Monday, June 22, 2015

What, Exactly, is a ‘Snack?’

A ‘sandwich tower’ was a ‘new snack’ according to the piece in The Washington Times of January 31, 1937 that was the source of my story on Friday. It struck me, as I posted, that if my memory serves me right, I have not considered the meaning and history of snacks during almost ten years of blogging about food history. So, here we go:

There is one indisputable starting point for obtaining this sort of information of course - the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED gives three major forms of the noun:

-          In the 11th century, it was ‘a species of ship.’
-          Around the early years of the fifteenth century, it meant ‘a snap, a bite, esp. that of a dog,’ and then evolved over the next couple of centuries to also mean ‘a sharp or snappish remark or jibe,’ ‘a share, portion, part,’ ‘a mere taste, a small quantity, of liquor,’ ‘a mere bite or morsel of food, as contrasted with a regular meal; a light or incidental repast, and finally, in Aussie slang, ‘something easy to accomplish, a snip’ (although I can say I have never heard the word used in that way.)
-          In 1787, there is a single quotation supporting its use as ‘Snack, or Spunk, a dried fungus, used as tinder.’

So, the word did not come into its current meaning of ‘a mere bite or morsel of food or a light repast’ until the mid-eighteenth century – and this was preceded by its referring to a small drink of liquor. I feel quite sure that people did ‘snack’ before the mid-eighteenth century – although I strongly suspect that ‘snacking’ was nowhere near as pervasive as it is now - but I am not at all sure what they called the things they ‘snacked’ on.  As a verb, ‘snack,’ as in ‘to bite or snap,’ has been in use since medieval times, so perhaps one just snacked on a morsel or a gobbit or a crumb?

The word has some extended uses which are also interesting. Written mentions of ‘snack houses’ - defined by the OED as restaurants - are found from 1820 (the first being in reference to Irish villages), but ‘snack food’ does not appear until 1938, in a piece in the Chicago Tribune of 22 April  which notes that ‘Nothing makes better snack food than a sardine sandwich or canape.’

As your snack recipe for the day, I feel I have no option but to give you the prune sandwiches I threatened you with the other day:

Prune Sandwiches.
Cook one cup prunes, rub through a sieve. Add the liquid and two teaspoons of sugar. Boil for five minutes. Remove meat from stones and add to the mixture. Use as filling between buttered bread.
Chicago Defender, October 20, 1928.

And in case prunes are not your thing, perhaps this prize-winning recipe will be more to your taste?

Chestnut and Liver Sandwiches.
Boil until soft the livers from two fowls or a turkey, and two cups of shelled chestnuts. Chestnuts may be blanched if desired. Mash nuts with the livers to a smooth paste. Rub through a strainer and season with salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. Moisten with cream or melted butter, and spread between thin slices of white or graham bread.
The Washington Post, November 24, 1934. First prize in the weekly competition,

to Miss Alice D. Hewitt, 3010 Fourteenth Street Northwest.


korenni said...

Ha! Prune sandwiches! In a wonderful children's book, Magic by the Lake (Edward Eager), set in the 1920s, the children make sandwiches for a picnic, and one of the kinds is prune and marshmallow. It sounded kinda good -- I always wondered what it would taste like, but now I have a place to start! (And it does sound good!) Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Can't say I'd like prune and marshmallow, but prune by itself - why not? The recipe is basically making plum butter by reconstituting the prunes. I've made plum butter; it's like apple butter but (obviously) made from plums/prunes instead of apples. What's not to like?

Gwen said...

The last one is basically pate with chestnut puree -- sounds amazing. It seems like people in those days were more creative with their food in some ways. Probably by necessity, I suppose.