The History Of The Classic Southern Meat 'N' Three Meal

Meat with sides
Meat with sides - Jupiterimages/Getty Images

There's a reason Southern food has such a legendary place in American culinary psychology: it's been responsible for more classic food innovations than any regional cuisine in the country (even if fried green tomatoes aren't actually from there). Along with New Orleans (which, while certainly distinct, is also by definition Southern), the South more broadly has had a profound effect on the world food landscape; you don't get fried chicken or American BBQ without it.

And one of the lesser-known Southern meals (outside the South, at least) is a meat 'n' three. This isn't simply a meat with three sides -- there's a process involved in this cafeteria-style meal. But where did it come from? How did it become a thing in the first place? No one knows for sure, but the best guess is it came from the growing push for urbanization. A meat 'n' three, in other words, is (recently-minted) city-slicker food.

Read more: How Fried Chicken Is Enjoyed In Countries Around The World

A Meat 'N' Three Isn't Like Diner Food

Meat with sides in dishes
Meat with sides in dishes - Veselovaelena/Getty Images

It's helpful to explain how a meat 'n' three actually works for the uninitiated. The cafeteria-style restaurants are pretty simple, serving a rotating selection of meats and vegetables. You just grab a tray, pick your meat, then pick your sides -- which can be anything from various vegetables to carbs like spaghetti or mac and cheese or even jell-o-based desserts. It's a meat, and it's three sides; those are the defined rules, and beyond that, it's a little up for grabs.

It's also distinct from diner food. Something like a blue plate special is served as a composed plate, typically consisting of a protein, a starch, and a veggie or two. A meat 'n' three, by contrast, is up to the end user. You can get a meat and three veggies, a meat and three carbs, or whatever combination you'd like. It's way more customizable than most plates, without being as much of a free-for-all as a buffet.

Its actual origins, though, are a little bit murkier. The thing is, we don't actually know specifically how it started, or where the first meat 'n' three restaurant was located. There are early indications of a meat 'n' three restaurant in Nashville in the early 20th century called Hap Townes Restaurant, but there's no indication that was the first meat 'n' three place. So we don't know where it started; we can, however, hazard a pretty solid guess as to why it started: urbanization.

The Meat 'N' Three Came About As A Result Of Migration To Cities

Corn and meat in dishes
Corn and meat in dishes - Adshooter/Getty Images

During the early 20th century, more and more workers started moving to big cities like Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta. A mass influx of migrants from the country meant restaurants had to get creative with how they served these customers efficiently while still delivering the sort of foods the country folk would've enjoyed. A meat 'n' three typically keeps the line moving and keeps people fed quickly and efficiently, making it perfect for the new reality for former farm workers who needed a fast meal on their factory lunch break. Thus, the meat 'n' three was born.

However we got there, the meat 'n' three is now a classic Southern staple and a great way to experience a decently broad range of Southern cuisine in one meal. After all, if you can get hush puppies, mac and cheese, collard greens, and meatloaf all on the same plate, that's a win, right?

Read the original article on Daily Meal.