A history of midnight snacks
How late-night meals reflect a changing society
Hello, Snackers. It’s the best meal of the day—but is that because it’s a mark of luxury or because it’s a break from loneliness or hard work when other people are asleep?
Midnight is a time of transitions and uncertainties, a time when things go slightly sideways. It’s witches and closing times and and Cinderella rushing away from the ball. It’s one day doggedly pushing into the next, a standoff between morning and night.
The topsy-turviness of it all also applies to the food we eat at that hour. Late-night breakfast is the preferred meal of many a diner patron, but sliders from White Castle are equally valid and appreciated, as Harold and Kumar knew, and as long as refrigerators have existed, humans have been raiding them in a sleepy daze when they felt a bit peckish long after dark. Societal norms about three square meals do not apply at midnight. Eat whatever the hell you want.
I was wondering about the history of all this the other day—specifically, the other midnight, as I ate a few Triscuits while doing the brand-new Wordle and reminding myself to go to sleep already. It wasn’t the origin story that intrigued me—obviously, the concept of a post-bedtime meal is untraceable, going back forever—but how it has been perceived in the broader culture (Luxury? Necessity? Delightful? Uncouth?) and what, exactly, people have preferred to eat at that hour over the years.
When I do research on Newspapers.com, I typically set the search function to show the oldest matches first. I forgot to do so this time, and I’m so glad for the oversight because the site offered up what it considered the most relevant results, with this gem from 1965 at the top of the list:
This is the beginning of a long essay—I’m guessing something like 2,000 words—in the Montreal Gazette by a writer named John Belanger. He has strong opinions about midnight snacks. A few choice quotes:
The midnight snack … should be taken in small portions and, usually, eaten briefly. Don’t, for instance, try cooking a roast beef for it.
Shop for a really wide variety of prepared meats. I’m thinking now of things like pepperoni, German and Polish sausage, corned beef, and the highly spiced Italian capicollo, etc. Stock up on cheeses. … Some good bread is also an essential.
Midnight snacks are a lovely way to get to know your mate better. At this time, the kids are in bed and the two of you are alone in the hush of the night. Want to try something really mad? Try a midnight snack by candlelight. … Put it in an old wine bottle. Hold hands. Wear pyjamas. Laugh a lot. Talk about your first date. Life is good, pal, life is good.
(Belanger also advises waking up your significant other so you can snack together, which Snack Stack absolutely does not endorse. Let them sleep!)
When I finished reading Belanger’s essay, I went back and searched Newspapers.com again, this time sorting the results to show the oldest ones first. I was looking specifically for articles with the exact term “midnight snack.” At the top of the list—the oldest result from the site’s vast collection of scanned newspapers—was a reference to a cat’s late-night meal, in 1859, which I immediately disregarded because I am not a cat.
The earliest mention I could find of the term “midnight snack” for humans was from 1875, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, on the subject of what life is like for a journalist:
I can’t speak to the IBU measurements of Cincinnati beer (though I have no doubt that much of it is delicious and, anyway, I will not stand for any Cincy disrespect), but the overall sentiment here is correct. Being a writer is both beautiful and exasperating and I do enjoy a bit of cake in the wee hours.
Every reference I found to “midnight snack” in newspapers in the 1800s and early 1900s had a melancholy undertone: these were meals associated with specific groups who were, in some way, outsiders or overworked or both. There were mentions of police officers sneaking a snack while on the overnight shift, staying vigilant between bites. There were factory workers gobbling sandwiches before laboring on the line and bachelors both young and old using a snack to combat their insomnia-fueled loneliness. One trend piece in the Fall River Daily Herald, in 1896, went on and on about how chafing dishes were the latest and greatest new cooking tool for single fellows, one that “has saved this generation of men” by allowing them to scramble up some eggs or prepare Welsh rarebit for a midnight snack.
Or there was the English writer who wrote, in 1899, that “healthy, strong men, then, who have a late dinner, do not need the midnight snack to cause them to sleep. Only the thin and nervous.” This guy—bless him—admits to being in the latter category, with a particular preference for “a big hard-boiled egg, with a little brown bread and butter … the whole washed down with good milk.”
The reputation of midnight snacks, in the broad media landscape of the time, was such that they could even be used as shorthand for someone who was a bit of a miscreant, as in this bit of doggerel from The Pineville Democrat in 1907:
At some point, a generation later, the reputation shifted. Midnight snacks were no longer a sign of sorrow or trouble or boredom—they represented fun and even a sense of classiness. They were something to savor and celebrate.
The change is especially evident in newspaper and magazine ads of the early 1940s.
In 1940 and 1941, there were at least five different ads in LIFE magazine boasting that particular foods were perfect for a midnight snack, including coffee, pork sausages, Heinz ketchup, toast …
… and my favorite of the ads, shredded wheat:
Look at this group. So happy, so sophisticated. Dressed to the nines, in some kind of club setting—you can imagine, say, Duke Ellington playing the background—just having a grand old time. It’s a scene that, in collective memory, typically conjures highballs and cigarettes. But no. They’re just chattin’ and snackin’; it’s wholesome through and through.
Sophisticates aside, the greatest signal that midnight snacking had attained a different position in American culture was, perhaps, not from ads or lifestyle stories but a DIY guide in Popular Mechanics in 1943. It was instructions for building your own “midnight snack tray” to hold cheese and crackers (a portion of the story appears in the graphic at the top of the post, and here are the full instructions, if you’re interested). Midnight snacking was officially something that merited attention and appreciation and offered a sense of occasion, even if you were alone at home. It might be casual, but it was still something worthy of effort and pride.
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I’ve been trying to pin down what cultural changes explain the vibe shift in how the American media portrayed and understood midnight snacking.
To be honest, it’s mostly a lot of hand-waving speculation, a “more research necessary” sort of situation at this point. (To any editors reading this: Please pay me to do that research and write more on this important topic!) But I do have some additional data points, which have led to some half-baked theories as I write this at (by chance) midnight.
Consider, for example, that the broader cultural trends in the early 1940s included the invention/rise of teenagers (the term “teen-ager” originated in a magazine story in 1941) and the evolution of diners from kinda gritty hangouts for blue-collar men to the family restaurants we know today. (I just want to note that I dug up the latter citation is from my college senior thesis, which I wrote 20 years ago and is the oldest Word file I still have on hand.) The staid traditions and industrial ways of life in the USA were starting to change, and in the postwar era, suburbia would grow and dinner parties would become less formal. I don’t know the degree to which this last shift was underway even earlier, during the course of World War II, but it’s possible that the roots were starting to form, and the perceptions of midnight snacks were an early indicator. Again, pure speculation! But something was going on—no cultural marker lives alone without a pulsing galaxy of influences.
By the 1980s, midnight snacking was well-understood as a glorious fact of life. In the 1980s, New York magazine called out the midnight snacking options at some restaurants in its guide, and in 1983, a writer named Chris Hibbard published The Midnight Snack Cookbook.
Nighttime snacking can still easily conjure “Nighthawks”-esque feelings of isolation or ennui or restlessness—the Netflix show Midnight Diner, set in a tiny restaurant in Tokyo, captures that mood perfectly. That hasn’t gone away and never will. Sometimes a midnight snack really is a lonely thing.
But it has also reached a point of societal appreciation that late-night snacks are popular items at weddings, a casual end to a formal night. The trend goes back to the early 2000s, maybe earlier, and shows no signs of abating. My wife and I had s’mores (made in the fireplace on the venue’s patio) at our wedding a decade ago, and I’ve attended others with hot dogs, mini doughnuts, and candy. A quick Google search gives you endless tips for midnight snacking from the likes of Brides.com, The Know, and MARTHA EFFING STEWART.
The end of John Belanger’s 1965 essay perfectly sums up the joys of midnight snacking and their role in modern life at weddings, out on the town, or at home in your pajamas. So I’ll leave you with this: