The Reason Sunday Dinner Used To Be So Important In The US

For many American families, the idea of Sunday dinner evokes nostalgia with extended family seated at a table loaded with food. Church was often the reason for the communal gathering on Sundays, with Huffington Post pointing out that in England and other European countries which are steeped in Christianity, a Sunday roast was often the meal served after attending mass as early as Feudal times. 

However, in the United States, the Sunday dinner tradition is more likely a product of the Industrial Revolution, which, according to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR), changed the way people ate. While prior to industrialization's urbanization of the country, America was an agrarian society with the mid-afternoon dinner meal being the largest one of the day. However, with factory work taking people away from home during the midday mealtime and workers needing to eat at the factory, lunch — which originally was a snack — replaced the hot dinners that were once custom (per WPR). Sunday dinner is rooted in the agrarian mid-afternoon meal tradition, with a Sunday meal focusing on family in a post-urbanized society since this was the only day in which many families could gather, explains Smithsonian Magazine.  

Sunday dinner's tradition in the U.S.

Writing in Zora, Nneka M. Okona explains that in the Black community, the Sunday dinner tradition in the U.S. is rooted in slavery. Provisions were passed out to slaves on Saturday evening, meaning Sunday's meal could be larger than normal. She writes, "Sunday arose as that sole day of the week where [slaves] could pretend they were free." 

The tradition continued after they were emancipated, becoming rooted in many Black church-going traditions in the South where parishes would play host to the post-worship meal, explains the Chicago Tribune. Serving church dinner not only kept folks around for the service, but also helped strengthen community, where people could come together for a meal without worrying about segregation. The Black culinary influence thrived during these midday meals, with soul foods like sweet potato pie and fried chicken part of the menu that church members brought to the communal table.

In Italian American homes, the Sunday dinner tradition also fostered a sense of community. When Italians arrived in the U.S., most worked six days a week as laborers. Sundays were the only day of the week to socialize, explains US World Herald. The big Sunday meal sometimes served a dual purpose for immigrants eager to show off status, with a table groaning under the weight of food like spaghetti and meatballs and eggplant parmesan a silent brag about American success.

Successor to Sunday dinner

A modern day successor to Sunday dinner is brunch. The secular tradition that happens midday might feel like it was conjured by the creators of certain television shows, but the origins of brunch actually trace back to 1895. Mental Floss explains that a hangover inspired Guy Beringer to conjure a midday meal that included both pastries and lighter fare paired with richer meats. Adding a cocktail helped nurse any day-after regrets. Guests should be chatty friends, Beringer entreated, turning the meal into a social event.

While Beringer may have coined the term, Smithsonian Magazine reports that Hollywood refined it. The publication explains that brunch gained popularity in the 1930s when Hollywood stars trained between New York and Los Angeles. At the midday stop off in Chicago, they'd enjoy a late breakfast at a hotel since restaurants were closed on Sundays. By World War II when more women entered into the workforce, they wanted a day without cooking. During that time period, church attendance on the decline. So, restaurants opened their doors to embrace this new opportunity and brunch thrived.