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Dinners - Service And Arrangements Of The Table

" SCRATCH a Russian, and you will find a Tartar," says the old proverb; intimating, in language more plain than elegant, that a Russian is only a sort of half-savage. And yet these same people, savage or not, control in large measure the diplomacy of Europe, invent wonderful and dreadful forms of modern liberal-ism, write our best contemporary novels, and last but not least, lay down the law which regulates the tables of every civilized land.

Clearly these Russians are not effete, whatever else they may be; and we have adopted the diner à la Russe from them, just as in an earlier state of civilization the Romans adopted trousers from their savage conquerors, who were brachati, or " breeches-wearing." And to the bondage of the trouser mankind has remained a slave all these fourteen hundred years since Rome fell.

How long our bondage to the diner d la Russe will last it is difficult to imagine; probably as long as the present epoch of luxury and aestheticism lasts, for this method of serving meals is as pleasing to the eye as it is agreeable to that natural laziness which abides in the hearts of most men.

A table covered with fruit and flowers, exquisite glass, china, silver, — bonbons, candied fruits, salted nuts and such trifles, and lit by graceful candelabra, — these are all that the modern guest sees when he sits down to the table; but to the eye of faith how much more is presents!

The table-cloth, the foundation for all this gorgeous display, should be of plain white damask. It may consist of the most costly and elaborate drawn-work, dainty and lace-like in effect, or it may be of lace; but a plain cloth is now thought to be in better taste for dinner, In summer, the bare table is sometimes used, although this seems more appropriate to lunch-eon. While some people place a colored cloth beneath the embroidered one in order to show the effect of the work, this arrangement is in questionable taste, and is thought by many persons to be wanting in refinement. The centrepiece may be of lace, or of linen or other washable material, embroidered or trimmed with lace. Decorations of ribbon have been abandoned, for the most part, although they were popular at one time. At large ceremonious dinners, a great plateau of flowers covers the middle of the table, and no other centrepiece is needed.

A few years ago dinner-tables were lighted by gas only; but we have borrowed a leaf from Europeans, and as they consider gas vulgar, we begin to think we must do so too, although gas in America is superior in quality to that manufactured abroad. Handsome branching candelabra, usually of silver or glass, filled with white wax-candles, the light softened by colored shades, are now considered the most elegant way of lighting the table. On small occasions, four single candlesticks may replace the candelabra.

In order to keep the candles at the same height and to ensure their burning evenly, they are placed in white porcelain forms, with springs at the bottom which push them up as they burn.

While it is more artistic to use only one kind of light, it is found convenient to supplement that of the candles with electricity or gas from side-branches on the walls, or from a chandelier hung from the ceiling. Tiny electric bulbs are also used where the table is decorated according to some fanciful scheme. These may be scattered among the flowers, or may simulate miniature oranges or other fruit growing in little ornamental pots. At a ladies' luncheon given recently at Newport, the centrepiece consisted of a fountain, whose softly playing waters were illuminated by electricity.

There must not be too great a glare of light on the table, as that would be trying to the eyes of many guests. Too much light means also too much heat, and above all things a dining-room should not be over-heated; neither should it be full of draughts from open windows. The best way is to keep it pretty cool during the day, instead of neglecting to pay any attention to the temperature until the last moment, and then throwing open windows and doors in every direction. A dining-room should always have a carpet on it to deaden the sound of feet.

The decoration of the table is largely a matter of individual taste, limited by certain rules which do not vary. One of the most important of these is that mere ornament must not be allowed to take too prominent a place at the feast; it must never be arranged so as to interfere with conversation across the table, or to intercept the view of the guests. The decorations should be high enough for people to see under them, or so low that one can look over them.

An ingenious gentleman of Boston has lofty palm-trees, which seem to spring from the centre of his festive board and wave above the heads of his guests with true tropical luxuriance. They really have their roots in large pots placed under the table, through which holes are bored to admit the passage of the stems.

Low, flat centrepieces of flowers, round or oblong in shape, are often used, and are much liked, because they afford no barrier to sight or to conversation. With this style four smaller bouquets for the corners of the table are very pretty, the flowers in the latter corresponding with the central design. When the table is large, additional vases may be placed at the sides. This form of decoration has been used for many years and is so fitting that it does not go out of fashion. Blue hydrangea interspersed with sprays of lily of the valley and bordered with maiden-hair ferns makes a very effective decoration used in this way, and has also the good quality of not emitting too strong an odor. Flowers for the dinner-table may be sweet, but should not be oppressive with their fragrance. A centrepiece of blush roses or of American Beauties, is an old-time favorite.

Flowers should never be used to decorate dishes containing food. It is said that a nouveau-riehe recently adorned her meat-platters with expensive roses, the stems disappearing in the gravy!

On a large round table, the centrepiece of flowers may be effectively supplemented by a large wreath of asparagus fern or some other pretty greenery, interspersed with blossoms matching those of the central decoration. Vines or flowers are sometimes charmingly arranged on the surface of the cloth itself, radiating from the middle of the table.

The blue and pink dinners — in which china, table ornaments, etc., were all of the chosen color - are no longer as fashionable as they were. The same is true of silver and glass dinners, at which the guests marvelled at the gorgeous display of plate or admired the beautiful shape and endless variety of crystal vessels, — now of cut glass, sparkling like diamonds, now of delicate glass engraved with exquisite designs, and as brittle as the heart of an old-fashioned heroine of romance. These fancies in china are all very well occasionally; but the greatest beauty is found in harmony, not in monotone, and the most aesthetically adorned tables encourage variety rather than oddity.

Where the giver of a dinner does not wish to go to much expense for flowers, a jardinière containing a low, flat pot of maiden-hair fern is often used.

A very effective centrepiece can be made by arranging fruit and flowers together, or even with fruit alone. When winter begins to break up, every one hails the early spring blossoms with delight. Sweet-pease, nasturtiums and many other garden flowers, are also beautiful and appropriate in their season. Wild-flowers artistically arranged make exquisite table ornaments. It would doubtless surprise some farmers to see the weeds which they so detest, and wage a life-long warfare with, set in the place of honor on the rich man's table. Yet there the sturdy weeds stand today, pretty, saucy and graceful, like country beauties newly come to Court.

In England, where tropical fruit is so much more expensive than with us, it is said that pineapples are sometimes hired to ornament the table with, and are returned intact when the feast is over.

The lofty épergnes for fruit and flowers are very imposing and showy; they correspond with the candelabra, and have again come somewhat into favor, after a long period of banishment.

Indeed those who possess large and handsome pieces of silver, now use them as a part of the scheme of decoration, for ceremonious dinners. At a recent stately function in New York, thirty guests were seated at a rectangular table, four persons at each of the ends. A large oval bed of jonquils, with appropriate greenery, was in the centre. From this sprays of smilax radiated over the table-cloth, terminating at the corners and at other spots' where stood loving-cups and other ornamental pieces of silver. Dutch tankards, flagons, or tall biscuit " boxes " of silver and glass are used in the same way. According to a novel scheme of decoration, the table is arranged to simulate a formal garden. A real or mimic fountain is placed in the centre, with paths radiating from it and ending in tiny pieces of statuary or diminutive pots or vases holding artificial orange trees. It is not likely to have more than a passing vogue, however, since most people prefer the usual and more conventional arrangement which enables them to use their silver plate.

Where a tall centrepiece is used, it is often placed upon a silver tray.

Compotiers of glass or silver, filled with bonbons, prunes, ginger or other dried fruits, add much to the decorative effect. Four of these may be placed in alternation with the four vases of flowers, at a convenient distance from the centrepiece.

Bridal presents now often include individual silver or china dishes for salted nuts. Or these may be set on the table in four or more bonbon dishes or little silver baskets. They are sometimes passed from the sideboard. Olives, radishes, celery and the like are handed in the same way, at a ceremonious meal. It was the custom, at one time, to place them on the table, but at formal meals they are usually relegated to the side-table.

Fresh fruit, such as pears, grapes, apples, bananas, oranges and peaches, add to the beauty of the general effect. They are formally arranged in two large silver or china dishes, and put on the table opposite each other, perhaps balancing two candelabra. Or the fruit may be placed on the sideboard. Carafes or water-bottles of cut or engraved glass were formerly placed at each corner, and for a large dinner in the middle of each side also. According to present fashion, the goblets are filled with cold water, just before the guests sit down at table. No ice is put in the glasses, which are replenished by the servant from a silver or glass pitcher. In England " tumblers are placed on the sideboard and not on the table," and they are inclined to laugh good-naturedly at our American habit of perpetually drinking ice-water.

A " cover " signifies the place laid at table for each person. It usually consists of a dinner knife, a table-spoon, and sometimes a silver knife for fish, set at the right, two or three forks at the left, a water goblet or tumbler, and a " place " or empty plate, on which the napkin, with a roll or piece of bread folded in it, is laid. Where wine is served, the proper glasses are placed beside the goblet at the right. Where a small fork is used for raw oysters it is usually set at the right in a slanting position. At one time it was the custom, to place more knives and forks on the table, but it is now thought more elegant to avoid a profusion of these implements. When additional ones are required at the beginning of a new course, they are dexterously laid in place on either side of the fresh plate by the servants in attendance. They should not be handed upon the plate, although this is sometimes done for dessert. The knives should have the blades turned in, the tines of the forks and the bowls of the spoons should be turned up.

The napkin, as has been said elsewhere, should be simply, folded, either standing upright, like a sort of triangle, with the ends drawn together to hold the bread, or folded square, with the top part creased and turned back diagonally; and the roll or bread, which should be cut in small thick pieces, and not in slices, tucked under this fold — or in any other simple way.

The napkin is often laid at the side, instead of upon the plate, especially where the dinner begins with raw oysters or with some other cold course which can be placed upon the table before the guests enter. For the former a special oyster-plate is very convenient, since it keeps the slippery bivalves in place. Or an ordinary plate containing a bed of fine ice answers the same purpose. A piece of lemon is placed in the middle.

The use of wine and consequently of wine-glasses has greatly diminished, since modern science discovered the harmfulness of alcohol. The fear of gout or rheumatism prevents many men from taking wine, al-though it must be confessed that whiskey with water is sometimes substituted. For champagne glasses a broad, low, flaring shape is now in vogue, although the old-fashioned long, slender ones are much more graceful. For hock, green glass, and for claret or Burgundy, white glass should be used; for sherry, a white wine-glass, of conventional form, the old unchanging pattern, remains always essentially the same. Colored glasses are not so much in favor as they were, white ones either plain or with a gold edge having succeeded them. Small narrow tumblers are used for mineral waters.

No table-spoons (save those for soup) or other extra silver except the large decorative pieces already spoken of are placed on table for diner d la Russe, and no cruets or casters.

Small pepper-pots, usually of silver, may stand at the corners and half way down each side, unless the dinner is a large and formal one. Large salt-cellars may stand beside these, or individual ones may be used.

Menu-cards are now seldom used at private houses, but they are in order at public dinners, one being provided for each guest or for every two persons. Name-cards are indispensable at a large dinner. They are usually perfectly plain, or are ornamented only with the initials or coat of arms of the hostess in gold, the edges also being gilt. One sees many name-cards painted in charming designs, in the stationers' windows, these being used chiefly for special occasions, such as bridesmaids' dinners, birthdays and the like. A supply of extra silver, knives, forks and spoons, should be laid out on the side-board. There should also be a serving-table, on which the finger-bowls, dessert-plates and sometimes the after-dinner coffee-cups, saucers and spoons are placed. The finger-bowls should be partly filled with water that is neither hot nor ice-cold. Two or three violets or other dainty flowers, and a leaf of sweet-scented verbena or geranium may float upon the surface.

The dinner is served from a table in the butler's pantry, where the carving knives and forks should be in readiness. If the pantry is too small and the carving done in the dining room, a screen should conceal the table. Or the meats may be cut up in the kitchen, if it is not too far away.

While raw oysters in their season still continue to be the favorite first course at a formal dinner, some people do not serve them, from fear of typhoid fever. Grapefruit is very popular for this purpose. It is usually flavored with Maraschino or sherry, one or more cherries adding a touch of color. Little-neck clams, melons or other fruit may come first in summer. If hors-d'oeuvres (olives, radishes, celery, caviare, etc.) are served, they come before the soup. It was customary at one time, to have two varieties, but only one kind of soup is now given, at dinners in private houses. It is served from the butler's pantry like the rest of the dinner, the hot plates of soup being set upon other plates already in place before the guests. The latter may be left after the removal of the soup, until a hot plate for the fish is set before each person, the theory being that a guest should always have a plate in front of him. This rule cannot be strictly adhered to, except in houses where there are a sufficient number of well-trained servants, for it would interfere with a still more important modern rule, which declares that the service of the table must be rapid, and that guests must not be long detained in the dining-room. The hostess must not allow her servants to hurry the guests however. Some men servants like to whisk away the plates before people have finished eating. This should not be permitted.

Fish is followed by the entrées, or " Those dishes which are served in the first course after the fish."

It is now thought best to serve only one entrée, unless the dinner is a very elaborate affair. To these succeed the roast, or piece de resistance, saddle of mutton, filet of beef, turkey or whatever may be preferred. Heavy repasts are now so much avoided that pigeons are sometimes substituted for the usual roast at small dinners. With the curtailing of the modern bill-of-fare, Roman punch has gone out of fashion, except on public occasions. Game comes next, salad being served with it. At small dinners, the game may be omitted and salad given as a separate course, accompanied with cheese and with bread and butter or crackers. The bread should be cut very thin and nicely buttered, although some-times the butter and bread are served separately.

Cheese is often made a course by itself; with cream cheese, the dainty Bar-le-due preserves may be served. The general tendency of the modern dinner is to have each dish " all alone by itself," like the one fishball of classic memory. This style, however, may be carried too far. Only one or at most two vegetables are served with one course, and many vegetables make a course by themselves, as asparagus, sweet corn, artichokes, macaroni, etc.

Some people think it is very barbarous to eat corn from the cob, but others consider it entirely allowable to do so, especially if it is broken into short pieces. A lady who gives many elegant dinners at Newport causes to be laid beside the plate of each guest two little silver-gilt spike-like arrangements. Each person then places these in either end of the corn-cob, and eats his corn holding it by two silver handles as it were. It should be said, however, that at a formal dinner, corn is not served in this way, but is cut from the cob.

After the salad and cheese come the ices and sweet dishes, then the fruit, then the' bonbons. Coffee is usually served in the drawing-room, although it may be handed around in the dining-room if the guests have not already sat too long at the table.

Gentlemen stay at table a short time after the ladies have left it, discussing wine, cigars and liqueurs (or cordials), and no doubt indulging in the most improving conversation. Or they may adjourn to the smoking-room. After-dinner coffee should always be café noir, or strong black coffee. It should be poured out in the kitchen or butler's pantry and handed round on a salver in tiny cups, with tiny gold or silver spoons, and lump sugar and cream; or the coffee-pot and the rest of the service may be brought into the drawing-room on a tray, the servant offering it to each guest. He fills the -cup and offers sugar and cream, before passing on to the next person.

For all the hot-meat courses, entrées, etc., the guests are provided with hot plates; but these are not used for salads nor cold meats, nor for hot puddings, which keep their own heat too well to need any artificial aid.

For a dinner of many courses the knives and forks laid beside the plates will not be sufficient. Therefore at a later stage of the entertainment a fresh fork; or fork and knife, as the course may require, is set at each place.

Before the dessert everything is of course cleared from the table except the decorations, the fruit, the compotiers and the table-cloth, which is never taken away now, for two reasons : first, because this would disturb too much the many decorations which adorn a modern feast; second, because, with the new methods of serving, there is little danger of soiling the cloth. A tray covered with a doily is used for removing the salt cellars and other articles. The crumbs are then brushed off with a folded napkin.

For the dessert, a silver dessert knife and fork and a gold or silver dessert spoon are put at each place. To these is often added an ice-spoon, — a compromise between a fork and a spoon. Glass finger-bowls now have saucers to match, the whole being placed on a handsome china plate, the doily coming between this and the glass saucer. The ice cream or other sweet is eaten on the latter, which is then removed, the china plate remaining for the fruit course. The doily should stay beneath the glass plate, to prevent the scratching of the handsome china one beneath. When the servant takes away the glass plate, the guest removes the doily, and places it on the table under the finger-bowl.

As these dainty trifles often cost twenty-five or thirty dollars a dozen, it would be an act of Vandalism to do more than look at them; the guest, therefore, must fall back on his dinner-napkin for real use.

The old service of wines, before the great wave of temperance swept over the world, was usually in accordance with the following schedule.

" Sherry is the proper wine to accompany soup. Chablis, hock, or sauterne goes with the fish course, claret and champagne with the roast. If Madeira and port are used, they should come after the game. Sherry and claret, or Burgundy, are again offered with the dessert, the after-dinner wines being of a superior quality to those served during the meal.

" For a small dinner it is quite sufficient to have two or three wines; in this case? sherry with the soup, and claret or champagne with the roast, would be the best selection."

A great change has now taken place. The preaching of medical men has had such an effect that it is not the fashion to take much wine, the varieties which tend to produce gout being especially avoided. Many people offer only hock or sauterne with the soup and champagne afterwards. Some hosts have champagne only, served throughout the dinner. Since this wine disagrees with many persons, it is more considerate to offer in addition either white wine or claret.

Cocktails are sometimes handed to the guests, be-fore they go into the dining-room, but the custom is one more honored in the breach than in the observance, especially where ladies are present. Such at least is the opinion of the present writer.

If a man refuses to take wine, the servant should offer whiskey and sparkling waters.

Cordials or liqueurs come after the dessert and the coffee. These are poured out by the butler into tiny glasses and passed around the table on a small salver. Where two kinds are served, green mint and Maraschino for instance, they are brought in in cordial de-canters. The servant asks each guest which kind he prefers, before filling the glass. As it is now usual to have the coffee handed in the drawing-room, the liqueurs also are passed there. The men have their coffee, cigars and cordials served in the dining-room or in the smoking-room. Champagne and other sparkling wines should be set in ' an ice-pail to cool until just before they are served. They are never decanted, but poured out as quickly as possible after they are opened.

Claret is usually decanted. It should never be iced, but, on the contrary, is sometimes warmed slightly; it should be of the same temperature as the room. The same is true of Burgundy.

Sherry, Madeira and port are always decanted, and are placed on the sideboard ready for use. Wine is not usually put on the dinner-table at the present time. Formerly decanters were set before the host,. who sent them to his guests. When these are placed on the table, gentlemen help themselves and the ladies next to them.

Champagne is offered many a time and oft during the dinner, being a favorite wine; but it is not usually handed with the dessert in this country, whereas on the Continent of Europe it is served with the sweets. A napkin should always be fastened around a champagne bottle, as it is almost necessarily wet from recent contact with the ice. Wine should be offered on the right hand, thus making an exception to the rule in accordance with which all dishes are handed on the left hand. The servant should name the variety before filling the glass.

At a formal dinner, Apollinaris or some other effervescent waters are offered, about half an hour after the cordials. At a smart house in Washington, a delicious drink made of orange and lemon is handed to the guests just before they leave.

The washing of plates, silver, etc., at a dinner should if possible be performed at such a distance from the dining-room that the clatter will be inaudible to those seated at table. In order to give an elaborate dinner it is almost indispensable that one should have a large quantity of china and plate, otherwise the delay from washing the dishes will be endless. Those that have ,been used should be at once removed from the dining-room, a page or maid-servant carrying them away; and one or two servants should be employed in washing them.

When one plate is taken away at the end of a course another is at once substituted for it. The finger-bowl and doily are handed on the dessert plate, as has been said. The guest should take the former off promptly, otherwise he may delay the serving of the dessert the dishes are passed to all in order that they may help themselves. These are held on the flat of the hand, with a napkin beneath them. A large fork and spoon are placed on each dish, which is held low, so that people can help themselves easily. All meats should be carefully cut up beforehand. Large forms of ice-cream should have several slices cut through, but not in such a way as to disturb the shape of the mould.

The number of servants required to wait on a dinner depends largely on their efficiency. At a large dinner one waiter to every three guests, or even to every two guests, is sometimes employed. It was formerly said that one thoroughly trained and efficient person could attend to eight or ten people. He cannot do so, how-ever, with the rapidity which is now thought most desirable. It is well to have an assistant waitress, when six or more persons are present.

As the custom is now abolished of waiting till every one is helped before beginning to eat, it should be one servant's duty to pass the proper sauce or vegetables to each person just after he has been helped by another servant to the meat. This greatly expedites matters, besides enabling every one to begin to eat his dinner while it is still hot.

The order in which the guests should be helped depends somewhat on the number of servants who wait on the table. Where there are a number in attendance there should be double service, duplicate dishes being provided for each course; one servant should begin on each side of the table, helping first the lady sitting next the host, and then the other ladies, in the order in which they sit. The gentlemen should be helped afterward, the host always receiving his plate last.

Where, however, the attendance is limited, and it is desirable to expedite matters, the servant may first help the lady on the host's right (the guest of honor), then the one on his left, and then the guests as they sit, ladies and gentlemen, leaving the host to be helped last. But it is always desirable to help all the ladies first.

The butler is much too grand a person to wear any man's livery. He wears full evening dress, — dress coat, white tie, etc., for late dinners. Earlier in the day he appears in dark morning costume. The second man wears livery, and where more than two men are kept, the others wear livery also. It is no longer the custom to wear gloves while waiting on table.

The time-honored practice of drinking toasts is still observed to some extent, especially on birthdays and other anniversaries. One host of my acquaintance, a man of wealth and fashion, always. asks the guests at his table to pledge the health of some beneficiary. The actual drinking, however, is often dispensed with in these days, the emphasis being all laid upon the sentiment. Thus at Women's Club festivities, where it is customary to have many toasts, no beverage is provided. In order to drink the health of some one who is present, it is merely necessary to bow, when the other person bows in return. Each one then drinks a few drops of wine and sets down his glass, bowing once more.

It is now becoming customary for the guests at a dinner to remain until the person or the couple in whose honor the affair is given, have taken their departure. This rule is by no means universally observed, but is growing in favor. It is a leaf which we have adopted from foreign customs.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Early Origin Of Manners

Permanent And Transient Institutions In Society

Uses Of Society

Frankness Of Modern Manners

Visiting Cards And Their Uses

Invitations

Dinners, And How To Give Them

Dinners - Service And Arrangements Of The Table

Etiquette Of The Table

Family Dinner Table - Its Furniture And Equipment

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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