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!

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