers”, but have long banned “dinner parties” as both exhausting to give and to attend: they’re like taking a four-hour exam in someone you don’t know and may never see again. I’ve noticed a new trend, though: often, the host will ting a glass and want guests to sing for their supper, and get a “general conversation going”. Being highly competitive and noisy, I enjoy that (the last dinner I went to, we had Stephen Hester talking about banking). If it’s in Notting Hill, “kitchen supper, just locals” can be a £200-a-head catered dinner for which the whole mansion is transformed into a souk and there will be at least two household names present as trophy guests. A “country supper” is eight people, something killingly calorific and crumbly out of the Aga, followed by drunken driving through country lanes. No one gets invited to dinner parties any more: that’s déclassé thanks to Come Dine With Me. It’s always supper, sometimes even “sups”, but only if you’re really grand. It’s at “sups”, of course, that you’re most likely to get the Lynch-Bages or the PM.
There was a constant war between my sisters and me for the best seat in front of the TV. This meant that dinner became, in essence, nothing more than a race to finish first, so that we could run from the dinner table and claim prime position. With the good seat came the remote control and with the remote control came dominion over one’s destiny.
We always ate quite late, at eight or so, which was proof that we were authentically middle class. Sometimes, the names of the dishes my parents cooked sounded unsettlingly exotic – ratatouille, moussaka – and I would long for parents like those of my mate John, who lived on the hill. When I went to his, we ate tea early, at 6, sometimes even at 5.30, and had proper food: fish fingers, pizzas, crinkle-cut chips.
After school, knowing that I would have a long wait for our evening meal, I always put two chocolate muffins and half a tub of custard in the microwave. Then I’d eat them with a spoon in front of Neighbours. I didn’t know it then but I was having high tea.
Breakfast was always rushed – a slice of toast and out of the door. Lunch was terrible – baked beans and two chicken nuggets from the school canteen. Dinner, however, was something to look forward to. This was always real Caribbean food: chicken rubbed with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, rice and peas, yam dumplings and plantain. Sometimes, we’d set out the table, but more often than not we’d sit in front of the TV with our dinner trays (mine was a tacky metallic one commemorating Charles and Diana’s wedding).
The first few weeks at university brought some culture clashes. Newly made northern friends talked about “tea”, but to me “tea” was just a warm brown drink that my teachers enjoyed. My family never had it. The closest we got at home was Ovaltine, and that certainly wasn’t a meal.
I was first introduced to “supper” at the inevitable visit-your-new-friends-at-their-homes that follows your first term at university. It was more ritualistic than our dinners ever were. Supper was something you anticipated, that you perhaps got changed for. Inevitably, it was a faux pas minefield: multiple courses, a plethora of cutlery and alcohol (which, until then, was something I had only ever had in a park or a pub, never in front of a consenting adult).
This was all new and novel, but it was mundane and stuffy, too. As I’ve grown older, friends who have “supper” make their children have “tea” with different food, at a different time and on a different table. I don’t see the point. I find it hard enough to see my kids as it is, and even harder to make them aware of their Caribbean roots. That’s why we have dinner. The four of us sit down at the table and we eat food their grandmother would approve of.
There is no such thing as a “country supper” in culinary or sociological terms. Or at least there wasn’t, until now. What there is, is “supper”, the meal that posh(ish) people eat at home most days in the evening – when they are not going out to or hosting “dinner” – a meal of some formality designed to entertain and impress your social peer group. You can invite someone to “supper” and know they will not expect tablecloths or candles or more than perhaps half a dozen guests. They might expect to chat to you in your kitchen, though, while you prepare the meal in question.
Then there is “the country” – not to be confused with “the nation”, but a posh shorthand for what might more generally be described as “the countryside”. It means anywhere with more fields and hedges than streets and lamp-posts. It’s a word used in such sentences as “I live in the country, but I have a flat in London”, or “I live in London, but I have a cottage/farm/stately home in the country.”
To me, therefore, the term “country supper” is specific. It can be meaningfully used only by and between people who regularly eat “supper” in each others’ houses, and have (at least) two residences, one in a rural location. (Though, being a Devon man, I’d call Chipping Norton suburban. Or at best “home counties”.) On that basis, although “country supper” is a hot buzz-phrase right now, I doubt it will permanently enter the lexicon of either gastronomy or class analysis.
I know all this, of course, because I am reasonably posh myself – and if there really was such a thing as a “country supper”, I would expect to have been invited to one.
In 18th-century London, supper was posh: an insubstantial final snack eaten by the upper classes long after dinner – cold beef and punch, perhaps, nibbled to sate the appetite before bed. But growing up in the 1980s, supper wasn’t grand. It was just what we called the seven o’clock meal, whether it was toad in the hole, cottage pie or that exciting new discovery, the M&S ready meal.
I’m not sure why we called it supper rather than dinner or tea. Our Oxford household was thoroughly middle class, but also eccentric, very bookish and Anglican; the Last Supper was much discussed. My mother was a Shakespeare scholar, so she may have been talking in Elizabethan English when she called us in for supper: “Men sit down to that Nourishment which is called Supper”, as it says in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Or it could have been an affectation from my grandmother, who tried hard to shrug off her roots in a Devon post office, referring to “the drawing room” and going so far as to ennoble Marmite with a French pronunciation: to her it was always “Mar-meet”. She would never have dreamed of calling the evening meal “tea”, which meant small cakes and china cups at four.
Personally, I don’t find “supper” snooty. It is only when you add an adjective that it becomes pretentious: country supper and kitchen supper are both phrases used by people like David Cameron, who normally eat dinner, but are slumming it. My husband‘s family, much posher than mine, always eats dinner, implying candles and several delicious courses at 8pm. The joy of supper, by contrast, is that it carries no particular expectations besides nourishment. It could be anything from fillet steak to poached eggs and Mar-meet toast. Supper is simply the comforting end point to which the whole day has been leading.
Dinner party: two words to strike fear into even the most open-minded of hosts. It comes barded with sneers and marinated in petty snobbery, an event that seemed less about eating and more about a smug sense of belonging – Debrett’s with fish knives and a par-frozen bun. They have tea, you have supper, I have dinner. Visions spring to mind of jellied tomato rings and overcooked soufflés, an excess of velvet and the degradation of a perfectly good meal.
But, really, it’s a simple matter of semantics. There are few things more civilised than having friends over for supper or dinner. It matters not which word you use, so long as you don’t go and call it a dinner party. I can think of nothing worse than asking people to clad themselves in black tie or, worse still, “smart casual” before coming over to eat. Or to subject them to the half-witted, smeared and foamed approximation of a three-star Michelin chef. Good food, well cooked, and plenty of grog, shared with people you love. That’s not a dinner party, rather having dinner, at home, with mates.
As children, we had tea – sausages, fish fingers, whatever – at about 5pm. Then my parents had dinner at about 8.30. I was always rather jealous of those mums and dads who had “supper”. It seemed far cooler and laid back, resolutely more modern. But whatever it was called, there was always comfort in falling asleep to the clatter of knives and forks, and the easy hubbub of well-watered good times.
So yes, the dinner party, with its forced dress code and fussy food, stilted conversation and whiff of self-satisfaction, is something to be feared. But then, so is any meal possessing these horrible qualities, regardless of whether it’s branded “supper”, “dinner” or “feast”. All that matters is the shared pleasures of the table, time to eat, drink and be merry. The dinner party might be dead, but the fundaments of domestic edible pleasure will endure for ever and ever.
I’m not a foodie, but I know foodies, and I find their dinner parties most alarming. I want meat and two veg spread in an orderly way on the plate. And a pudding that contains something nice like meringue.
Dinner parties have changed a lot since I wrote the Sloane Ranger Handbook with Ann Barr in 1982. There still exist in corners of the country meals of almost stunning simplicity, usually involving something I hate – game birds – produced with a certain amount of fanfare. Horribly red stringy things. But at least you know exactly where to start, which is the main course, and what’s the end. And there is all sorts of silverware.
At a foodie supper, the sequence is disrupted, and it’s done with the utmost of casualness. I remember eating at a foodie neighbour’s house 25 years ago and thinking, which bit is which? What goes first? Is that a pudding or does it just look like one? For a person of conservative habits, it was very disconcerting.
Now you can see it in full bloom. There used to be five kinds of cheese from about three nations that one could take to a dinner party. Now there will be Colombian drug smuggler’s cheese and something sourced from a farmers’ market in Aberdeen.
Of course, I don’t give dinner parties. Mostly I eat out, but when I’m at home I have kitchen suppers in the most literal sense: “This delicious thing I found in Tesco, let’s just put it in the microwave.” I’m not northern, so I don’t call it tea. And I don’t call it dinner, because it’s not dinnery. So it’s supper, I’m afraid.
Dinner parties make me feel like a desperate housewife on Come Dine With Me. I grew up in Lancashire in the 1960s. Dinner was eaten at 12 noon and it was pie and gravy. Except on Sundays, when we had a joint of beef or lamb, the remains of which would be put through the Spong mincer on Mondays for a week’s worth of aforementioned pies. My first dinner party happened to me when I went to Oxford. I never wanted it to happen again. The real issue is that I like food and I like to eat my food, not try to shove it in my mouth while talking to someone I hope never to meet again. My girlfriend is Jewish, a great cook and seriously social. When we got together, I said, “I will do cocktail parties and I will do supper with friends. Never make me go to dinner.” She tried, twice; the first time I refused to eat and the second time I refused to speak. We haven’t tried since.
I love suppers with friends. Is there a class thing? Yes, for sure, but if you are a writer or an artist of any kind, you can avoid class. You can mix wherever you want to and say what you like. That helps. I have to say, though, that the best dinner party I ever went to was thrown by an eccentric member of the Guinness family in a crumbling house in Dublin. The dining room hadn’t been decorated since 1840 and, as the room was colder than the fridge, we left the champagne out to chill. Food was cooked on a burner of the kind road-menders use to melt tarmac. I was sitting next to Neil Jordan and we both ate in silence until we had eaten enough to be able to speak.
I’m rarely invited to dinner parties these days – being a judge on Great British Menu, as well as a restaurateur, people just assume I’m the guest from hell.
Maybe that’s also why, when I have people over for dinner, they’re often surprised by my food. They turn up expecting some sort of whizz-bang gastronomic experience, only for me to serve up a fish that’s been covered in herbs and salt, and shoved in the oven. Dinner parties, to me, are about family, friendship and fun, not networking or spending all night in the kitchen.
That attitude’s probably a throwback to my childhood in Mayo – mealtimes were extraordinarily important, and we wouldn’t dream of not sitting down to dinner together. And it’s “dinner” or “tea”, by the way – I’d never even heard the term “supper” until I came to England.
When I was young, dinner parties didn’t focus nearly so much on the food. They were more about staying up all night, and if there was any actual cooking involved, it usually got burned anyway. Perhaps it’s just an age thing that the dinner parties I go to now aren’t like that at all, but I kind of miss those days.
• Interviews: Charlotte Northedge, Bob Granleese, Becky Barnicoat.
The guidelines: Tea
When? 6.30pm, or whenever Dad gets home from work.
What are we eating? Fish fingers, chips, beans. And then a yoghurt.
Who’s coming? You, your siblings, your parents, possibly a friend, so long as they’ve checked with their mum first.
Topics of conversation Shhh… Hollyoaks is on.
Tableware Not the good cutlery. That’s for Christmas Day and Christmas Day alone.
Dress code Your school uniform, unless it’s in the wash because you got it muddy at lunchtime.
The guidelines: Dinner
When? 7pm, or thereabouts.
What are we eating? One of those Marks & Spencer meal deals, bought on the way home from work.
Who’s coming? Whoever’s at home.
Topics of conversation Work, your journey home from work, that thing Joanna who sits opposite you at work does with her teeth that’s really annoying.
Tableware A plate on your lap. Who has space for a table any more?
Dress code Whatever you worked in (although freelance writers may wear trousers as a point of etiquette).
The guidelines: Supper
When? 9pm, or later.
What are we eating? Something light and self-consciously rustic, usually cooked in a bloody Aga or something.
Who’s coming? You, Rebekah Brooks, David Cameron and, indirectly, Robert Jay QC.
Topics of conversation Chipping Norton, NewsCorp’s BSkyB takeover bid, whether or not Dave can lend you a horse.
Tableware Silver cutlery, ironed tablecloths, goblets full of children’s blood.
Dress code Top hats left at the door. We’re all in this together, remember.
By Stuart Heritage