I first considered the meaning of the word snack in fourth grade while reading the children’s book The Giver. The main character, Jonas, remembers elementary school, when the proper pronunciation of the word eluded him. He says “smack” instead and is punished with the literal smack of a ruler until he learns to pronounce the word correctly. The author uses Jonas’s confusion to highlight the book’s main theme: that knowledge and pain should never be tied together.
Though the “snack” incident plays only a minor role in The Giver, it made me realize that prior to pre-school there had been no such thing as a snack. There were three meals a day that were prepared and consumed rather formally. Meals were pleasurable and nourishing and that was that. They had purpose—they knew who they were, followed a routine schedule, had a role, and happily filled their recipients. They gave context to a day and helped quell any hint of insatiable hunger, or bouts of melancholy. They maintained a steady daily course from kitchen to table to belly. They delivered.
A day without a proper meal seemed chaotic. TV Dinner? What the hell was that? Jim Lehrer came before dinnertime while Grandfather unwound from his round at the stables reeking of hay and horse feed. I’d watch him sip his Martini and anticipate dinner as the sound of cooking echoed from the kitchen. Then we’d march into the dining room.
Snacks were purpose-driven. But they had no set course or schedule—an insecure chink in their conceptual armor. Was 11:30 in the morning a good time? (But what about lunch?) Then there was 4 P.M., when kids arrive home from school. Orange slices and juice boxes between soccer practices?
It was not about eating, but about refueling. It was the refueling process—the snack’s trump card that enabled it to take over, supplying an array of nutri-grain bars, gushers, and other sugar-laden faux fruit concoctions. Americans were quickly hooked as snacks tricked us into thinking they were a part of the eating process. They smacked us in the face—convincing us that we needed food. Artifice was the secret to the snack’s success.
I first sensed my unconscious dependence on snacks when I traveled to Europe for the first time. I was on a mother-daughter trip composed of two mothers and two teenage daughters. Prior to takeoff, we celebrated with a snack. My mother’s friend Sarah’s dutiful boyfriend had packed us sweet and savory Pepperidge Farm goodies: Milano cookies and Goldfish crackers. We munched away and cackled like a bunch of magpies. But then I noticed the crumbs on the aisle, which the French stewardess had seen, too; she turned up her Gallic nose. I couldn’t blame her. I immediately felt disgusted. Mindlessly eating before take-off en route to Paris, where eating was practically a birthright, seemed absurd and unnecessary. I quickly became self-conscious and stopped snacking, working up my courage to order something in French in an attempt to redeem myself and my fellow gros americans.
Paris was grand. I was a moody seventeen-year-old, eager to explore and shake the shackles of adolescence. I wanted to feel European and cool. I never managed it but I did enjoy the trip and its meals. In Le Petit Prince, which we’d been reading in French class, the fox says: “Il Faut des rites”—rituals matter. This came up time and again when the Parisian mealtime gong sounded. Something as simple as a meal was also a ritual, one capable making sense of a day and providing a connection to it and to our foreign surroundings—bringing a place to life. We broke bread and let the crumbs go unnoticed, something meals allow. Meals brought satisfaction, pleasure, and more importantly, communion. The snack, by contrast, was insipid. It undermined the fox’s sense of ritual. It disguised itself as something authentic, worming its way into our circadian rhythms, when the snack was responsible for its disruption. Snacks make you want to eat when you are not hungry. Their preemptive approach is tactless, artless but key to day-to-day life.
The word itself is believed to date to the thirteenth century. It was a Middle English and Dutch way of suggesting a bite or snap, what a dog did impulsively (“snakken”). In general, it was also associated also with eating and chattering. Its wayfaring etymological roots expose its very nature.
But it is the American snack-smack-bite that has successfully weaved (and sold) the gastronomic myth—presenting it as a bastion against starvation, when the truth is the opposite. The snack starves us at a variety of levels. It convinces us we’re hungry, spewing nutritional diatribe, skewing the truth behind how why we eat. Like Jonas in The Giver, we ironically feel unprotected—vulnerable and exposed. Worse still, the meal seems further and further away.
Molly Hannon is an American journalist who has reported from Berlin, Paris, Rome, and small communities in the American South. She is currently enrolled in Columbia University’s Journalism Masters program. You can find more of her work here.