Ask Burt Likko Anything, 2.1

Patrick asks:

Let’s say you’re stuck preparing only one set of meals for the rest of your life. I’ll let Tod construct the fanciful description of why.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner?

Wrinkle: the other two are prepared by two wretchedly unskilled chefs who produce meals that are safe to eat, but half the time they’re unpalatable at best and the other half of the time they’re actively bad.

As I see it, there’s two ways to approach it. First, how bad can each meal get? All of them can get pretty bad. We’ve all had bad meals for each.

QuestionsFor breakfast, safe but uninspired eggs will probably fall into the “overcooked” category. While rubbery eggs don’t please me, I can choke them down. Toast? Cereal in cow’s milk? How bad is this going to get? While it might never be good again (thanks a lot, Obama!), breakfast strikes me as having the least potential for being inedibly bad. (Then again, I’ve never had “traditional English breakfast” with pickled herring and kidney pie, which sounds nasty.)

And having moved more than halfway to a temporomandibular joint disorder on bland turkey sandwiches served on stale bread even this week, I can attest that memories of a dissatisfying lunch is something that the stresses of the post-lunch workday make possible to subsume. But there’s less mental clutter to wipe the memories of a disappointing dinner.

Seems to me that the better way to approach it is: how good can breakfast, lunch, and dinner get? If I’m only going to be able to do one of them myself, and the other two are going to be mediocre-to-awful, then I’m going to direct my effort into making the one that can be the best as good as it possibly can be. While I’ve had some really good breakfasts and lunches, the summits of quality have always been at dinner.

Picking between lunch and dinner also involves a cultural issue — in American culture, dinner is the big meal of the day; lunch is as often as not something that gets you through the workday. Were I to be a continental European particularly from a Mediterranean nation, lunch would be a bigger deal on most days. But I’m an American, and we have big dinners rather than big lunches. And particularly considering my skill set involving marrying flavor into proteins, dinners being the big-protein meal in the typical American diet, this maximizes my own abilities to makes something that is as good as it can be.

Consider the process of quantifying hedonism from the perspective of a particle physicist, a “hedonic calculus” I believe I’ve written of on these pages before. Pleasure is measured in discrete particularized units which we will call “hedons.” An activity or thing which generates pleasure produces a net surplus of hedons. An activity or thing which generates displeasure produces the opposite particle: the “antihedon.” A hedon and an antihedon cancel one another out. My bet is that a bad breakfast produces, say, 10 antihedons, a bad lunch produces 15 antihedons, but a good dinner produces 30 or more positive hedons, resulting in a net surplus of pleasure.

So I’m going to put my own effort in to a good dinner, and if I have to deal with crappy breakfasts and lunches along the way (thanks a lot, Obama!) I’ll learn over time to get past two bad meals that get lost in the shuffle of daily activities and content myself with the happy memories of a fine repast taking me to bed each night.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Yea, I feel like dinner is the obvious answer.

    I’m not huge on breakfast, in part because most of the best breakfasts are of the sweeter variety and I don’t have the biggest sweet tooth. The breakfasts I do most enjoy generally fall more into the brunch category (is brunch a choice?!?!). And, as you note, even the worst breakfasts will likely be passable, provided they don’t make one sick.

    Lunch… well, I never really understood the distinction between lunch and dinner food. For me, what is suitable for me is equally suitable for the other. They both tend to be savory dishes. The difference might be in the size or number of courses but otherwise, meatloaf works just as well at lunch as it does at dinner.

    But, because dinner is the bigger meal, it seems appropriate to put my eggs in that basket.

    Now, as I mentioned, I am not the biggest believer in their being “breakfast foods” that are wholly different from “lunch foods” which are in a different category from “dinner” foods. Would I still be able to do brinner in this scenario? Can I save dinner leftovers to eat for breakfast (something I do quite often)? Can I eat cold pizza on a weekend morning?

  2. Dinner, because that is the meal I have every day. Some days I go without breakfast. Some days without lunch. But on no day do I go to bed at night without eating dinner. If breakfast and lunch are sufficiently abominable I can do without. Do not screw up my dinner!

  3. Dinner, it’s the meal my family gathers together for, the time we share the events of our lives.

  4. in American culture, dinner is the big meal of the day; lunch is as often as not something that gets you through the workday. Were I to be a continental European particularly from a Mediterranean nation, lunch would be a bigger deal on most days.

    This was true six days of the week for my family, but on Sundays, lunch was the big meal, eaten shortly after we got home from church (there are few things more divinely homey than walking into the house to the delightful aroma of Swiss Steak that has been cooking for a few hours). Dinner would then be a smaller meal of leftovers or sandwiches.

    I wonder if this is a common experience among Amerixan Protestants? Or was it just a family thing? Even though I rarely attend church now, it still feels right to eat early on Sunday.

  5. I guessed that would be your answer, which is why I threw in the curveball because I thought it might have a possibility of changing it.

    Thanks for picking my question! You answered these so fast I didn’t realize until just now I got the first response.

Comments are closed.