Fricassee of Words – A Square Meal

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

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A Square Meal

Meaning – A nourishing meal, served as promised, as represented.

While it is most likely true that Caesar’s men partook of lavish feasts, probably eating more than their stomachs could handle, this expression does not find its origins in ancient Rome, Egypt or Greece, like many others.

It appears in written form sometime in the 16th century. Interestingly, it also appears in  Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, about a century later (1606):

“She’s a most triumphant Lady, if report be square to her.”

As you can see in the above context, the use of the word square pertains strictly to the concept of fairness. Thus the expression “fair and square.” If we think of this in terms of a geometrical shape, indeed the square is the one most fitting to the intended meaning.

An earlier account assigns the expression “a square meal” to the Royal Navy. In this instance, it is assumed that the “square” refers to the shape of the wooden plates in which meals were served. It is easy to see how one thing might have led to another, but etymologists argue that, if this were the case, the expression would have been popular before the 16th century.

In fact, while it is true that Shakespeare himself uses the phrase in a play, it is believed to have entered common usage in 19th century America. Its first documented use by a food establishment is attributed to a California restaurant called Hope and Neptune. It appears in a November 1856 newspaper advertisement states the following: “We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune.”

This brings to mind an ancient geometry problem known as “squaring the circle.” The challenge is to construct a square with the exact same area as a given circle by using a finite number of steps. Surely, many a geometer and mathematician have pondered the problem over a square meal. Perhaps the meal itself, served on a round plate, offered insight.

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