English society has been termed a pre-eminently "dinner-giving society." And certain it is that it is especially the custom in England for friends to cement their intimacy by partaking of the social meal at each others' houses.
espite of being so generally practised, the art of dinner-giving, in this country, is far from having attained the degree of perfection to be expected from the number and wealth of its votaries. The millionaire too often lacks acquaintances of congenial tastes, and is compelled to fall back on gorgeous profusion to bestow lustre on his table. On the other hand, a person of more slender means is liable to fall into the error of supposing that his friends do not care to dine at his table, unless he imitates the surroundings of the wealthier classes. It occurs to comparatively few persons that the chief charm of a dinner-party lies in ease of manner on the part of the host and hostess, together with all the arrangements of the entertainment being in accordance with the income and the natural mode of living of the entertainer.
The very circumstance of friends being assembled by invitation should guarantee that especial care will be taken to provide for completeness in every detail connected with the repast; but beyond this effort extraordinary expenses and excessive exertions need not be made. It is not needful that a host should for a few hours appear richer and more refined in his mode of living than he really is. Such attempts deceive no one, and can only have for result diminution of self-respect on the part of the pretender.
That a great many persons aim at giving set dinners, without particularly caring for the comfort of their guests, is a melancholy fact often thrust upon one's observation in ping through life. Having a sort of notion that dinners are a stepping-stone to society, some people blindly rush into the act, without having taken into consideration the conditions under which a successful dinner can alone be given. It is not the mere fact of feeding acquaintances that secures their good-will. The food must be well chosen, well cooked, well served, and the company must be well selected. When devoid of adequate means to carry these desiderata into effect, the better plan is to decline such undertakings altogether. Or, if the giving of a dinner be a necessity, notwithstanding an unhappy conviction on the part of the host of his inability to acquit himself creditably of the task, is there any reason that he should give the repast at his own home at all?
In no country in the civilised world is the art of dinner-giving so well understood as in France. Simplicity, ease, and plenty are as much the characteristics of French dinners as display, restraint, and profusion mark the average dinner-parties given in England. Broadly speaking, in no country are so many good dinners given in private houses on small means as in France; and nowhere than in England are so many bad dinners of the same class the result of comparatively boundless expenditure.
The reason for our frequent failures lies in an Englishman persisting in receiving dinner company at home, without having proper means at hand to carry out his wishes. The Frenchman avoids this error, by only attempting that which daily practice convinces him he can depend upon being well performed by those about him.
The following directions will, it is hoped, be found useful in preventing some of the errors which commonly attend dinner-giving by inexperienced beginners:
All invitations should be issued a week or ten days previously, in the joint names of the host and hostess
As far as practicable the guests should be acquainted with each other, and likely to harmonise in general conversation. Crotchety people, and people that like to absorb too much attention, are as a rule to be guarded against.
An equal numbers of ladies and gentlemen should be invited.
Whatever the desired number of guests may be, the invitations should be limited by the size of the dining-room table. At least sixteen inches of room should be allotted to each individual. If the table be capable of extension, sufficient room should be left for the attendants to pass freely round when serving. Several changes of plates, knives, forks, and glasses, should be provided, over and above the number of guests invited.
In laying the cloth, the wants of the diners should be first considered, and lastly the decorations. This observation is noteworthy, as there is some danger lest the present taste for table decorations should trench unpleasantly on the comforts of the guests. Massive groups of fruit and flowers in the centre of a small table are quite out of place, as are likewise "corner" decorations. Whatever impedes the movements of the guests in helping themselves, if required to do so, is a drawback to enjoyment.
As a general rule, the decorations of a dinner-table should only be slightly raised, admitting of an uninterrupted view of each other by the assembled guests. Flowers in pots and growing vines are no longer in favour. They are considered fit only to decorate, a sideboard or side table; and even in such places they may be found in the way, if the space be limited. Fresh flowers only should be used to decorate dinner-tables. Artificial flowers are not in good taste, and are never seen in private houses where refinement prevails. The taste displayed in decorating tables is never so commendable as when applied to some useful purpose. And now that it is the custom to place fruit on the table at the beginning of the repast, the effect produced by grouping fruit is a legitimate object of study. Nothing is more appropriate than a centre-piece composed of dessert fruit, leaving choice flowers to figure in small vases and specimen glasses, in different parts of the table, marking by their position the boundary of certain dishes, and breaking a line of plates and glasses.
A good supply of water-bottles, salt-cellars, and small cruet-stands should be placed within easy reach of the guests. The fashion of requiring diners to wait till such condiments are handed by servants is senseless, unless ample attendance of the best kind be provided. One of the best authorities on dinner-giving says: "A chief maxim in dining with comfort is to have what you want where you want it. It is ruinous to have to wait for first one thing and then another, and to have the little additions brought when what they belong to is half or nearly finished." It requires one servant to every two guests, to dispense entirely with self-serving. At the same time, it is a mark of ill-manners for a guest to be constantly asking for things to be passed to him, or to reach them from any distance. Least of all must he, under any emergency, rise and help himself.
The table-cloth is now almost invariably left on the table for dessert. This plan saves a great deal of trouble, and on that account is to be commended. Whenever it is intended that the cloth shall remain for dessert, white damask slips, of the same pattern as the tablecloth, should be laid along the sides and at the ends of the table. The slips should be of a width to be easily removed without displacing any articles placed on the table for dessert. Table-napkins are, of course, indispensable. If the company expected is at all numerous, the name of each guest, plainly written on a card or small sheet of note-paper, should be laid on the table-napkin that marks the visitor's place. When this arrangement is observed, very little guidance to their places is needed on the part of the hostess.
The question of lighting the table is very important, and should be studied beforehand. A dining-room chandelier seldom suffices to give sufficient light for a festive occasion, and requires to be supplemented by other means. Branched candelabra, containing wax candles, are the most suitable, and lamps are the least convenient. In the absence of candelabra, rather, than place a large lamp on the table, where it is certain to interfere with the view of the guests, several candlesticks, judiciously placed among the ornaments and at the corners of the table, produce a more pleasing effect. Small, plain glass candlesticks, such as are sometimes used for lighting a pianoforte, are in good taste at an unpretending dinner, where glass and not silver is the principal feature in the service. The candle ornaments should either be of plain glass, to correspond with the candlesticks, or very small wreaths of artificial flowers may be used. Lamps are very useful for lighting the mantelpieces and sideboards of a dining-room, where they aid in producing a generally diffused light, so desirable at a dinner-party.
Different coloured wine-glasses, denoting the various kinds of wine to be served at a dinner, are much in use, but are by no means indispensable. Carried to excess, the contrast of showy colours is rather vulgar-looking than not, and is more suggestive of a railway refreshment-room than the quiet taste that should regulate such matters in a private house. The distinct shape of the wine-glasses should be sufficient to prevent confusion in their use. No one, for instance, would think of pouring sherry into a champagne glass, or vice versa. Some people consider that tinted glass, green or red, is favourable to the enjoyment of certain light wines; but, as the aroma of the wine itself is the principal point to consider, the colour of the glass is of small moment. Scrupulous order in the arrangement of the table, and the perfect brilliancy which results from careful cleaning, are of far greater importance. The latter efforts cannot be dispensed with without marring the best endeavours to achieve success in laying a cloth. Plenty of knives, forks, and spoons should be within reach of the guests' hands, and an unlimited supply should be on the sideboard, to replace those removed. On special occasions it is better to put aside one's choice dinner-service, if limited in the requisite number of articles, and to hire ample quantities of plates, dishes, etc., of a uniform pattern, even although the hired service may be of a commoner description. Nothing so seriously retards the progress of a dinner as for the courses to have to be kept back whilst plates and dishes, already used, are being washed and sorted, to reappear at the table. It is not only bad management to suffer this delay, but bad economy, and frequently causes a failure in what would otherwise be a well-cooked and promptly-served repast. In some unpretending establishments the plan is adopted of having only two kinds of dinner service - the common blue willow or other easily obtained and well-known pattern for daily use, and plain white china for special occasions, on the principle that plenty of each can be used and replaced at all times, at little cost and trouble.
Small decanters (pints) of sherry should be placed at intervals on the dinner-table, without stoppers. Decanter-stands are not necessary, and are only in the way. Wine-coolers are also out of date on a dinner-table. Vegetables are now never served except from the sideboard, at any except strictly family dinners. It saves a great deal of trouble to have vegetable-dishes with two or three compartments, each containing a different vegetable. Most people like plenty of vegetables, and when served singly, they are apt to be offered too late for enjoyment, if offered at all.
The subject of ordering and serving dinner at a party must be reserved for another article.
O the uninitiated, the ordering of a formal dinner is a perplexing question that seldom admits of solution, save by the aid of an experienced cook and confectioner. The order in which the courses should succeed each other, and the various kinds of wines and viands that it is proper to introduce at certain stages of a ceremonious repast, are matters that few young housekeepers are competent to decide without referring to some well-informed source. To remove any embarrassing doubts, and to supply trustworthy information, is the especial design of the HOUSEHOLD GUIDE; and the object of the present series of articles on dinner-giving is to make clear every detail of the matter under consideration. To those who are already well practised in the art of dinner-giving there may be nothing new to suggest; for in the present plan we purpose confining our remarks to the customs in most general use throughout English society.
The first question for the intending dinner-giver to decide is whether the repast shall be served? -- la Russe or in the modified English fashion. By the former system, no eatables are placed upon the table save bonbons, which are used with fruit and flowers to decorate the dinner-table. All else is handed round, having been previously carved at the sideboard. The dinner la Russe is a most enjoyable meal well served, because the host and hostess - to say nothing of the guests, who are sometimes pressed into the service as carvers-are left at full liberty to entertain their friends by joining freely in conversation. But no method of serving a dinner is more dependent for success on the efficiency of servants. Ordinary domestics are not equal to the task: therefore, except in establishments where servants are especially engaged to discharge the office, a modification of the dinner a'la Russe generally prevails in England.
In accordance with the latter system, the table is laid as described in a foregoing article, sufficient space being left to admit of any required dishes being placed opposite the host and hostess. At ceremonious dinners, all what are commonly called "side dishes" - such as ham, tongues, etc. -are banished to the sideboard, to be there carved and afterwards handed round to the company. It is not unusual to have the different entr?es placed upon the table, not that the guests may help themselves and neighbours, but that the company may see of what the course consists. If the latter arrangement be not adopted, it is usual to have a written menu, or bill of fare, placed before each guest, in order that appetite may be reserved for any dishes preferred. Slices of ham, tongue, or any similar meat, when carved at the sideboard, are handed round in a separate dish, just as the accompanying vegetables and sauces are served.
At dinner-parties, three courses and dessert are the usual rule. Entrées and removes may be more or less numerous, according to the character of the repast. With regard to the serving of the latter, entrées or made dishes always appear between the first and second course, and removes take the place of the roast joint and poultry. Game, when in season, ducklings and green peas, savoury puddings, or even a dish of macaroni or an omelette, may constitute a remove.
In many cases removes are dispensed with as a separate course. Game, or its representative, is at such times placed upon the table at the same time as the pastry. The third course consists of pastry, creams, jellies, etc. Cheese, butter, celery, and mixed salad are handed round before dessert. The cheese is to be cut into, dice on a small dish or plate, and on no account should be served from the table. Dry biscuits and "pulled bread" are a favourite accompaniment of cheese. Some persons prefer to introduce anchovy and sardine toast at the latter stage of the dinner. The intention is to refresh the palate for wine, but of course the practice is not much in vogue when ladies are diners.
Salad, which occupies a very subordinate place at English dinner-tables, is much appreciated in France, and, instead of being reserved till the finale of a dinner, is considered very welcome as an entrée, and as an accompaniment to all stewed meats. Iced puddings is served immediately before dessert is placed on the table, and sometimes a second course of ices is served at dessert.
The selection of wines should be in harmony with the principal viands that are to constitute the repast. Each kind of wine has its distinct place at a dinner, although individual tastes may occasionally lead a host to depart from established custom. Three or four kinds of wine are as many as any sensible dinner-giver introduces. Of these, sherry, hock, champagne, and claret are the most esteemed. Port is now seldom drunk at table. At dessert it still appears when people are supposed to have a preference for the wine; but it is not in much favour, except with elderly people and invalids.
The following is the order in which wine is generally served. Sherry, as we have already observed, should be always placed on the table in small decanters within reach of the guests. After soup, the custom is either for a servant to go round the table saying, "Sherry, sir?" - or "ma'am"- and pouring from the decanter in his hand - about two-thirds of a wine-glassful; or a gentleman seated next to a lady may offer to put sherry into her glass. This act is not to be associated with that of taking wine. Except with intimate friends, wine-taking is out of fashion. The host, if he wishes to enliven a silent member, or to put anyone on a particularly easy footing, may ask for the pleasure of taking a glass of wine with anyone. But visitors that are not intimate need not consider themselves under the obligation towards ladies. They are only expected to pour wine into a lady's glass, adding water if required.
During the courses of fish and soup, sherry is served, and hock, or similar kinds of wine, are taken with entr?es. As soon as the "roast" is served, champagne should be drawn and supplied to the guests. Those who begin with champagne, if well experienced, generally drink no other wine with solid food. At the same time, claret is usually offered during the meat course, red wines being considered particularly suited as an accompaniment to such fare as venison, mutton, and beef. Light Rhenish wines are, on the same principle, in favour with light dishes; but the latter class of wines seldom agree with champagne, and people that are in the habit of dining much in society restrict their choice of wines to a very limited number. After ice has been served, small glasses of liqueur are handed round, containing maraschino, curáoa, or brandy. Young ladies generally decline these stimulants.
At dessert, claret, Madeira, and sherry, and sometimes port, are placed opposite the host, who passes the bottles round in succession; the gentlemen, on this occasion, performing the office of filling the ladies' glasses nearest, to them. Having been the round of the table, the bottles return to the host.
A word of suggestion may not be here out of place to caution unpractised diners at grand dinners from partaking of much wine at dessert. It is not considered uncourteous to decline wine at such times altogether; but if wine be taken it should be of a character resembling that which has constituted the principal beverage during the preceding portion of, the repast. Thus a diner who has taken only champagne at dinner, with a little sherry after soup, will do wisely to take nothing but sherry or Madeira at dessert; whilst one who has made claret or Burgundy his principal draught will remain constant to the same class of wine throughout the meal. Some persons are so favoured with a good digestion that no kind of mixture produces an ill effect; but these are exceptional cases.
Champagne, which is served only in England during the substantial courses, is in France regarded as essentially a dessert wine. It is customary to serve champagne iced; red wines should never be iced. Claret is in cold weather better for being a little warmed - simply placing the bottle on the mantelpiece of the dining-room for an hour or so is sufficient.
During the summer months the introduction of claret cup is becoming year by year a more general practice. When served, claret cup is offered at the same time as champagne. For the reasons already stated, guests do not usually partake of both beverages. Iced water should be offered to guests who decline all kinds of wine.
After dessert has been duly partaken of the lady of the house, presiding at table, seeks to arrest the attention of the most honoured lady guest at table, and by a slight signal intimates that she is about to leave the dining-room. Thereupon the youngest gentleman at the table advances towards the door, and holds it open during the exit of the ladies to the drawing-room, the other gentlemen rising as the ladies leave the room.
Sufficient time for the enjoyment of wine having been allowed, a servant, by preconcerted arrangement, brings in coffee. The coffee should be strong, clear, and hot, poured into coffee-cups, but without sugar or milk. Having been served in the dining-room, the same service is performed in the drawing-room. Within about half an hour from having served coffee, tea is generally taken into the drawing-room in the same fashion; and in most houses notice of the fact is given to the master of the house, if still in the dining-room. This is the sign that those gentlemen who please are at liberty to join the ladies.
At exclusively gentlemen's dinners only is smoking allowed; and even then smoking should not be permitted in the dining-room itself.
Upon the conversational powers of the guests it depends in a great measure whether the most sumptuous and well-served repast be a success or a failure. Talking is at all times a more difficult accomplishment than the faculty of uttering merely words would lead one to suppose, and talking at a dinner-table is the most difficult of social acquirements. To know equally what to say, and how to say it, and whom to address, is the essence of good conversation, especially at table. The notion that to speak only to the lady whom you have conducted to table is as far removed from propriety as addressing the assembled company would be. Tact only can suggest when a remark is of a sufficiently general nature to be taken up by any of the company present, and the utmost circumspection is required to prevent what might only be thrown out as a passing observation being turned into an animated discussion between two individuals. Also it is the height of ill taste to engage the attention of the host and hostess in listening to long stories, when their minds are evidently bent on seeing to the general well-being of their company. Any approach to lengthy descriptions of purely personal adventure cannot, fail to be out of place at a dinner-table, where the obvious business of the company is to consume, and not to listen. Good talkers, nevertheless, do excellent service when, during any delay in the appearance of the different courses, solemn silence threatens to cast a damp on the spirits of the guests, by starting some interesting subject for general comment. The purpose having been served, and the course of the dinner resumed, it is the duty of the guests to drop the subject started pleasantly, and subside into chatty small talk with their nearest neighbours.
In disposing of her guests at table, the hostess should bear in mind the suitability of her respective guests as neighbours during the repast. If two gentlemen of the same business or profession are invited, it is generally advisable to put them far enough apart to prevent their conversation from being too engrossing to each other, to the exclusion of their attention being devoted to the rest of the company.
The amusements provided for after dinner are seldom of a special character. Guests rarely stay long in the drawing-room after dinner, eleven o'clock being- the hour at which dinner company generally disperses. It is not unusual, however, for a host and hostess to receive evening company after dinner by invitation. On such occasions music is a favourite amusement.
The style of dress worn at dinner-parties is, for gentlemen, strictly that of a black dress suit, with an open waistcoat and white neckerchief. With ladies greater latitude is allowed, according to their age and engagements after dinner. Thus, if a lady is invited to dine in company with a large party, and is not going elsewhere afterwards, she would simply wear a low-necked, short-sleeved dress, of not too elaborate a style; whilst if she intends going to a ball or concert after the dinner, she would attire herself suitably for such occasions. Gloves are never worn at dinner, although they are not removed till sitting down at table. Some gentlemen carry the punctilio of ceremonious visiting at dinner to the extent of carrying their hats with them into the drawing-room, leaving them to be brought by the servants afterwards into the hall; but the latter is not a general custom. Further particulars about dinner-parties must be reserved for a future number.
efore quitting the subject of formal dinners, it may not be out of place to offer some explanation of the terms commonly used in French cookery. By an affectation of refinement, the menu, or bill of fare, which it is now customary to place opposite guests at English dinner tables, is almost invariably compiled in the French language. Many of the dishes might be equally well described in our native tongue, without any detriment to their excellence; and of late years, to the honour of some English persons in high position, the above error has been corrected, at their suggestion, on several occasions when most distinguished company has been received.
The following are some of the terms in most general use:
Aspic means a savoury jelly used for garnishing cold game, pies, etc. Sometimes a fowl, or dish of cold ash, is enveloped in aspic, the transparency of the jelly enabling the viand to be plainly seen.
Bechamel-A rich white sauce, in which savoury herbs, cream, and veal stock figure largely.
Compote-Stewed meat or fruit, as pigeons en compote, compote of apples, etc.
Consommé-A rich stock or gravy, as consommé de volaille, i.e., made of fowls or game. Plain consommé is "stock."
Croquettes-Small balls of fried rice, potatoes, fish or poultry.
Côtelettes-Cutlets of fish, fowl, or meat. Côtelettes en papillotes are cutlets cooked in paper containing savoury herbs, piquant sauce, etc.
Matelote-A stew composed of fish and wine sauce
Marinade-A mixture of oil, vinegary savoury herbs etc., in which articles to be afterwards stewed or broiled are previously soaked.
Purée-Vegetables boiled to a pulp and passed through a sieve.
Potage-Vegetable soup, or plain broth.
Quenelles-Finely-minced veal, game, fowl, etc., force-meat balls.
Ragoût-Stew, or hash
Salmi-A hash of meat or game previously roasted.
Sauté-Meat or poultry lightly browned in a stewpan, with a rich gravy.
Souchée-Water sauce, in which savoury herbs and white meat have been lightly boiled.
Hâtelets-Plated skewers garnished with vegetables also skewers on which larks, ortolans, and similar small birds, are served.
A la Tartare-Highly seasoned with pepper, curry powder, etc.
A la Maître d'Hôtel-Broiled fish or meat buttered whilst hot, with the addition of finely-chopped parsley or sweet herbs.
A la Indienne-Flavoured strongly with curry powder
A l'Eau-Plain boiled
Entrées-Made dishes served with the first course.
Hors d'OEuvres-Savoury trifles or relishes, as anchovies, sardines, served during the first course.
Piéce de Résistance-The roast or principal joint, as sirloin, round of beef, saddle, haunch of mutton, etc.
Entremets-Small dishes served with the second Course.
Relevés-Removes, in place of the principal joints.
We have remarked that most recently a decided tendency has been apparent in the best English society to adopt a more simple mode of entertainment than has for a considerable time prevailed. Gradually it is beginning to dawn on the leaders of fashion that the best English cookery is by no means inferior to some of the productions of foreign cooks. In point of expensiveness - a very material consideration in the eyes of many - a thoroughly good English dinner may vie with the most elaborate bill of fare composed for the greater part of morsels with high-sounding names. Our real or mock turtle soup, saddle of Southdown mutton, sirloin of Scotch beef, fat capons, choice game, and finely-grown vegetables, are inferior to no class of living throughout the civilised world. What English cookery really does require is skill on the part of cooks, to send up their productions in perfection to table. Whilst nothing is more enjoyable than a well-roasted joint, hot and cleanly served, few kinds of food are equally unsatisfactory, if wanting in these attributes. Conscious of the genuine excellence of our nationa1 dishes, in many of the best Continental establishments the owners keep English servants exclusively to attend to the roasting of meat, and plain boiling of vegetables. Perhaps, when the above facts become more generally known, English housewives will take heart of grace, and no longer apologise to strangers for offering them a simple English repast. The attempt to give foreigners and others, who keep professed cooks, badly-made entrees, is very like sending coals to Newcastle. The labour is not appreciated; regrets are felt for the host's well-intentioned efforts, but the failure is none the less great.
Supposing, therefore, that it is the intention of an English host to set before his friends national fare, let us consider what are the requisites. In the first place, due notice should be given by invitation, fully as long as that which it is usual to issue for a more pretentious repast. This is chiefly necessary on two accounts - firstly, because the success of a dinner is mainly dependent on the congenial spirits of the guests - and in these busy times it is sometimes not easy to bring desirable people together; secondly, in order to secure the viands being in good condition for cooking. Whether venison, beef, or mutton be in question, all joints require to be kept, or "hung," more or less time, according to the season. This is best done at home, the housekeeper having previously been aided by the butcher in the selection of the choicest kinds of meat. Some kinds of poultry - turkey, for instance - are wonderfully improved in flavour by being hung; and for all game the process is necessary. In addition there are numberless minor matters which claim attention, where dinner-giving is not a frequent practice. These details, trivial though they may be in themselves, all tend to completeness, the principal charm of a dinner-table; and, by being disposed of previously, set the host and hostess free from hurry and embarrassment at the last moment. Having taken all precautions to have everything in order, the entertainers may be expected to enter freely into the enjoyment of the scene - a pleasure too often denied them when a party has been hurriedly assembled, without sufficient appliances at hand.
When every order has been given, and due provision made, the successful carrying out of the scheme depends on punctuality. The punctual attendance of guests at dinner is a matter of sheer duty. Everyone's comfort, and a large pecuniary outlay on the part of the entertainer, are at stake when unpunctual people are concerned. It is generally understood that half an hour after the time of meeting stated on the card of invitation is the precise time at which dinner is supposed to be served. Thus an invitation for dinner at half-past seven o'clock signifies that dinner will be served at eight, and it should be a point of honour for all guests to assemble during the above interval.
By some inconceivable notions of hospitality, orders are sometimes given to the cook to "put the fish down" immediately on the arrival of the last expected guest. What is the result? One unfortunate individual not only suffices to keep all the rest of the company waiting, but causes all the viands to be overdone. Were it a mere question of cooking a dish of fish, the inconvenience would not be great, but when the serving of several courses is in question, the necessity for keeping exact time is tenfold greater. People that are very particular in their habits of punctuality sometimes affix the letters "P. B. P." (please be punctual) on cards of invitation to dinner, If after a similar warning the request is disregarded, it is an act of discourtesy to any guests that may be assembled at the proper time, to tarry for those who fail in their appointment.
The order of guests going in to dinner is the same in general society - namely, the lady of the house, or her representative, takes the head of the table, and the master of the house the foot. The most distinguished lady of the company is conducted to the table by the master, and is placed on his right hand, having on his left the lady next in distinction. The same rule is observed with regard to the lady of the house. The two gentlemen it is designed to honour most are placed on her right and left hand.
During the interval that elapses between the assembling of the company and going to table, the hostess quietly designates to the gentlemen guests the ladies whom she wishes them to conduct to the dining-room. If it should happen that the guests are strangers to each other, an introduction from the hostess is necessary. When dinner is announced, the host should rise and offer his arm to the lady he is to lead to the dining-room, and the rest of the company follow his example. The last to leave the drawing-room are the hostess and the gentleman who escorts her. The reason is obvious: it is the duty of the lady of the house to see all her visitors on their way to the dining- room before she leaves the drawing-room herself.
As we have before remarked, it greatly facilitates the ease of seating company when the names of the guests are placed on their plates. It is by no means an easy task for a hostess to remember the exact place assigned to each guest without some aid of the kind.
The head of the table is generally the position farthest from the door, and the foot opposite. The master of the house usually has the sideboard at his back.
If two kinds of soup be given, the clear or white soup is placed opposite the hostess. Boiled meats and puddings are likewise placed opposite her; and the roast joints and pies are served by the host.
Whatever sauces, vegetables, or accompanying relishes may be desired for consumption with certain meats, should be placed on the table, at simple dinners, previous to the principal dish itself. Thus, if mock turtle soup be in question, cut lemons should be on the table; if roast beef, scraped horseradish; if lamb, mint sauce, & etc., with appropriate gravies. In removing dishes from the table the accessories are taken away first, and the principal dish last.
It is no longer considered necessary, even at the plainest dinners, to have more than one dish on the table at a time-unless, indeed, the party be large. According to the present principle, fish is not placed on the table till the soup is removed; and the joints are not kept waiting under cover, as was often the practice, till the made dishes bad been handed round. So to speak, each dish, now-a-days, with its accompanying vegetables and gravies, constitutes a course. The plan is very sensible, and tends greatly to the successful production and enhanced enjoyment of every kind of dish.
The size of the joints and the number of made dishes should bear some proportion to the number of diners. For all purposes of agreeable conversation, eight persons are as many as should be invited at a time. It is no compliment to crowd guests at a table, and to provide for them in a wholesale manner. Less on the table and fewer to consume is better taste. Other means of receiving large numbers of acquaintances at a time are better adapted to the purpose than by invitation to dinner.
Sameness is the chief drawback to what are termed plain dinners. Directly invitations are issued for ever so small a party, the mind of many entertainers seems to run on a stereotyped bill of fare. The saddle of mutton and boiled tongue and fowls, especially, are almost as inevitable as if decreed by fate. Granting that these are the very best of fare, it is possible to have enough of the same thing, and to wish for a change. A well-broiled rumpsteak and oyster sauce, or a roast fowl with watercresses, a goose, a breast of veal stuffed and rolled, a jugged hare, or even a boiled leg of mutton with mashed turnips, would be welcome as a change in the festive season, when roast beef and boiled turkey, or saddle of mutton and boiled fowls, have been repeated to death. If any member of the company is known to entertain a partiality for any kind of dish, it is a compliment to set such fare on the table, without reference to its being a "company dish" or not. Some persons are passionately fond of sucking-pig, others equally enjoy boiled calf's-head, and many consider a well-boiled steak and kidney pudding the very perfection of good living. Again, it is universally acknowledged by experienced diners that the course of game comes too late in the general order of things. A brace of pheasants is often purchased at great expense, to be put on the table, looked at, and removed without having been touched. Most people, if they had the option, would rather see pheasants occasionally take the place of fowls, at a time when the appetite is keen enough to enjoy the delicacy.
The same error dictates that very little variety is made in the bill of fare for summer or winter season. Hot salmon and roast lamb are seen at almost all summer dinner parties, when people would so much prefer nearly a cold dinner, cooling salads and beverages. Plain lobsters, a dressed crab, a dish of smelts, trout, or red mullet would be quite a luxury in the spring, after the solid sameness of our winter cheer.
Of course, in all we have said in the latter part of this article, we refer to homely dinner-parties, and not to costly and elaborate entertainments.
Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s - Dinner Parties. [As written]
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