A DINNER-PARTY has become in these days such an elaborate and formal affair that the timid and modest entertainer, or one who shrinks from ceremony, no longer invites people to dine with him. An invitation to dinner seems such a solemn thing, even if you pro-test and declare that the dinner will be strictly en famille ! The word " dinner " implies of necessity a certain degree of formality; luncheon," on the other hand, may imply anything or nothing; it is a delightfully elastic meal — and name, and includes every sort of repast, from a bowl of bread and milk to a grand banquet of seventeen courses!
If your friend lunches with you and finds every-thing on a simple and unpretending scale, he may still imagine that at your dinner-table all is very different. But if you are found wanting in the preparations for your dinner, then indeed have you given away your last stronghold; beyond this can no imagination go.
To avoid this unhappy result many people invite their friends to take luncheon, or " high tea," and you go and eat what is virtually a dinner in all but the name. The usual hour for lunch is one or half-past one.
Between a formal lunch-party and a dinner there is really very little difference. Soup is usually served in cups instead of soup-plates, at luncheon. These each have two handles, a saucer and sometimes a cover also. Chicken or clam broth is often served at this meal. Grapefruit in winter, melons or other seasonable fruit in summer, take the place of raw oysters.
Coffee is now handed around in the drawing-room, as it is at a dinner. Menu-cards should never be used at luncheon. At a lunch there is often no wine and the courses are rather less substantial in character than at a dinner. But where the occasion is a ceremonious one, the table is set very much as it would be for a dinner-party — minus the lights; and even these are not wanting at some luncheons. There is the same profusion of flowers, silver, glass and china ware, and the dishes are all served from the serving-table and handed around by the servants. The hors d'oeuvres (olives, radishes, etc.) may be set on the table, if they do not make it appear too crowded.
Since luncheon is in theory an informal meal, the decorations are usually simpler than at a dinner. Thus the flowers are arranged in a vase or loving-cup occupying the centre of the table, perhaps with four smaller vases at the corners in addition. At the present time, it is the fashion for those who possess handsome tables, to show the surface at lunch; pretty doilies, with a centrepiece to match, replacing the table-cloth. Discs of white Canton flannel are set beneath these to pre-vent the heat of the plates from marring the polished wood. With this method of service, there should be doilies under the tumblers also. These dainty little articles should not be used with a table-cloth.
The guests go into the dining-room separately instead of arm-in-arm, — the ladies going first, and the gentlemen following them. The hostess leads the way. The ladies' toilets, though sometimes elaborate, are never such as are worn at dinner or in the evening. Often there is a great variety of dress on these occasions, some ladies wearing very elegant reception dresses, others appearing in tailor-made street costumes. Bonnets or hats are always worn, but gloves are of course removed on sitting down to table. Gentlemen appear in morning dress, if they appear at all; but most lunch-parties in America are given for ladies alone. Sometimes, where quite a number of guests are present, many little tables are used, three or four guests sitting at each; or again, at a very large lunch, no one sits at table, the refreshments being handed around in the dining-room.
Among the very pleasantest lunches are the informal familiar occasions where six or eight friends meet together and enjoy a plain but substantial meal spiced with plenty of bright and witty talk. If a suburban friend or a gentleman of leisure accidentally arrives, he is warmly welcomed to the elastic meal, and many a charitable project, many a pleasant excursion or summer trip, is planned and arranged in this leisure moment of a busy day. In short, lunch-time is the kaleidoscopic part of the twenty-four hours; the combinations that then arise charm us, because they are unforeseen. Old friends who have not met for years, perhaps, and busy people with just a moment to spare, all may meet at this enchanted hour, - meet and part as bubbles do, the bright prismatic colors of the rainbow flashing for a moment in their friendly talk; and then, presto! all is silence. One guest has gone to a concert, another to a committee meeting, a third to her studio, and a fourth to offer up the constantly recurring sacrifice of her time demanded by that insatiable Moloch, Family Shopping!
For such a lunch-table as I have just described, a great latitude in the matter of the bill-of-fare is allow-able, though meat in some form, or fish, should be found upon it. Cold meats and salads are always appropriate, but most people prefer some hot dishes even at lunch. Fried oysters, croquettes, French chops, fish, even a plain beefsteak or a dish of minced meat, if nicely cooked and served, may be placed on the lunch-table.
The distrust of articles kept in cold storage, the high price of living and the discovery by scientists that other articles of food contain the same nutritive properties as meat, have caused a diminution in its consumption. The tendency at the present time is to use less and less meat. Hence at some informal semi-vegetarian lunches, a dish of macaroni and cheese, nicely baked, or an omelette, takes the place of beef and mutton. This would hardly satisfy the masculine appetite, which craves something more substantial.
Chocolate is a favorite beverage with many people, and is more suitable for the middle of the day than for the evening, being a rather heavy and not very digestible form of food. Grape-fruit is often served as the first course of a formal lunch. Soup of some sort comes next — chicken or clam broth or bouillon in cups. If there is to be fish, it follows the soup. The entrée is next in order, mushrooms, sweetbreads, chicken or whatever is preferred. To this succeeds fillet of beef or chops with string beans or French pease. Salad follows and birds are sometimes served with it. Then come ices, bonbons, fruit and coffee.
In England it is quite customary at informal luncheons for the servants to leave the dining-room after they have helped the guests to the joint (which is an inevitable feature of English luncheons) and handed around the vegetables and the wine, leaving the host and hostess to help to the entrées, where there are any, and to the sweets. The same informality is allowable in this country; but in most American houses a hostess prefers to have the assistance of a servant, unless at a very simple lunch. It is to be feared that we are lazier about waiting upon ourselves than our English brethren; and we also dislike less than they do the presence of servants at table, and the restraint that it entails.
Some charming lunches are served, however, by clever and sensible women, who do all their own work. In this case, a member of the family may wait on the guests. If the hostess has no one to assist her and must perform this task herself, she should set her table and select her bill-of-fare in a way that will oblige her to leave her seat as little as possible. If she rises frequently, her guests will feel uncomfortable at the thought of the trouble their presence is causing. Three courses would be sufficient — bouillon in cups, chops with baked potatoes and string beans, wine-jelly with whipped cream, or a fruit salad accompanied by home-made cake would be a good bill-of-fare. The dessert, the plates and silver for the later courses, should all be ready on the sideboard before the guests sit down at table. Tea or coffee could be poured by the lady opposite the hostess.
The usual cover for lunch consists of one or two knives, two forks, one or two spoons, a water-goblet, and if wine is given, one or two wine-glasses, — one for sherry and one for claret, according to the old fashion. The decanters may be upon the table or on the side-board. Rhine wine, a light white wine or effervescent waters are now usually preferred especially if no men are present. The bread is folded in the napkin, as at dinner. With bouillon cups, a large teaspoon or a dessert-spoon is provided.
According to English custom, tea and coffee are not given at luncheon, wine taking their place. But in America. we like tea and coffee even when wine is served. As we have no leisure class of men to stay at home and take lunch with us, it has become quite a feminine meal, and American ladies do not care much for wine, except possibly for champagne.
It should be said, however, that since the custom of taking afternoon tea has been so widely adopted, the use of this beverage at lunch, has greatly diminished.
At an informal occasion, if there is tea, the hostess pours it out; at a formal one, coffee must be served as it would be after dinner; that is, strong black coffee (café noir) in small cups, accompanied with tiny coffee-spoons. The servant brings these into the drawing-room on a tray, together with the coffee-pot, sugar-bowl and cream-pitcher. He goes to each person in turn, pouring out the coffee for those who wish it. If there are many guests, he brings in a second supply of cups. Or he may pour the coffee out in the pantry.
Strict etiquette forbids the use of milk or cream with this beverage in its after-dinner form; but although Americans dearly love to copy foreign etiquette, they also love to be comfortable and to make other people so; hence the presence of the cream-jug is connived at by many hostesses. It is not necessary to give both tea and coffee at luncheon; either One may be given alone, or chocolate may be substituted for them both. This may be handed after the principal meat course. Coffee is usually preferred to tea, especially by young people. The wine was formerly set on the dining-table in decanters, but is now usually served from the side-table.
In setting the table the fruit and the bonbons are often placed on it, and the meats either served from a side-table or set before the lady of the house, who helps her guests. With this arrangement the vegetables are handed from the serving-table. In England finger-bowls are not used at luncheon; with us they are, and are set on table just as they would be at dinner.
At elegant lunch-parties the service is a la Russe, that is to say, in courses. It is not usual to remain long after luncheon, as the hostess may have other engagements for the afternoon. In New York, the guests depart almost immediately, according to the present fashion. Intimate friends are of course privileged to linger.
What is the difference between lunch and luncheon? Just about as much as between tweedledum and tweedledee. The English call the meal luncheon, and we are beginning to do the same thing in this country. Some people consider it very affected to speak of the meal otherwise than as " lunch " or a " lunch-party; " but these are rather conservative individuals. According to present use in this country " lunch " and " lunch-eon " are practically synonymous; the terms " a ladies' lunch," " a lunch-party may be thought more euphonious than " a ladies' luncheon," etc., and are certainly very often used.
Lunch affords a good opportunity for housekeeper and cook to display their ingenuity, many excellent dishes suitable for this meal being in one form or another réchauffés from the previous day's dinner. At the family lunch-table many little odds and ends can be used which would be unsuitable for any more formal meal, but which fill up the gaps very conveniently at this delightfully unceremonious repast.
Invitations for lunch are formal or informal according to the nature of the occasion. They are usually written in the first person, or even given over the telephone, but are sometimes engraved for a very ceremonious entertainment. They should be answered promptly, especially where one has reason to sup-pose the lunch will be a " sit down " affair; since the hostess ought to know which of her guests are coming, although it will not make so much difference in her arrangements as in the case of a dinner. In the -same way a little more indulgence is shown to late comers at luncheon; though, as has been said above, much depends upon whether the occasion is to be a ceremonious one. If any unforeseen occurrence should prevent a guest from attending a formal luncheon, she should send her hostess word at once, that her place may if possible be filled.
Those who follow English customs closely never permit a butler to wear full dress when waiting at a lunch-party, even if it be of a very formal character. Dark morning costume is the correct dress for a butler until the magic hour for dinner arrives; he may wear dark but not black trousers, a black coat, and black necktie. Where two men-servants wait on table the second wears livery, unless the head of the house disapproves of the costume on principle.
Gentlemen sometimes ask whether ladies' lunches are not very tame and tiresome; very dull affairs, in short, without the great masculine element to give them tone. Alas for the vanity of men! How sad it is that they can never know (unless they hide themselves in the wine-cooler or behind the buffet) what a jolly time women can have together, or how fast feminine tongues can wag when unrestricted by the presence of lords and masters!
There is another great pleasure that ladies derive from these feminine lunches apart from the never ending delight of unremitting conversation. This is the gratification of the aesthetic taste, with a hundred dainty devices and delicate articles of food whose beauty and value would be thrown away on the coarser masculine mind and palate.
Where but at a ladies' lunch or a fairy revel would you expect to find a course of calla lilies, each lady having on her plate one of these white blossoms with a few early strawberries tucked away in its delicate cup? Where else would you find your sherbet lying cold at the heart of a " truly " tulip, or frozen in the form of a candle and candlestick, with real wick burning at the end, a dainty shade surmounting the whole? Would you or could you reasonably expect, at any other meal, to find your rolls tied up with ribbon, and green (paper) frogs hopping about on your plate under the shade of most unpleasantly realistic ice-cream toadstools?
We hope not; the mania for blending is all very well, but some things do not mingle, and it is useless trying to make them do so. Ribbons are lovely in themselves, and for many centuries have appealed direct to the feminine heart; but why should they be mingled with our food? We are all glad to think that this foolish fashion has become a thing of the past.
How pleasant were the old times when we could eat out of china, when we thought plates were good enough for us, and did not consider it necessary to take our food out of pasteboard boxes, silken bags and paper cups!
Despite these little incongruities and fanciful extravagances, there is much to admire in and on the lunch-table of to-day. The table-cloth, to begin with, is a poem in linen, — a poem, alas! which, with its elaborate drawn-work and wondrous Iace-like effects, may have cost some poor woman her eyesight. The ornamentation which a stern good taste forbids in a dinner-cloth is considered quite allowable in a lunch cloth. Roman or other heavy lace is now much used for this purpose.
At a luncheon there is an excellent opportunity for the display of beautiful china, the daylight showing the beauty of the ware to great advantage. The delicacy of some of the courses is almost exaggerated, and recalls to mind the nightingales' tongues of ancient Rome. If a countryman with a hearty, healthy appetite were set down in the midst of one of these feasts, what would he think? Probably he would be of the opinion that he had seen no real and actual luncheon, but samples merely of several large repasts that were going on elsewhere. Certainly a pâté no larger than a silver dollar looks like nothing but a sample of some more adequate pie, even if the pâté is composed, as it usually is, of the most rich and mysterious ingredients.
One of the odd fancies is to eat off dainty little metal spits or skewers, each one ornamented with a butter-fly by way of a handle. On these spits may be strung delicate morsels of chicken liver, infinitesimal scraps of nicely browned pork, etc. Each skewer is brought in erect, being firmly planted in a groundwork of some esthetic paste. Or the paste may be omitted, and the skewers laid flat on the plate.
No, I am not speaking of the days of Heliogabalus, although for the moment it seemed as if I must be. As our people are in the main very sensible, they grew tired of this extreme frippery in the course of a few years, just as they abandoned the Queen Anne style of architecture. After out-gabling gables, and indulging in a perfect frenzy of peaked roofs, balconies and loggias, they suddenly made the amazing discovery that the inside of the house was the part actually lived in (at least in our climate), and that perhaps it would be well to have the dwelling-rooms large enough for comfort, instead of being chopped up into mince-meat, sacrificed for the appearance of the exterior. So Americans have soberly returned to building houses with simple outlines, and that contain large rooms, and they have hung the pumpkin, or its color, on the outer wall, to show that we still believe in the Puritans and in their favorite vegetable.
In the same way the ladies' lunches of a few years ago, with their twenty courses of china and glass, have now been greatly curtailed. We may not perhaps return to the plain roast and boiled, the simple fare in which old George III. delighted, but rather, let us hope, to that safe middle path, the golden mean, which avoids all excesses alike, whether of luxury or of simplicity.
The Poverty lunch is a latter-day invention which finds favor with many young housekeepers. A number of these unite to form a lunch-club, agreeing that the cost of each entertainment shall not exceed a certain sum, let us say fifty cents for each person. The hostess keeps a careful account of the amount and cost of all the ingredients and reads this to her guests, in due season. All receive, in this way, valuable lessons in the school of economy and ingenuity. The hostess should remember to state, also, the time consumed in making the various dishes, since women are now learning that time is money.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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