Do You Make This Mistake at the Dinner Table?
IF the great world of society were a university which issued degrees to those whom it trains to its usages, the magna cum laude honors would be awarded without question, not do You Make This Mistake at the Dinner Table? the hostess who may have given the most marvelous ball of the decade, but to her who knows best every component detail of preparation and service, no less than every inexorable rule of etiquette, in formal dinner-giving. To give a perfect dinner of ceremony is the supreme accomplishment of a hostess!
It means not alone perfection of furnishing, of service, of culinary skill, but also of personal charm, of tact. There are so many aspects to be considered in dinner giving that it is difficult to know whether to begin upstairs or down, or with furnishing, or service, or people, or manners! One thing is certain, no novice should ever begin her social career by attempting a formal dinner, any more than a pupil swimmer, upon being able to take three strokes alone, should attempt to swim three miles out to sea. The former will as surely drown as the latter.
Then on either side of herself, she puts the two most important gentlemen. She then picks up the place cards still stacked in their proper sequence, and takes them to the butler who will put them in the order arranged on the table after it is set. Fifteen minutes before the dinner hour, Mrs. Worldly is already standing in her drawing-room.
She has no personal responsibility other than that of being hostess. The whole machinery of equipment and service runs seemingly by itself. It does not matter whether she knows what the menu is. Her cook is more than capable of attending to it.
That the table shall be perfect is merely the every-day duty of the butler. Let us suppose that you have a quite charming house, and that your wedding presents included everything necessary to set a well-appointed table. You have not very experienced servants, but they would all be good ones with a little more training. Your cook at least makes good coffee and eggs and toast for breakfast, and the few other meals she has cooked seemed to be all right, and she is such a nice clean person! Your husband thinks it is a splendid idea. It merely remains to decide whom you will ask.
Nora, when you tell her who are coming, eagerly suggests the sort of menu that would appear on the table of the Worldlys or the Gildings. You are thrilled at the thought of your own kitchen producing the same. That it may be the same in name only, does not occur to you. You order flowers for the table, and candy for your four compotiers. Then you go into the drawing-room. Your drawing-room looks a little stiff somehow, but an open fire more than anything else makes a room inviting, and you light it just as your first guest rings the bell.
Clubwin Doe enters, the room looks charming, then suddenly the fire smokes, and in the midst of the smoke your other guests arrive. You hope no one heard her, but you know very well that nothing escaped any one of those present. But you hope that at least the dinner will be good. For the first time you are assailed with doubt on that score. And again you wait, but the oyster course is all right. In removing the plates, Delia, the assistant, takes them up by piling one on top of the other, clashing them together as she does so. You wait and wait, and looking in front of you, you notice the bare tablecloth without a plate.
The fish which was to have been a mousse with Hollandaise sauce, is a huge mound, much too big for the platter, with a narrow gutter of water around the edge and the center dabbed over with a curdled yellow mess. You realize that not only is the food itself awful, but that the quantity is too great for one dish. And then you know to the full how terrible the situation is. You notice that none of your guests eat anything. You leave the table literally sick, but realizing fully that the giving of a dinner is not as easy as you thought. And in the drawing-room, which is now fireless and freezing, but at least smokeless, you start to apologize and burst into tears!
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Newweds unless you eat your dinner before you go, and wear black glasses so no sight can offend you. When they have all gone, you drag yourself miserably upstairs, feeling that you never want to look in that drawing-room or dining-room again. Your husband, remembering the trenches, tries to tell you it was not so bad! You lie awake planning to let the house, and to discharge each one of your awful household the next morning, and then you realize that the fault is not a bit more theirs than yours.
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It is almost safe to make the statement that no dinner is ever really well done unless the hostess herself knows every smallest detail thoroughly. Worldly pays seemingly no attention, but nothing escapes her. Having generalized by drawing two pictures, it is now time to take up the specific details to be considered in giving a dinner. People who are congenial to one another. A suitable menu perfectly prepared and dished. Hot food to be hot, and cold, cold.
Faultlessly laundered linen, brilliantly polished silver, and all other table accessories suitable to the occasion and surroundings. Expert dining-room servants and enough of them. Adequate in size to number of guests and inviting in arrangement. And though for all dinners these requisites are much the same, the necessity for perfection increases in proportion to the formality of the occasion. The proper selection of guests is the first essential in all entertaining, and the hostess who has a talent for assembling the right people has a great asset.
Taste in house furnishings or in clothes or in selecting a cook, is as nothing compared to taste in people! It is usually a mistake to invite great talkers together. Brilliant men and women who love to talk want hearers, not rivals. Very silent people should be sandwiched between good talkers, or at least voluble talkers.
Silly people should never be put anywhere near learned ones, nor the dull near the clever, unless the dull one is a young and pretty woman with a talent for listening, and the clever, a man with an admiration for beauty, and a love for talking. Most people think two brilliant people should be put together. Often they should, but with discretion. The endeavor of a hostess, when seating her table, is to put those together who are likely to be interesting to each other.
Professor Bugge might bore you to tears, but Mrs. Rich would probably have interests in common. Making a dinner list is a little like making a Christmas list. Gilding, for instance, has guest lists separately indexed. Her luncheon list is taken from her dinner list.
Allowing the butler to invite guests at his own discretion is not quite as casual as it sounds. It is very often an unavoidable expedient. Blank telephones that he cannot come to dinner that same evening. Her butler who has been with her for years knows quite as well as Mrs. Gilding herself exactly which people belong in the same group. Since no one but a fairly intimate friend is ever asked to fill a place, this invitation is always telephoned.
A very young man is asked by the butler if he will dine with Mrs. Can you do me a great favor and fill a place at dinner tonight? The one who receives this invitation is rather bound by the rules of good manners to accept if possible. Also, nothing but serious illness or death or an utterly unavoidable accident can excuse the breaking of a dinner engagement. To accept a dinner at Mrs.
Worldlys, proclaims anyone capable of such rudeness an unmitigated snob, whom Mrs. Worldly would be the first to cut from her visiting list if she knew of it. Having declined the Nobody invitation in the first place, you are then free to accept Mrs. It may be due to the war period, which accustomed everyone to going with very little meat and to marked reduction in all food, or it may be, of course, merely vanity that is causing even grandparents to aspire to svelte figures, but whatever the cause, people are putting much less food on their tables than formerly. As a matter of fact, the marked shortening of the menu is in informal dinners and at the home table of the well-to-do. Formal dinners have been as short as the above schedule for twenty-five years. A dinner interlarded with a row of extra entrées, Roman punch, and hot dessert is unknown except at a public dinner, or in the dining-room of a parvenu.
About thirty-five years ago such dinners are said to have been in fashion! Timbale with a very rich sauce of cream and pâté de foie gras might perhaps be followed by French chops, broiled chicken or some other light, plain meat. An entrée of about four broiled mushrooms on a small round of toast should be followed by boned capon or saddle of mutton or spring lamb. It is equally bad to give your guests very peculiar food unless as an extra dish.
It is the same way with the Italian dishes. One hating garlic and onions would be very wretched if onions were put in each and every course, and liberally. With Indian curry, a fatally bad selection would be a very peppery soup, such as croute au pot filled with pepper, and fish with green peppers, and then the curry, and then something casserole filled again with peppers and onions and other throat-searing ingredients, finishing with an endive salad. Another thing: although a dinner should not be long, neither should it consist of samples, especially if set before men who are hungry!
The only thing that had any sustaining quality, barring the potato which was not more than a mouthful, was the last, and very few men care to make their dinner of ice cream. If instead of squab there had been filet of beef cut in generous slices, and the potato croquettes had been more numerous, it would have been adequate. Occasionally it was oblong or rectangular, but its favorite shape was round, and a thick white damask cloth hung to the floor on all sides. Loading a table to the utmost of its capacity with useless implements which only in rarest instances had the least value, would seem to prove that quantity without quality must have been thought evidence of elegance and generous hospitality! But to-day the classic has come into its own again!
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As though recovering from an illness, good taste is again demanding severe beauty of form and line, and banishing everything that is useless or superfluous. During the last twenty years most of us have sent an army of lumpy dishes to the melting-pot, and junky ornaments to the ash heap along with plush table covers, upholstered mantel-boards and fern dishes! It is scarcely necessary to point out that the bigger and more ambitious the house, the more perfect its appointments must be. If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver. Enchanting dining-rooms and tables have been achieved with an outlay amounting to comparatively nothing. There is a dining-room in a certain small New York house that is quite as inviting as it is lacking in expensiveness.
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To say that it must be smooth and white, in other words perfectly laundered, is as beside the mark as to say that faces and hands should be clean! If the tablecloth has lace insertions, it must on no account be put over satin or over a color. All needlework, whether to be used on the table or on a bed, must, in a beautifully finished house, be fine rather than striking. But whatever type of cloth is used, the middle crease must be put on so that it is an absolutely straight and unwavering line down the exact center from head to foot.
Next goes the centerpiece which is always the chief ornament. Candles are used with or without shades. Next comes the setting of the places. Then on the left of each plate, handle towards the edge of the table, and prongs up, is put the salad fork, the meat fork is put next, and then the fish fork. The salad fork, which will usually be the third used, is thus laid nearest to the plate. In putting on the glasses, the water goblet is at the top and to the right of the knives, and the wine glasses are either grouped to the right of the goblet, or in a straight line slanting down from the goblet obliquely towards the right. Butter plates are never put on a dinner table.
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These dishes, or compotiers, hold candy or fruit, chosen less for taste than for decorative appearance. On a very large table the four compotiers are filled with candy, and two or four larger silver dishes or baskets are filled with fruit and put on alternately with the candy dishes. Flowers are also often put in two or four smaller vases, in addition to a larger and dominating one in the center. Peppers and salts should be put at every other place. For a dinner of twelve there should be six salt cellars at least, if not six pepper pots.
Olives and radishes are served from the side table, but salted nuts are often put on the dinner table either in two big silver dishes, or in small individual ones. Anything is better than yellow-faced dirty-finger-nailed silver. The silver polishing of perfection in huge houses is done by such an expert that no one can tell whether a fork has that moment been sent from the silversmiths or not. It is not merely polished until it is bright, but burnished so that it is new!
No silver should ever be picked up in the fingers as that always leaves a mark. People who are lucky enough to have well-stored attics these days are bringing treasures out of them. But services of Swansea or Lowestoft or Spode, while easily cleaned, are equally easily broken, so that genuine Eighteenth Century pieces are more apt to see a cabinet than a dinner table. These tea sets with cups and saucers to match and with a silver kettle and tray, are seen almost as often as silver services in simple houses in the country, as well as in the small apartment in town. Pickle jars, catsup bottles, toothpicks and crackers are not private-house table ornaments. Saucers for vegetables are contrary to all etiquette. The only extra plates ever permitted are the bread and butter plates which are put on at breakfast and lunch and supper above and to the left of the forks, but never at dinner.
The crescent-shaped salad plate, made to fit at the side of the place plate, is seen rarely in fashionable houses. A correct and very good serving dish for a family of two, is the vegetable dish that has a partition dividing it into two or even three divisions, so that a small quantity of two or three vegetables can be passed at the same time. Napkin rings are unknown in fashionable houses outside of the nursery. But in large families where it is impossible to manage such a wash as three clean napkins a day entail, napkin rings are probably necessary. Whether there are two at table or two hundred, plates are changed and courses presented in precisely the same manner.
In old-fashioned times people apparently did not mind waiting tranquilly through courses and between courses, even though meat grew cold long before the last of many vegetables was passed, and they waited endlessly while a slow talker and eater finished his topic and his food. But people of to-day do not like to wait an unnecessary second. The moment fish is passed them, they expect the cucumbers or sauce, or whatever should go with the fish, to follow immediately. A late leader of Newport society who had a world-wide reputation for the brilliancy of her entertainments, had an equally well-known reputation for rapidly served dinners. She had a footman to about every two guests and any one dining with her had to cling to the edge of his plate or it would be whisked away!
In America the dinner hour is not a fixture, since it varies in various sections of the country. In New York, when dining and going to the opera, one is usually asked for seven-fifteen, and for seven-thirty before going to a play. But invitations should, of course, be issued for whatever hour is customary in the place where the dinner is given. When the dinner guests enter the dining-room, it is customary for the butler to hold out the chair of the mistress of the house. This always seems a discourtesy to the guests.
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And an occasional hostess insists on having the chair of the guest of honor held by the butler instead of her own. He is not supposed to leave the dining-room himself or ever to handle a dish. New York which merely means that nothing to eat is ever put on the table except ornamental dishes of fruit and candy. The meat is carved in the kitchen or pantry, vegetables are passed and returned to the side table.
Only at breakfast or possibly at supper are dishes of food put on the table. From the setting of the table until it is cleared for dessert, a plate must remain at every cover. Under the first two courses there are always two plates. At the end of the course the used plate is removed, leaving the place plate. The soup plate is also put on top of this same plate. If the first course had been a canapé or any cold dish that was offered in bulk instead of being brought on separate plates, it would have been eaten on the place plate, and an exchange plate would have been necessary before the soup could be served.
That is, a clean plate would have been exchanged for the used one, and the soup plate then put on top of that. If an entrée served on individual plates follows the fish, clean plates are first exchanged for the used ones until the whole table is set with clean plates. Then the entrée is put at each place in exchange for the clean plate. Although dishes are always presented at the left of the person served, plates are removed and replaced at the right. Glasses are poured and additional knives placed at the right, but forks are put on as needed from the left. May the Plates for Two Persons Be Brought in Together?
The first two plates are placed on others which have not been removed, and the dessert plates need merely be put down on the tablecloth. But the plates of every other course have to be exchanged and therefore each individual service requires two hands. Once upon a time it was actually considered impolite to remove a single plate until the last guest at the table had finished eating! In other days people evidently did not mind looking at their own dirty plates indefinitely, nor could they have minded sitting for hours at table. At a dinner of twelve, for instance, two dishes each holding six portions, are garnished exactly alike and presented at opposite ends of the table. One to the lady on the right of the host, and the other to the lady at the opposite end of the table.
It is perhaps more polite to the ladies to give them preference, but it is complicated, and leaves another gentleman as well as the host, sitting between two ladies who are eating while he is apparently forgotten. A dinner of eighteen has sometimes two services, but if very perfect, three. Where there are three services they start with the lady of honor and the sixth from her on either side and continue to the right. Do you care for whisky soda, sir? But the temperature and service of wines which used to be an essential detail of every dinner have now no place at all.
Whether people will offer frappéd cider or some other iced drink in the middle of dinner, and a warmed something else to take the place of claret with the fish, remains to be seen. As soon as soup is served the parlor-maid or a footman passes a dish or a basket of dinner rolls. If rolls are not available, bread cut in about two-inch-thick slices, is cut cross-ways again in three. An old-fashioned silver cake basket makes a perfect modern bread-basket. Or a small wicker basket that is shallow and inconspicuous will do. A guest helps himself with his fingers and lays the roll or bread on the tablecloth, always. An especially heavy meat platter can be steadied if necessary by holding the edge of the platter with the left hand, the fingers protected from being burned by a second folded napkin.