Enshrined in the title of Josephine Pinckney's must-read 1945 novel, three o'clock dinner was a longstanding custom in the Lowcountry, much to the shock of visiting Northerners, who reportedly couldn't figure out why they weren't invited to more evening dinner parties.
"Very few Charlestonians dine at night," Julian Street reported in a 1917 Collier's dispatch. "Dinner invitations are usually for three, or perhaps half-past three or four, in the afternoon, and there is a light supper in the evening."
The timing may have been a carryover from Britain, where "by the 18th century, dinner was eaten at about 3 p.m.," according to Margaret Visser's "The Rituals of Dinner." Or, as some scholars have suggested, it may have been an outgrowth of elite whites not wanting their African-American cooks and servers in their homes after dark.
By the time Pinckney wrote her book, the reason for the exceedingly leisurely practice had been largely forgotten. Stephanie Yuhl, in "A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston," characterizes the mid-afternoon meal as an "intergenerational bequest of rank and role."
The three o'clock dinner was already endangered by the mid-20th century. One of the younger guests at the eponymous fictional meal of "Three O'Clock Dinner," who has recently starting saying "recipe" instead of "receipt," frets about the heavy menu: "Rice and sweet potatoes and macaroni for dinner - it's enough to kill you."
The tradition hasn't completely vanished: When Andrew Zimmern swung through town to film an episode of "Bizarre Foods," brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee invited him to a three o'clock dinner featuring chicken bog, butter beans and Huguenot torte. But the occasional Sunday afternoon supper is the only vestige of it most local eaters are likely to encounter.
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