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Dinners, And How To Give Them

THE extravagance of our modern dinner table grew to be so great that at one time it rivalled those ancient Roman feasts where dowries were expended on a single meal, and almost surpassed Cleopatra's famed and costly beverage. Fortunately there has been a re-action against this excess; greater moderation prevails and quality is esteemed above quantity. But let not the poor imagine that endless dainties bring continual pleasure to the palate; or that all these fine dishes, with high-sounding French names, taste any better than plain, homely fare, carefully seasoned and well pre-pared, eaten with the best sauce, hunger, and served hot! Epicurism is apt to bring its own reward — in the very unpleasant shape of dyspepsia; and many a millionaire sits at his richly furnished table eating gruel or drinking milk! Sir —, an English nobleman who is thus unfortunately reduced to " spoon food," eats nothing else at his own elaborate dinner parties; but, with a truly noble spirit, he still points out to others the best pieces on the dish, his eyes glistening at the sight of the forbidden dainties.

Other more prudent bon-vivants live very simply when at home, eating always of the best, but also of the simplest, and reserving the full force of their appetite for grand occasions. " I get dreadfully tired," said a well-known society woman recently, "of these swell lunches, where you have a little bit of this, and a scrap of the other, and nothing that amounts to anything, a little chicken-bone in a silver saucepan, a few truffles, lots of empty nothings; and I come home hungry and eat a good dinner." One certainly tires of elaborate made dishes much sooner than of plain ones. People who go often to restaurants know that the plain roast or boiled, a good steak, or a hot chop is best; it is dangerous to try made dishes unless you are sure of the capacity `of the cook who prepared them.

Another great objection to formal banquets is the impossibility of having the food really hot, in the long and elaborate succession of hands through which the dishes have to pass before reaching the diners. Thomas Hazard, in his " Johnny-cake " papers, tells how, in his grandfather's time, eels were broiled on a gridiron and brought in from the kitchen on the same utensil smoking hot; and he intimates that the result was ambrosial.

Even hotter were the old-fashioned blazers or chafing-dishes, on which each person at table broiled his own oysters or his own venison. Some New England ladies use them to this day for luncheon; and scrambled eggs cooked in this way are superior to all others.

Rich people, too, get very tired of the formality and show which accompany their daily meals, and enjoy a plain, good dinner at a friend's house, because it is a novelty to them.

The famous dinner in the Book of Snobs " is entirely true to human nature, and will be remembered for its kindly and humane sentiment long after Thackcray's more bitter utterances shall have been laid on the shelf. Let no one hesitate, therefore, to invite his friends to dinner merely because he will be obliged to entertain them simply. Let the dinner be plain, but good of its kind; and remember that for people of small means, quite as much as for the rich, it is important to make a study of gastronomy, — to combine those articles of food which go well together. A small circle is as perfect as a large one.

Often, with a little thought, some dish' can be devised which will be at once unusual, good and cheap. Thus, flounders go for almost nothing in our markets, and yet are really very delicious fish. Some of the French made dishes are economical — of everything but labor. The French are a thrifty people, and the style of dishes that they have invented can be made to suit a light as well as a heavy purse.

It is not well to attempt any elaborate dishes, however, unless one has a really competent cook; and above all, one should never try any entirely new dish when guests are expected. Culinary and other experiments should be tried only in the bosom of one's own family.

Let the attendance, even at a very simple dinner, be good. If your own servants are not efficient waitresses, by all means hire good ones, who are always to be found in cities of any size. If you cannot afford to do so, or if you live in the country, your only re-source is to train your own servants, -- remembering always that they must be trained daily, especially if hitherto they have been undisciplined. You cannot expect raw troops to stand the fire of the enemy; and servants who are not trained to wait well every day, will do even worse than usual with the excitement of company.

The son of an English earl, Hon. Mr. being possessed only of small means, has two maid-servants to wait on his table, who perform the services expected of them quite as skilfully as men, and at much lower wages. They wear a species of uniform; that is, dresses of dark blue cloth, made very plainly, with gilt buttons like those of a page.

The same plan, that of employing women as first-class waitresses, has been adopted in this country, all but the uniform. No American woman, even if her citizenship was but a week old, would consent to appear as a female Buttons. The baptism of Ellis Island has a wonderfully liberalizing effect, especially on womankind. At some very elegant houses, how-ever, maid-servants wait upon the table, and when well drilled are fully equal to the best men-servants. They usually wear black dresses made perfectly plain, without trimmings of any kind, plain white aprons, and white collars and cuffs. Occasionally they wear white caps, although these have become so common that many people do not care to have their servants wear them.

The social enjoyment, the conversation, ought to be the best part of any entertainment, even of that very carnal feast a dinner-party. Croesus will come all the more willingly to your simple table if he is to meet there some brilliant and agreeable guest. , No dinner can be really successful at which only dull wits are present, unless it be that if they are all dull they will not notice the difference.

There are certain brilliant talkers who are monopolists of conversation; they charm with their wit, but no one else has a chance to talk. Such people should be invited one at a time, and in company with those who will be content to admire and listen to them in silence. I was present at a dinner once where Emerson, William R. Alger, and other men of mark were guests, all of us listening, with charmed attention it must be confessed, to the scintillating flow of speech of one witty and delightful autocrat!

It is a cruel rule that altogether excludes very old and very young people from dinners; but the " dumb " are out of place at them as much as the over-loquacious. Very literal people, too, who cannot take a joke, do not add to the general enjoyment of a feast.

With the English, it is an almost invariable custom that social position should regulate the order in which people go in to dinner, the host taking in the lady of highest rank, and the guests following in couples assorted according to Burke's peerage, very much as children arrange a Noah's Ark procession, the hostess meekly bringing up the rear with thι gentleman of highest rank!

Fortunately for us in these United States we have no nobility to dictate our places to us; and while a host often takes in the lady of highest social position, he often does not. If a distinguished woman is present, he usually pays this honor to her, or perhaps he pays it to the wife of a distinguished man. Where a dinner has been given for a married couple, the host and hostess respectively go in with them. A bride, too, is privileged in this respect, often taking precedence of older ladies; so also does a distinguished stranger, or the wife of a clergyman.

But while, ceteris paribus, the host takes in the wife of the most prominent man, or the lady of the highest distinction, the other couples intermediate between the host and the hostess (who comes last always) do not go in in any especial order. Young people give the pas to elder ones, or to persons of note, but beyond this there is no law on the subject.

The squabbles for precedence in European courts seem to us very undignified. The Countesses of Egmont and Horn used to pass through a doorway arm in arm, as it could not be decided which should go first!

The host and hostess should decide with due deliberation beforehand the order in which the guests are to sit at table, since it may make or mar a dinner. Indeed, they should be careful to invite only people who will harmonize well together. Tradition tells about dreadful dinners to which deadly enemies were asked, and where they sat glaring mutually and refusing to speak to one another, like two Banquos at a feast. Certainly this was ill-bred on the part of the guests. Private animosities should be sunk on such occasions; but one would prefer not to invite the Capulets and the Montagues to dine together.

On informal occasions the hostess tells each gentleman which lady he is to take in. At a formal dinner, each man receives a small envelope addressed to him, containing a card with the name of the lady. These missives may be placed in the men's dressing-room or they may be handed on a salver, to the guests on their arrival, by the butler or waitress. If the gentleman does not know the lady, he should ask for an introduction. At small and informal dinners, where all are acquainted, the lady of the house, if she prefers, can say to each gentleman, " Mr. So-and-So, will you take down Miss Blank?" just before going in to dinner.

It is now thought smart to prepare places downstairs, where the guests can leave their wraps. Indeed some of the new houses contain regular dressing rooms with places built in for the wraps, on the ground floor. In any house, however, an impromptu dressing-room, with toilet appliances, may be arranged behind a screen for the ladies. The men may leave their hats and coats in a hall where there is a mirror. A maid assists the ladies,. and a man-servant sometimes aids the gentlemen with their overcoats and rubbers, both when they arrive and when they leave.

It is perhaps needless to say that a bell should never be rung to announce any formal meal; indeed, it is better form to dispense with the bell-summons for all meals, even when no guests are present, although Japanese gongs whose tone is soft and pleasant, are Used in some families.

When all the guests have arrived, the servant should enter the drawing-room and should say, " Dinner is served," or simply bow, as soon as he catches the eye of his mistress. He should be told beforehand how many persons are expected, in order that he may know when dinner should be served.

The host and hostess may sit at each end of the table or in the middle of each side. The lady who is to be specially honored is placed on the host's right, and the second place of distinction is on his left. In the same way the gentleman who has taken the hostess down to dinner sits on her right, and the " next best man" on her left. Sometimes she divides the honors by going in with the man who is to sit at her left.

Neither a dining-room nor a table should ever be over-crowded. Brillat-Savarin said that the number of people at a dinner should not be less than the Graces nor more than the Muses; though at some very brilliant dinners this limit has been exceeded. The objection to certain even numbers is, that in the case of four, eight, twelve, sixteen and twenty (in fact, any number divisible by four), two ladies and two gentlemen will have to sit next each other, when the host and hostess sit at the head and foot of the table. But when a table is wide enough for two people to sit at one end this difficulty may be overcome; it is certainly pleasanter to have an even number, as otherwise one person is obliged to go in to dinner alone, unless three walk abreast. With the numbers six, ten, fourteen, eighteen, etc., there is no trouble in arranging the guests.

The host and hostess at a dinner stand in need of a great deal of tact; for they must watch the conversation carefully, skilfully starting it when it flags, suggesting new topics, etc., and yet not talking too much. Let the host beware of bringing out his old stories; and let the hostess remember that though her heart may be in the .kitchen, her head must be with her guests. No matter how much anxiety she may feel, she must betray none, or she will be sure to dampen every one's pleasure.

Hence it is much wiser not to attempt a dinner on such an unaccustomed scale that you are worried to death lest your servants should commit some blunder.

The folly of over-pretentious dinners Thackeray has shown up so thoroughly that he has exhausted the subject; while Dickens's description of the Veneering banquets is an equally good piece of satire directed at the solemn and burdensome pomp of stupid nou-veaux-riches.

( Originally Published 1911 )

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