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While uses for the term of plate lunch may vary from one location and culture, there are some very specific examples of what people mean when a meal is referred to as a plate lunch. Here are a few examples of how this simple but often well-rounded meal appears in different settings.
The origins for describing a meal as a plate lunch appear to hail from Hawaii. More properly known as pa mea ’ai, plate lunches within this setting generally refer to three components. A Hawaiian food plate lunch will consist of a helping of macaroni salad, white rice and some sort of meat entrée, usually broiled or baked.
This form of the plate lunch is often referred to as an example of a syncretic menu, meaning that it draws the elements from more than one culture or geographical region. Certainly rice is a staple in many cultures and helps to give the plate lunch a bit of pan-Asian flair. Macaroni or pasta is certainly a favorite across the world. Meat selections can range from anything to ground beef to lamb, chicken, or ham. The result is a tasty meal that draws on a nice cross section of what the world has to offer.
In the southern region of the United States, the plate lunch is usually associated with an arrangement of a meat entrée and three vegetables. Southern culture dictates that a proper plate lunch will include are least one green vegetable and never more than one starch per meal. Thus, the Southerner wishing to honor tradition may choose a green vegetable and rice or a potato, but never rice and potatoes at the same time. Some people will refer to go with a starch, a green vegetable and choose carrots or something similar to complete the picture.
A plate lunch in the Midwestern United States is similar to the Southern version, but without any restrictions on the choices of vegetables. Thus, a proper Midwestern plate lunch could easily consist of a meat, potatoes, rice, and macaroni. In fact, there is often an array of starches found on buffets in many Midwestern restaurants.
Variations of the plate lunch are often impacted by local customs and also dietary preferences or needs. For example, the so-called California plate lunch could be a vegetarian delight that might include an entrée that is either soy-based or made with tofu, a raw garden salad, and marinated legumes.
The plate lunch is a favorite offering in many restaurants, as it allows the kitchen to prepare larger amounts of selected foods that can be dished up quickly when patrons place an order. To the hungry customer, a plate lunch menu offers the ability to make some quick and easy choices that will result in a tasty meal for a relatively low price. The end result is a lot of happy people all the way around.
I'm not sure about the exclusive Hawaiian origin of the plate lunch, since I've seen newspaper ads from the 1920s for restaurants offering a plate lunch or "blue plate special," which was usually a meat and two vegetables with tea or coffee, often for something like a dime or fifteen cents. I doubt the Hawaiian trend would have reached my small eastern town by then.
I think it's always been a practice for restaurants to offer a special of the day of some kind at a discount, originally to attract either the local blue collar workers, or perhaps businessmen working downtown.
A Southern plate lunch at a cafe or diner usually includes a list of available meats and vegetables, and frequently, a vegetable of the day.
You can usually pick a meat and three, with a roll or cornbread, or a meat and two, with a dessert, like fruit cobbler and bread. Some places even include iced tea in the price of the meal.
Contrary to the article, it is not unusual for a Southerner to pick more than one starch, as long as it's a vegetable. Most people wouldn't pick macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, but might well have mashed potatoes and pinto beans, or red beans and rice.
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