Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Formal Dinner Party Menu

From Emily Post, 1922

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. The very rich, living in the biggest houses with the most imposing array of servants, sit down to three, or at most four, courses when alone, or when intimate friends who are known to have moderate appetites, are dining with them.

Under no circumstances would a private dinner, no matter how formal, consist of more than:

  1. Hors d'oeuvre
  2. Soup
  3. Fish
  4. Entrée
  5. Roast
  6. Salad
  7. Dessert
  8. Coffee

The menu for an informal dinner would leave out the entrée, and possibly either the hors d'oeuvre or the soup.

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!

Monday, January 9, 2012

On the Importance of Dinner Engagements

Dinner invitations must be answered immediately; engraved or written ones by return post, or those which were telephoned, by telephone and at once! 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. Nobody's and then break the obligation upon being invited to dine with the 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. The rule is: "Don't accept an invitation if you don't care about it." Having declined the Nobody invitation in the first place, you are then free to accept Mrs. Worldly's, or to stay at home. There are times, however, when engagements between very close friends or members of the family may perhaps be broken, but only if made with the special stipulation: "Come to dinner with us alone Thursday if nothing better turns up!" And the other answers, "I'd love to--and you let me know too, if you want to do anything else." Meanwhile if one of them is invited to something unusually tempting, there is no rudeness in telephoning her friend, "Lucy has asked us to hear Galli-Curci on Thursday!" and the other says, "Go, by all means! We can dine Tuesday next week if you like, or come Sunday for supper." This privilege of
intimacy can, however, be abused. An engagement, even with a member of one's family, ought never to be broken twice within a brief period, or it becomes apparent that the other's presence is more a fill-in of idle time than a longed-for pleasure.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How A Dinner List Is Kept

Nearly every hostess keeps a dinner list—apart from her general visiting list—of people with whom she is accustomed to dine, or to invite to dinner or other small entertainments. But the prominent hostess, if she has grown daughters and continually gives parties of all sorts and sizes and ages, usually keeps her list in a more complete and "ready reference" order.

Mrs. Gilding, for instance, has guest lists separately indexed. Under the general heading "Dinners," she has older married, younger married, girls, men. Her luncheon list is taken from her dinner list. "Bridge" includes especially good players of all ages; "dances," young married people, young girls, and dancing men. Then she has a cross-index list of "Important Persons," meaning those of real distinction who are always the foundation of all good society; "Amusing," usually people of talent—invaluable for house parties; and "New People," including many varieties and un-assorted. Mrs. Gilding exchanges invitations with a number of these because they are interesting or amusing, or because their parties are diverting and dazzling. And Mrs. Gilding herself, being typical of New York's Cavalier element rather than its Puritan strain, personally prefers diversion to edification. Needless to say, "Boston's Best," being ninety-eight per cent. Puritan, has no "new" list. Besides her list of "New People," she has a short "frivolous" list of other Cavaliers like herself, and a "Neutral" list, which is the most valuable of all because it comprises those who "go" with everyone. Besides her own lists she has a "Pantry" list, a list that is actually made out for the benefit of the butler, so that on occasions he can invite guests to "fill in." The "Pantry" list comprises only intimate friends who belong on the "Neutral" list and fit in everywhere; young girls and young and older single men.

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. For instance, at four o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Blank telephones that he cannot come to dinner that same evening. Mrs. Gilding is out; to wait until she returns will make it too late to fill the place. 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. The dinner cards being already in his possession, he can see not only who is expected for dinner but the two ladies between whom Mr. Blank has been placed, and he thereupon selects some one on the "Pantry" list who is suitable for Mr. Blank's place at the table, and telephones the invitation. Perhaps he calls up a dozen before he finds one disengaged. When Mrs. Gilding returns he says, "Mr. Blank telephoned he would not be able to come for dinner as he was called to Washington. Mr. Bachelor will be happy to come in his place." Married people are seldom on this list, because the butler need not undertake to fill any but an odd place—that of a gentleman particularly. Otherwise two ladies would be seated together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Taste in Selecting Your Dinner Guests

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! Some people have this "sense"—others haven't. The first are the great hosts and hostesses; the others are the mediocre or the failures.

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. If both are voluble or nervous or "temperamental," you may create a situation like putting two operatic sopranos in the same part and expecting them to sing together.

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. Entomoid would probably delight in him; just as Mr. Stocksan Bonds and Mrs. Rich would probably have interests in common. Making a dinner list is a little like making a Christmas list. You put down what they will (you hope) like, not what you like. Those who are placed between congenial neighbors remember your dinner as delightful—even though both food and service were mediocre; but ask people out of their own groups and seat them next to their pet aversions, and wild horses could not drag them to your house again!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How A Dinner Can Be Bungled

This is the contrasting picture to the dinner at the Worldly's—a picture to show you particularly who are a bride how awful an experiment in dinner giving can be.

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.

You have been at home for so few meals you don't quite know how experienced they are. 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!

So when your house is "in order" and the last pictures and curtains are hung, the impulse suddenly comes to you to give a dinner! Your husband thinks it is a splendid idea. It merely remains to decide whom you will ask. You hesitate between a few of your own intimates, or older people, and decide it would be such fun to ask a few of the hostesses whose houses you have almost lived at ever since you "came out." You decide to ask Mrs. Toplofty, Mr. Clubwin Doe, the Worldlys, the Gildings, and the Kindharts and the Wellborns. With yourselves that makes twelve. You can't have more than twelve because you have only a dozen of everything; in fact you decide that twelve will be pretty crowded, but that it will be safe to ask that number because a few are sure to "regret." So you write notes (since it is to be a formal dinner), and—they all accept! You are a little worried about the size of the dining-room, but you are overcome by the feeling of your popularity. Now the thing to do is to prepare for a dinner. The fact that Nora probably can't make fancy dishes does not bother you a bit. In your mind's eye you see delicious plain food passed; you must get Sigrid a dress that properly fits her, and Delia, the chambermaid (who was engaged with the understanding that she was to serve in the dining-room when there was company), has not yet been at table, but she is a very willing young person who will surely look well.

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. You pick out your best tablecloth, but you find rather to your amazement that when the waitress asks you about setting the table, you have never noticed in detail how the places are laid. Knives and spoons go on the right of the plate, of course, and forks on the left, but which goes next to the plate, or whether the wine glasses should stand nearer or beyond the goblet you can only guess. It is quite simple, however, to give directions in serving; you just tell the chambermaid that she is to follow the waitress, and pass the sauces and the vegetables. And you have already explained carefully to the latter that she must not deal plates around the table like a pack of cards, or ever take them off in piles either. (That much at least you do know.) You also make it a point above everything that the silver must be very clean; Sigrid seems to understand, and with the optimism of youth, you approach the dinner hour without misgiving. The table, set with your wedding silver and glass, looks quite nice. You are a little worried about the silver—it does look rather yellow, but perhaps it is just a shadow. Then you notice there are a great many forks on the table! You ask your husband what is the matter with the forks? He does not see anything wrong. You need them all for the dinner you ordered, how can there be less? So you straighten a candlestick that was out of line, and put the place cards on.

Then you go into the drawing-room. You don't light the fire until the last moment, because you want it to be burning brightly when your guests arrive. 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. As Mr. Clubwin Doe enters, the room looks charming, then suddenly the fire smokes, and in the midst of the smoke your other guests arrive. Every one begins to cough and blink. They are very polite, but the smoke, growing each moment denser, is not to be overlooked. Mrs. Toplofty takes matters in her own hands and makes Mr. Doe and your husband carry the logs, smoke and all, and throw them into the yard. The room still thick with smoke is now cheerlessly fireless, and another factor beginning to distress you is that, although everyone has arrived, there is no sign of dinner. You wait, at first merely eager to get out of the smoke-filled drawing-room. Gradually you are becoming nervous—what can have happened? The dining-room door might be that of a tomb for all the evidence of life behind it. You become really alarmed. Is dinner never going to be served? Everyone's eyes are red from the smoke, and conversation is getting weaker and weaker. Mrs. Toplofty—evidently despairing—sits down. Mrs. Worldly also sits, both hold their eyes shut and say nothing. At last the dining-room door opens, and Sigrid instead of bowing slightly and saying in a low tone of voice, "Dinner is served," stands stiff as a block of wood, and fairly shouts: "Dinner's all ready!"

You hope no one heard her, but you know very well that nothing escaped any one of those present. And between the smoke and the delay and your waitress' manners, you are already thoroughly mortified by the time you reach the table. 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. And then comes the soup. You don't have to taste it to see that it is wrong. It looks not at all as "clear" soup should! Its color, instead of being glass-clear amber, is greasy-looking brown. You taste it, fearing the worst, and the worst is realized. It tastes like dish-water—and is barely tepid. You look around the table; Mr. Kindhart alone is trying to eat it.

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 can feel Mrs. Worldly looking with almost hypnotized fascination—as her attention might be drawn to a street accident against her will. Then there is a wait. You wait and wait, and looking in front of you, you notice the bare tablecloth without a plate. You know instantly that the service is wrong, but you find yourself puzzled to know how it should have been done. Finally Sigrid comes in with a whole dozen plates stacked in a pile, which she proceeds to deal around the table. You at least know that to try to interfere would only make matters worse. You hold your own cold fingers in your lap knowing that you must sit there, and that you can do nothing.

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. You don't know what to do next; you know there is no use in apologizing, there is no way of dropping through the floor, or waking yourself up. You have collected the smartest and the most critical people around your table to put them to torture such as they will never forget. Never! You have to bite your lips to keep from crying. Whatever possessed you to ask these people to your horrible house?

Mr. Kindhart, sitting next to you, says gently, "Cheer up, little girl, it doesn't really matter!" And then you know to the full how terrible the situation is. The meal is endless; each course is equally unappetizing to look at, and abominably served. You notice that none of your guests eat anything. They can't.

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!

As you are very young, and those present are all really fond of you, they try to be comforting, but you know that it will be years (if ever) before any of them will be willing to risk an evening in your house again. You also know that without malice, but in truth and frankness, they will tell everyone: "Whatever you do, don't dine with the 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 up-stairs, 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! But you know! 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.

If you had tried the chimney first, and learned its peculiarities; if you yourself had known every detail of cooking and service, of course you would not have attempted to give the dinner in the first place; not at least until, through giving little dinners, the technique of your household had become good enough to give a big one.

On the other hand, supposing that you had had a very experienced cook and waitress; dinner would, of course, not have been bungled, but it would have lacked something, somewhere, if you added nothing of your own personality to its perfection. 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. Mrs. Worldly pays seemingly no attention, but nothing escapes her. She can walk through a room without appearing to look either to the right or left, yet if the slightest detail is amiss, an ornament out of place, or there is one dull button on a footman's livery, her house telephone is rung at once!

Friday, November 13, 2009

When Dinner Is Announced

It is the duty of the butler to "count heads" so that he may know when the company has arrived. As soon as he has announced the last person, he notifies the cook. The cook being ready, the butler, having glanced into the dining-room to see that windows have been closed and the candles on the table lighted, enters the drawing-room, approaches the hostess, bows, and says quietly, "Dinner is served."

The host offers his arm to the lady of honor and leads the way to the dining-room. All the other gentlemen offer their arms to the ladies appointed to them, and follow the host, in an orderly procession, two and two; the only order of precedence is that the host and his partner lead, while the hostess and her partner come last. At all formal dinners, place cards being on the table, the hostess does not direct people where to sit. If there was no table diagram in the hall, the butler, standing just within the dining-room door, tells each gentleman as he approaches "Right" or "Left."

"R" or "L" is occasionally written on the lady's name card in the envelopes given to the gentlemen, or if it is such a big dinner that there are many separate tables, the tables are numbered with standing placards (as at a public dinner) and the table number written on each lady's name card.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Introductions at Dinner

The host must always see that every gentleman either knows or is presented to the lady he is to "take in" to dinner, and also, if possible, to the one who is to sit at the other side of him. If the latter introduction is overlooked, people sitting next each other at table nearly always introduce themselves. A gentleman says, "How do you do, Mrs. Jones. I am Arthur Robinson." Or showing her his place card, "I have to introduce myself, this is my name." Or the lady says first, "I am Mrs. Hunter Jones." And the man answers, "How do you do, Mrs. Jones, my name is Titherington Smith."

It is not unusual, in New York, for those placed next each other to talk without introducing themselves—particularly if each can read the name of the other on the place cards.