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( Originally Published 1902 )
The formal dinner is one of the most important occasions in social life, the test to which the degree of acquaintance of any one with the customs of good society is often put, the trial scene of good breeding and familiarity with polite observance. The rules to be observed at table are so many and minute that they require careful study, and many who pass muster on less formal occasions, may sadly err in some of the indispensible details of the etiquette of the table.
In ordinary, informal dinners, indeed, this strictness of observance is not demanded, and much more freedom is permissible, the home feeling here taking the place of ceremonious rules. Yet even here it is important to avoid falling into too great a latitude of action, since habits formed at home are very apt to accompany one abroad.
In giving a dinner party, the first and often the most important question is, whom to invite. How many to invite follows as a problem of little less importance. For a pleasant dinner the number should be small rather than large, eight or ten being a fair average. An even number seems preferable, though this is not a matter of essential consideration.
Of course, large dinners are often a necessity, when given for business, family, or other reasons; and when display is the leading motive in giving the dinner, the number may be as great as the resources of the establishment will permit. But if comfort and the pleasure of social intercourse are the objects proposed, the number will need to be limited.
As to who should be invited, we have here a question that has sadly troubled many generations of hosts and hostesses. To bring together an incongruous mass of people is simply to invite failure. Guests should be selected with strict attention to a sense of fitness; and equal attention should be given to placing those of similar tastes together at table. The ease of conversation and the enjoyment of the dinner depend largely on this. Clever conversationalists are always most desirable guests. These are not always to be had, but even a single fluent talker often acts as a leaven that will rouse to speech a whole company of ordinarily quiet people. The invitation should be sent a week or two before the time fixed, or as much as three weeks if the affair is to be one of great formality.
Duties of the Hostess.
A dinner party is regarded by many persons as the most formal and, at the same time, the most elegant mode of entertaining guests-it is certainly the one which most severely taxes the resources of the hostess. Any woman not positively ill-bred can fill the position of hostess at a ball; but it requires tact, readiness, and a thorough knowledge of society to make a dinner party, in the ordinary parlance, " go off well." No matter how exquisite the china, glass, floral decorations, silver, and linen may be, if the hostess is a dull or awkward woman, the banquet will not be a success, for a proper selection of guests and the power of drawing them into gay and brilliant conversation are quite as needful as any of the material accessories.
The hostess should call into requisition all her tact and knowledge of society to set her guests at ease. No accident must dis turb her. If her rarest china or most precious bit of glass is broken, she must appear not to notice it. If any one has had the misfortune to arrive late, she must welcome him or her cordially, though her duties to her other guests have not permitted her to wait in the drawing-room more than the fifteen minutes permitted by etiquette to the tardy. She must think only of encouraging the timid, inducing the taciturn to talk, and enabling all to contribute their best conversational powers to the general fund of enter - tainment. The same rules, of course, apply to the host.
The arrangements for dinner should be much the same whether the party be large or small, though, of course, the larger number will require a few extra servants, and may render advisable some extra courses. It should be remembered, however, by givers of dinners that too many courses are objectionable, and that in the best society of to-day fewer dishes are offered than was formerly the custom.
The hour for dinner should be fixed to suit the convenience of the guests and will vary in city and country. In the city it should be no earlier than seven nor later than eight o'clock, and the probability must be borne in mind that the guests will not all assemble till at least fifteen minutes after the hour named in the invitations. Tardiness of this kind was formerly considered rude, but has now become so common as to be expected and allowed for.
Arranging the Table.
In the centre of the table should be either a vase of flowers or a dish of fruit. Ferns make a very attractive effect. There should be small dishes of candies, figs, prunes, crystallized ginger, etc. Olives or radishes, salted almonds, etc., should beset in pretty little dishes on the table. These, with the silver, glass carafes of water, and wine decanters, complete the decoration of the table.
Everything else should be served from the side-table, and passed to each guest. This saves great confusion, and contributes more than anything else to the comfort of the meal. . It is important also to have warm food served on hot plates. Cold plates will spoil the best dinner ever cooked.
The table cloth should be of the finest quality; and it is well for those whose means do not permit them to follow fashion's every caprice, to remember that fine white table linen is always in place. If colored materials are used, the latest edict of fashion forbids the employment of any stuffs that will not wash.
Decorations should always be arranged so that they will not prevent the guests from seeing ore another. The preference is now for low dishes of flowers of delicate perfume. Those of strong fragrance should be avoided, as in a warm room their odor may become oppressive.
An ostentatious display of flowers, plate, or ornaments of any kind is not in the best taste ; nothing being more vulgar than a seeming desire to impress your friends with a show of wealth.
Placing the Table Ware.
On the right of the space left for the plate place two knives and a spoon. The present mode is to use silver knives as well as forks for fish, and in that case this knife is placed with the others. On the left three forks-that for sweets smaller than the others. At times other knives, forks, and spoons are provided, but it is better to bring these in as needed for the separate courses,
The glasses are placed on the right. These should be at least four in number. As it is a great breach of decorum, as well as a sign of ignorance, to drink one sort of wine from a glass intended for another, we shall describe the glasses commonly in use. The tall glass, or that with the shallow, saucer-like top, is for champagne; the green for hock, chablis and similar wines; the large, ample glass for claret and burgundy; the round, full-shaped glass for port, and the smaller glass for sherry.
It must not be understood, however, that wines are essential to a high-toned dinner. Some of our very best families, the acknowledged leaders of fashion, never put champagne or any other kind of wine on their tables.
Each guest must be provided with a table-napkin, which, in laying the table, should occupy the place reserved for the plate.
There are many different and various ingenious ways of treating the dinner-napkin. The simplest is to leave it in the folds in which it comes from the laundress.
Bread should be cut in thin slices, and laid oil a napkin at the left of each plate. The room may be lighted with either "White or colored candles or lamp: Many persons prefer to have the light fall in part from side brackets or sconces on the wall.
As regards dress for a dinner party, i9 must be governed in great measure by the character of the dinner, whether friendly and informal, or an occasion of leading importance and marked formality. For the latter, lady and gentleman alike should dress as elaborately as for a ball, though ball dress and dinner dress should by no means be the same. The occasions differ widely, and the fitness of things needs to be strictly observed.
As to the character of the lady's dress, that must depend on her own taste. It will suffice to state here that full dress is re quisite and that jewelry maybe freely worn. For an ordinary, small dinner, however, a much less elaborate toilette is sufficient, and may prove more comfortable.
The gentleman will wear the ordinary evening dress already described. He may wear more jewelry than is in good taste earlier in the day.
Entering the Dining Room.
If the dinner is to be a large and formal one, a gentleman should receive an envelope before entering the drawing-room in which is a card bearing the name of the lady he is desired to take in to dinner. If he does not know the lady he should ask the hostess to present him to her. At small and informal dinners this is not necessary, the hostess simply mentioning to the gentleman the name of the lady he is wished to escort to the table. In fact, though still in use, the custom above named is going out of fashion, an assignment in the drawing-room being considered sufficient.
A card is generally laid at each place giving the name of the guest who is to occupy it. This custom is also unnecessary at a small dinner. Menus, or bills of fare, are often placed before the guests at large dinners, but rarely at small ones.
When the guests have all arrived and the dinner is ready, the butler or waitress should enter the drawing-room and politely say to the lady of the house, " Dinner is served" ; then he or she should return to the dining-room and stand behind the hostess until she is seated.
The gentleman of the house must offer his right arm to the lady who has been selected as the important guest of the evening, and then proceed to the table, placing her on his right, he generally taking the lower end of the table. The other guests follow, each gentleman with the lady selected for him ; and finally the hostess enters with the gentleman whom she wishes to honor, he taking a seat at her right.
The remaining guests, in case their seats are not indicated by cards, will take the seats assigned to them by the host or hostess. In case no assignment is made, it should be remembered that questions of precedence, formerly so much considered, are growing to be of minor importance, particularly in this country.
Every place at a friend's table is equally a place of honor, and should be equally agreeable, so that, in the best circles, it is becoming the custom for the guests to sit in the order in which they enter the room. A little care should, however, be taken that P judicious distribution of the guests, according to their tastes, accomplishments, terms of intimacy, etc., is secured. Ladies sit on. the right of gentlemen.
As soon as seated all the guests remove their gloves, and, taking the napkins from the table, open them and spread them on their knees. The napkin is not to be tucked into the waistcoat or pinned on to the front of the dress. It will usually contain a roll; that is placed on the left side of the plate.
It is not easy to lay down any fixed rule for the character of the dinner. That must be governed by the season and the taste and resources of the host. However humble the pretensions of the dinner, it should never consist of less than three courses, namely, soup or fish, a joint (which, in a small dinner, may be accompanied by poultry or game) and pastry. Cheese with salad follows as a matter of course. Dessert succeeds. The number of servants necessary will depend, of course, on the number of guests. Three will be enough for a party of ten or twelve persons. On their training and efficient service the success of the dinner will largely depend.
What is above said about courses applies, of course, to a very simple meal. In those of more pretension the courses may vary considerably in number and character, though custom lays down certain fixed rules for the succession of viands. For an ordinary dinner the following will suffice as an example.
The dinner may begin with oysters on the half shell, five or six for each person. If not the season for oysters, small clam<. are frequently served in the same way. These should be very cold, and the clams are better if surrounded by cracked ice. A piece of lemon should be in the centre of each plate, and pepper and salt be passed with this course.
Soup follows. Either one or two may be served-a white and a clear, or a white and a brown soup; but never serve two kinds one after the other.
Follow the soup with fish. At the best tables you will find a silver fish-knife as well as fork; if not, eat with a fork in the right hand and a small piece of bread in the left. When there are two kinds of fish, the larger one-say the turbot-is placed before the host; the lady taking that which is less calculated to fatigue in the helping. When fish sauce is handed, put it on the side of your plate. There are certain sauces appropriate to each kind of fish-as lobster sauce with turbot, shrimp or caper with salmon, oyster with cod, and so on.
The entrees follow, being ordinarily served in covered silver side-dishes. They consist of sweetbreads, pales, cutlets, and made-dishes generally. It is not customary to do more than taste one or two of these. Too much attention to them is apt to unfit one for enjoying the rest of the dinner. In eating of these dishes the fork alone, where possible, should be used.
The meats and vegetables follow. Some vegetables, such as asparagus, sweet corn, or maccaroni, can be offered by themselves; but hostesses should beware of making the meal tiresome by a needless number of courses.
It is not allowable, however, to serve more than two vegetables with one course, nor to offer anything except potatoes or potato salad with the fish.
The roast meats are placed about the table in this way: The largest and most important, say haunch of venison, before the host; one before the lady of the house, and such dishes as tongue or ham before particular guests, who occupy seats at points where carving-knives and forks are placed in readiness.
Carving is an important accomplishment, and one that every gentleman should seek to acquire. A man should be able to carve a joint or a bird easily and dexterously, but facility can only be acquired by practice, which it is important to have. It is customary, however, to have the joint carved off the table, put back as before carving, and served.
It is hardly necessary to say that knife and fork are used in the eating of meat, poultry, or game; and it seems equally unnecessary to say that the purpose of the knife is simply to cut the food. Under no circumstances must it be used to convey it to the mouth. Vegetables are eaten with a fork. A spoon is rarely necessary, and a knife comes into use only in such cases as cutting off the heads of asparagus and the like.
If considered desirable, a course of vegetables may follow that of meat,-asparagus, cauliflower, artichokes, baked tomatoes, or some similar dish being served.
Game follows. Salad may be served either with the game or as a separate course. In the latter case serve with it cheese and bread and butter. The bread can be cut very thin and carefully buttered, or the butter and bread can be served separately. If preferred, the cheese can be served as a separate course.
Follow the cheese and salad with the sweet dishes and ices, then serve the fruit, and lastly the bonbons. Coffee may be served in the drawing-room, when the courses have not occupied too much time, or at the table, according to the preference of the hostess.
Black coffee, which should be made very strong and clear, must be served 1n very small cups, with tiny coffee-spoons.
After the Courses.
Everything except the lights and ornaments should be removed from the table before the dessert is served, the crumbs being brushed off with a crumb-scraper or a napkin, a clean one of course.
Finger bowls, set on handsome china or glass plates, with a fruit napkin or embroidered doily between, should be placed on the table for the fruit course. The dainty embroidered doilies, however, must never be used, and substantial fruit napkins should be supplied when any fruits that stain badly are served.
Where there is more than one servant, a second waiter carrying the proper vegetables should follow the first, who passes the meat or fish. The lady next the host should first be helped, and the others in turn, after which the gentlemen should be served. But when there is only one servant, the guests may be helped in the order in which they sit, beginning with the lady at the host's right, then passing to the one at his left, leaving the host himself to be served last.
When the servants have placed the dessert on the table and have handed the fruit and sweets once round, they retire. Any further service which the ladies may require can be given by the gentlemen, who will, of course, exert themselves to see that their neighbors are properly attended to.
Retiring from the Table.
Then the hostess bows to the lady of most distinction present, and all the ladies rise and prepare to retire. The gentleman nearest the door opens it, and holds it open for them. The hostess is the last to go out. While they are going all the gentlemen rise, and remain standing until they are gone. It would not, however, be a violation of etiquette for the gentlemen to accompany the ladies to the drawing-room at once, and what is here said applies principally to formal dinners, and to families in which the gentlemen are accustomed to conclude the meal with cigars and wine.
Tea and coffee are dispensed by the lady of the house in the drawing-room. This is her special province. It should be accompanied by a few wafers; a plate of very thin rolled bread-and-butter and a few biscuits of the lightest description may be added. One cup of tea or coffee only should be taken ; and certainly no one can need to be told that it must not be poured into the saucer to cool. It will be handed round the room by the servants.
In the drawing-room there should be a little music to give relief to the conversation.
At a plain family dinner, at which one or two guests are present, more devolves on the host and hostess, and less on the servants.
You should sit at a convenient distance from the table, and sit upright. Do not lean back, or tilt your chair, or stoop forward towards the table.
When grace is said at the table, observe the most respectful attention, reverently inclining the head.
Do not be impatient to be served. Should. you need anything at the hands of the servants, do not order them to serve you, but request them politely, in a low, distinct tone, adding, " if you please." In declining a viand offered by them, say, " Not any, I thank you," etc.
Do not hesitate to take the last piece of bread or cake in a dish handed to you. Your host has more for other guests. When a plate containing food is handed to you, set it down before you, and do not pass it to your neighbor.
As regards the use of wines at dinner, the following- rules will suffice. They should be served in the following succession.
First. Sherry, which must be very cold and decantered. This to be passed with the soup. If a white wine is to be served, it should be given with the oysters and also very cold. This must not be decantered.
Second. Champagne, which should be packed in ice several hours before it is to be used. Serve it in the bottle with a napkin held round it to absorb the moisture. Champagne is passed with the meat.
Third. Claret, which must be decantered and warm, and served with the game and salad.
Fourth. Madeira, also decantered but of its natural temperature, and passed with the dessert.
Mineral waters, such as apollinaris, can be passed at dinner, as some prefer a mineral to natural water. As has been already said, a glass suitable for each variety of wine is placed on the table. This is not the case with the Madeira glasses, which are kept on a side-table, and brought to the table after the glasses previously used have been removed and before sweets are served.
After dinner; when the ladies have left the room and the gentlemen are preparing to smoke, coffee, without milk, is served and carried to the ladies in whichever room they may be.
It may be said in conclusion that the custom of wine drinking during dinner, and of drinking and smoking afterwards, is no longer of so ordinary application as formerly. While still generally retained in the case of large and formal dinners, it is frequently omitted in small, and commonly in family dinners, being considered by many a custom " better kept in the breach than the observance."
Dinners at Restaurants.
When a dinner is given at a public restaurant, a table can be reserved in the public dining-room, or a private room can be engaged. It is usual to order the dinner beforehand, so that there will be no needless delay in serving it when the guests arrive.
If a lady gives the dinner it is better for the guests to meet at her house, so that they may all go together to the restaurant, but if an unmarried gentleman is the host he must appoint an hour for the party to meet him in the vestibule of the restaurant, and the lady who has consented to chaperon his dinner must be there very punctually, in order to spare any unmarried lady the annoyance of arriving alone at a public place.
The style of the dinner must rest with the taste of the host or hostess, but it should resemble as nearly as possible a dinner in a private house, both in table appointments, variety of dishes, service, etc.
It is perfectly admissible for an unmarried lady to dine at a restaurant, provided that she is properly chaperoned.
Lunches and breakfasts are, under the above circumstances, governed by the same rules as those given in regard to dinners.
Ladies may lunch or breakfast without gentlemen in respectable public restaurants, but two ladies should if possible be together, rather than that one should lunch or breakfast alone.
Of course, no one needs to imagine that in entertaining a few friends at dinner all this ceremony is indispensible. It belongs to occasions where formality and close attention to fixed social rules are considered necessary, but there is an agreeable form of informal dinner which calls for no manual of observance, in which the friends are taken into the bosom of the family and the ease of unfettered home intercourse prevails. For such dinners there are no set rules; every community, every family, make their own laws, and calmly ignore or simply laugh at the dictates of fashion. Here soup may be omitted, if not cared for ; you may pass up your plate to your host for a slice of beef; yon may do a dozen things that are quite out of order where formality prevails, and be as heedless and happy as you please. But all this is behind closed doors; when you fall under fashion's eagle eye no such looseness is for a moment to be considered ; you must eat and drink to rule and measure or consider yourself a candidate for banishment.