"Hunger makes dinners, pastime[s] suppers." George Herbert
"Dinner but a bit later" David
Such a simple word supper, but so vague in its actual meaning - a meaning that changes through time, according to the level of society you are talking about, and also according to different countries. So let's start with a bit of history.
Let's get The Last Supper out of the way first. A symbolic meal because it is here that Jesus declared that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood - which is represented today with the eucharist - I think that's what they call it - Communion anyway in the C of E in which tradition I was raised. And it was his last supper - well last meal. The Bible doesn't mention the eels and oranges that Leonardo put into his mural - I'm guessing this was a Renaissance dish. Whatever they were eating though, it was sure to be more than bread and wine, and it looks to be a main meal - it's not nighttime - outside the windows it is still light. So surely not supper?
The other idea associated with The Last Supper is the notion of what one would like one's last meal to be. And traditionally - I really do not know whether this actually happens - condemned prisoners can ask for whatever they want for their last meal. Indeed on the very sad occasion when our lovely dog Choccy was put down in our garden the vet said we could give him some chocolate if we wished as a treat - chocolate being very bad for dogs. And I suppose it was a nice thought - a real treat to enjoy as your life ends. Yes, that's a bit macabre isn't it? Nevertheless it does sort of illustrate the notion of one's last meal.
I have strayed - as always. Apologies.
Back to history. According to Wikipedia - to whom one always turns first on such occasions,
Supper was originally a secondary lighter evening meal. The main meal of the day, called dinner, used to be served closer to what is known as lunchtime, around the middle of the day, but crept later over the centuries, mostly over the course of the 19th century. When dinner was still at the early time, eating a lighter supper in the evening was very common; it was not always the last meal of the day, as there might be a tea later."
Louis XIV apparently ate his lunch at midday and then a late night supper at 10.00 pm. Wikipedia did not say whether this was a private meal or a big meal with the inner circle.
Those suppers could be very grand as in this painting of the wedding supper at the marriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in 1760. Well it was a celebration and any kind of celebrations seems to eventually involve a supper - particularly balls.
Jill Dupleix emphasises this aspect of supper:
"The word supper comes from the French term 'souper', to take soup, and was once the only evening meal. Then it became an intimate late dinner in high society, and still it conjures up images of opera boxes, gleaming silver, sparkling wine, and rich, blonde food like oysters in cream."
I found a quite detailed article on a website called The Historic Interpreter about balls and food, during which it was pointed out that the terms dinner and supper meant different things to the different strata of society:
"Dinner, according to the dictionary, is “the main meal of the day,” whereas supper is “a light meal eaten in the evening.” When you ate which depended upon your place in life. Those who needed a heavy meal in the middle of the day (laborers and farmers) ate dinner around noon. However, private ball goers would not need a heavy meal during the middle of the day. They rose late, had a full breakfast, and ate a small luncheon if they desired a sit-down meal, and possibly a light, late-afternoon tea. For them, dinner usually meant a meal in the evening hours – sometime between 4 and 8, later hours were more fashionable. Hosts might, around midnight, have servants set out supper at the end of the evening before guests went home." The Historic Interpreter
I'm not sure I agree with the big lunch for labourers and farmers though. They would have been some way from home and therefore are more likely to have sat down with their fellow workers wherever they were to portable food like pies and Cornish pasties surely? Dinner would have been when they got home I would have thought, with maybe a jug of ale and a piece of cheese later at night. Although then again they probably would have been so tired, and would have been dark and so they would have gone to bed early.
However, today in Europe, and that includes the UK, lunch is often the big meal of the day. That's why they have a siesta after it and why everything shuts down for two or three hours in the middle of the day. Dinner - yes it's called dinner - tends to be a lighter affair and often quite late in the evening, particularly as you go south.
But back to the aristocracy and the wealthy who were out enjoying their balls and hunting suppers.
"The one thing to remember is that supper was NOT a replacement for dinner. As a result, they would have supper at the end of the evening – late, usually around midnight. Supper was often cold roast joints, cheeses, and biscuits, rolls, pastries, cakes, jellies, pickles – in short, finger foods on which to nibble. ... A standing buffet would be supper fare, served on a sideboard or in a separate room from the other entertainments going on. The key word is standing – everyone would stand to eat. There would be no tables at which to sit, perhaps a few chairs set out for the elderly or infirm, but the expectation was to stand around, mingle, and make conversation, while nibbling on light fare." The Historic Interpreter
As that painting shows.
These days I suspect there is still a lot of variation between how the words dinner, lunch and supper are used according to whether you are rich or poor, young or old or where you live. Jill Dupleix, Madhur Jaffrey and Robert Carrier - obviously partygoers all, are of the late-night supper with friends breed.
In her book Madhur Jaffrey's Cookbook - a great book by the way - Madhur Jaffrey presents two menus for supper - one 'a late after-the-theatre supper' of 'a kind of shepherd's pie', and salad, and the other a rather more Asian style meal of Chawanmushi (light custard soup) orange stir-fried chicken and salad.
Jill Dupleix is I think somewhat younger but also a party animal and not a fan of Chinese custards:
"Chinese rice congee is one of the world's most adored suppers, but its bland innocence is an acquired taste for those who didn't acquire it during a Chinese childhood." Jill Dupleix
Her taste is more European I think, and definitely more exuberant:
"Opera, film, evening classes and drinks after work were only invented because we love supper so much. We love that aren't I naughty staying up late feeling." Jill Dupleix
In her book Old Food she has a whole section on suppers which includes quite substantial dishes but she also seems to be more into what I guess most of would describe as substantial snack food - toasted sandwiches and the like, and also tapas. Below are two of them - a fish steak sandwich and mozza in carrozza.
I cannot pin down any actual recipes for Robert Carrier but it is clear from his writings that he does supper and quotes a well-known New York society hostess as saying:
"Togetherness is a late-night cheese omelette with the right mood and the right people."
And what about Nigella? The image we are presented with is of a party animal too, but also, these days anyway, a single homebody who raids the fridge for something to eat in the middle of the night. Is that supper? Here and there in her books she does talk about supper although she does not appear to be into big stuff:
"It's never worth cooking anything for supper unless it can stand on equal footing with one of life's great and simplest gastro-delights: boiled egg on toast (the best Italian eggs, soft boiled, rapidly peeled and squished on thick sourdough or rye toast." Nigella Lawson
Italian eggs? What's wrong with English ones?
So I am now asking myself whether I have ever done this kind of late-night supper. Obviously not now but maybe when young? Well no I don't think so. I suspect the nearest I have come to it is, when at university, after the union bar had finally closed, walking with a group of friends down to the motorway café which lay on the edge of the university grounds - a grand old country estate - to consume plates of egg and chips and suchlike. Hardly 'oysters in cream'. Or maybe instead I might have sat with friends in one of our rooms talking into the night over cups of instant coffee. Food? Biscuits perhaps? So very, very far below glamorous supper foods.
And later in London as a girlfriend and young wife? Well no. We did go to the cinema frequently but mostly just the two of us I think, but never to shows - too expensive and too hard to get seats. Instead we would dine with friends, either at home or in bistros and talk long into the night. And the pubs closed early back then remember.
I do remember suppers as a child though - and I have spoken about this before so forgive me for repeating, but it is relevant. Late at night - well late for us - just before we went to bed - dad - only dad did this - would make us cheese and cream cracker 'sandwiches with a cup of cocoa. Now how working class can you get? But I remember those treats - for they were treats - not an everyday thing, with great fondness. Maybe because it was associated with my father who was so often away for months on end at sea.
"Never underestimate the power of bread and cheese" says Jill Dupleix, and I suppose our rather humbler cream crackers and cheddar sandwiches were an iteration of this. She also says:
"Remember the sort of stuff you ate when you finally reached home after school utterly convinced you were starving to death? That's what makes a good supper." Jill Dupleix
And yes I do remember that - in our house it would probably have been bread and jam, or if we were very lucky some scones or a piece of cake. A little later we would have had a 'meal' of something like baked beans on toast. Dinner, high tea, supper? Too early for supper surely?
I have never been part of the set that goes to shows, of any kind in the evening. We were taken to such things as children but they were matinées and did not involve supper. And the traditions that David and I established in London continued in Australia - more meals with friends at home or out in restaurant than after show supper. But obviously people do indulge in these habits for in Melbourne there exists a range of places where you can go for late night food, that stay open into the wee small hours of the morning. Two Melbourne institutions that have been doing this for a very long time are Stalactites - A greek souvlaki place, and The Supper Inn - Chinese:
"The walls are lined with felt, the grey blinds are always down, and the air feels like damp velvet. But Supper Inn isn’t about a name-brand fit-out – you came here for the food. And on that front, it routinely excels." Broadsheet
And the very latest is HER - a five storey collection of bars for the young and the hip, which I'm sure is a very out of date word, but I don't know the latest term.
Supper - I don't think I agree with David that it's 'dinner but later', even though it looks as if that is indeed what it is for some - the party animals especially, and I suspect that would mostly be the young and the ultra rich. Everybody else has to get up in the morning and they don't have the energy of the young. No for me I think supper is something late at night a snack before bedtime, to help you dream pleasant dreams. I'm with Helman Melville on this:
"The dinner-hour is the summer of the day: full of sunshine, I grant; but not like the mellow autumn of supper."