It's hard to determine when and why the words "plate lunch" became associated with the beloved mid-day meal in Acadiana.

The top search result for those words on Google is a Wikipedia entry on the "quintessentially Hawaiian meal" that's "unique to Hawaii."

"I kind of like that that's what comes up," said local food historian Jay Steiner. "Because Hawaiian cuisine is this mashup of all these different cultures — native Hawaiian, Asian, American, military — and it's not so different from down here where you have this intersection of West African, indigenous Louisiana, French, Spanish, Anglo, all these different cultures."

That Google search is a reminder that the plate lunch is neither unique to Hawaii nor Acadiana. It's simply one of many designations for the noon meal found in regions with a large working class. There are cousins of the plate lunch found throughout the country and even the world.

In the South, it's often called the meat and threes. In Appalachia, it's typically known as the blue-plate special. In parts of the Midwest and Great Britain, it's referred to as the meat and two veg.

"The earliest use of the term 'plate lunch' in Acadiana probably happened in the '50s," said Mandi LaCombe, who manages La Cuisine de Maman, the restaurant at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park. "The actual meal has been around earlier than that in your small-town butcher shop, meat markets and things like that. Instead of throwing out the daily cuts that didn't sell or the meat that wasn't as good of a cut, they would cook them down with a really good gravy and put it over rice with some smothered vegetables and bread to soak it all up and sell it really cheap. And you had all these guys who needed meals like this during a full day of farming."

Historically, there was no "lunch" in Acadiana. Instead, people ate a small breakfast and a small supper with a large noon meal known as "dinner" in between.

As Acadiana's workforce diversified, people began traveling farther to work at construction sites and oil field service companies. They often didn't have time to go home for a mid-day meal, so lunch houses began opening near job sites. 

These spots offered affordable, home-style meals that provided working men with the necessary calories to make it through the workday. 

Acadiana's plate lunches aren't Cajun or Creole or Southern. They are meals that showcase the region's history and cultural influences quite unlike anything else.

"Foodways are one of the last cultural things groups will give up," said John Laudun, a folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "If you're an immigrant, you'll give up language, ways of dressing and other things before you'll give up foodways. That's why we still see all these great ways of eating. And lunch houses are another reflection of that. It's a form of community. What we eat and who we break bread with literally becomes who we are."

Foods and cooking styles from around the globe can be found on just about every plate lunch served in Acadiana.

Most traditional plate lunch ingredients — starches such as rice, meats such as pork, vegetables such as okra — weren't found in south Louisiana before the Columbian exchange. This widespread transfer of plants, animals, cultures and people happened about 500 years ago between the Americas, West Africa and the Old World. With it came new ingredients such as onion and garlic and cooking styles such as smothering and frying.

"If you go to any corner of the world where they're known for their food, it's because these people came here and then these people and then these people and these people and these people," Steiner said. "It wasn't a big party. Not everybody got along. There's a lot of horrible, horrible things that happened as a result, but this legacy that we get from all of the mixture of different attitudes and world views is this amazing food and music and way of living."

The standard Acadiana plate lunch showcases West African, Caribbean and Native American indigenous foods and cooking styles in addition to those native to Europe and Nova Scotia.

"This is why I love food history," Steiner said. "Because we can fly through world history on a plate. Whether you know it or not, you're tasting the history, you're tasting the legacy of your ancestors and those who lived here before you."

The future of the plate lunch sometimes seems uncertain. 

The agriculture and oil field service industries continue to struggle in Acadiana. More people are working 9-to-5 jobs and are seeking lower calorie lunch options. 

"We're kind of in a moment where the plate lunch is fading," Laudun said. "Well-established lunch houses like Gallagher's and Country Cuisine are no longer here. The ones left have found a way to survive in the cracks, and I don't know why that is. You've got to tip your hat to these people who are so determined to feed people at a decent price."

Workplace trends and consumer dining habits could help the plate lunch evolve into something new.

"You can keep plate lunches as part of what you eat regularly," Steiner said. "Maybe you throw in a green salad instead of fried okra, beans instead of bread pudding. It doesn't have to be that big, filling, stick-to-your-ribs food to be the perfect lunch. There are also new places doing amazing things with the plate-lunch model."

Examples Steiner points to include Scratch Farm Kitchen, which offers a handful of daily specials with seasonal ingredients, and Cloves Indian Cafe, which offers ethnic rotating lunch specials and sides.

Steiner also points out that plate lunches are much easier to incorporate into a balanced diet if people remember that they were traditionally eaten with small morning and evening meals.

"We have some problems down here with health. We shouldn't be eating as much when we're not working as hard physically, but the overall model isn't bad: Eat a large lunch and a small breakfast and small dinner," Steiner said, pausing for a moment before adding: "Maybe I should start writing the plate lunch diet book."

Craving a plate lunch? Put together a lunch-time game plan by browsing through the Eat Lafayette listing or get your fill all-at-once during the Plate Lunch-a-Palooza from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept 14 at Sugar Mill Pond in Youngsville.

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