December 31, 2005

The serving of food

Because it is still the Christmas period (seventh day, with the swans, going to the eighth) and because it is nearly 2006, I intend to write about food. No, not recipes but about the history of the serving of food. There is a great deal to be learnt from the history of food, recipes and cookery books. For instance, it is one of the interesting aspects of English life and agriculture that there was more eating of meat across a wider range of society than in almost any other part of Europe, let alone Asia. But that may be a theme for another posting

There are two references to the eating of food in “Pride and Prejudice” that used to puzzle me. The first occurs when Elizabeth Bennett comes to stay with her ill sister Jane at Netherfield and dines with the family there. Mr Hurst, Mr Bingley’s brother-in-law is a stupid and indolent man, who is interested in nothing except food, drink and cards. His conversation with Elizabeth is limited to finding out that she prefers a plain dish to a ragout.

Now, this is only partly puzzling, as it could have been the sort of dinner conversation Mr Hurst had. But the other reference is odder. Towards the end of the book, when Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley reappear in Longborne, Mrs Bennett immediately starts scheming about the latter finally marrying Jane. When the two gentlemen pay a visit, she almost invites them to stay to dinner (then taken in the late afternoon) but decides not to do so, the reason being, that, although she always kept a good table, nothing short of two courses could be considered to be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious design and another one, who had £10,000 a year.

Two courses? What kind of a dinner is that I asked myself idly. And if that is special, what was ordinary like?

It was some time before I managed to work out what Austen was writing about. She had no need to explain as her readers knew. The norm for serving dinner until well into the nineteenth century in England was what was later described as á la française. Instead of one well-defined course following another, each one consisted of several dishes, sweet and savoury often mingled, placed on the dining table, with guests helping each other and themselves. This would explain Mr Hurst’s conversation. He, presumably, roused himself enough to help Elizabeth and found out that she preferred the plain dish on the table.

In here recenlty published “Charlemagne’s Tablecloth – a Piquant History of Feasting”, the chef and food writer Nichola Fletcher expands on the theme, quoting from the “Epicure’s Yearbook” of 1868 (a little late for the French service), which says that for the gourmand this was much better because little could be tried of many different dishes.

It was possibly more stressful for the host, who had to carve the inevitable roast, sometimes several in one or more courses. Ms Fletcher also notes that the tablecloth, too, must have been dirtied as the various dishes were passed back and forth. Some pictures show feasts in which the entire table is covered with many different dishes, leaving space only for tiny individual plates. One wonders how the diners managed without slopping all the food onto the table cloth.

On a smaller scale, eighteenth and early nineteenth century cookery books provided suggestions and plans for the various courses and how to arrange them attractively and in a balanced way. Mrs Beeton in her usual thorough fashion provided menus for each month for different numbers of people as well as plain family dinner menus.

Each formal dinner consists of a first course of soup and fish arranged around a vase of flowers, which stays there for the rest of the dinner. Then there is an entrée of lighter meat dishes and possibly some more fish and seafood. Mutton cutlets, fillet of rabbit or curried fowl seemed the sort of thing one had. The second course had the roast and boiled meat with garnish. The third course was a mixture of game, vegetables and sweet dishes. Then came the dessert and ices.

One can quite understand why later food writers saw the appearance of many different dishes, all of which had to be offered to others at the table before one helped oneself (and what if the one you wanted was at the other end?) to be removed and replaced by other dishes as a way of presenting food they were well rid of.

Some time in the 1830s the fashion began to change towards service á la russe, that is a series of courses in what might appear a logical order to us, served directly to the guest by servants with the meat carved on the side. It probably meant that more food was consumed but that did not bother the Victorians much. A more important aspect, noted by Mrs Beeton was the need for many and well-trained servants. It is interesting that that habit came from Russia where the supply of servants, not always well trained, was almost limitless.

The dinner table was now filled with many and large vases of flowers as well as various decorations (such as the silver cow creamer, described so gloriously by P. G. Wodehouse) and dining became effortless and more pleasant. Mostly.

For as Mrs Beeton points out service á la russe is not suited for a small household where the necessary number of servants will not exist and the food is not likely to be presented in an attractive fashion. That was, presumably, the beginning of those terrible dinners described so vividly by generations of English writers of overcooked meat and undercooked potatoes presented in a somewhat haphazard fashion by one harassed maid. Mrs Beeton knew whereof she spoke.

It is surprising how long the idea of food being served by servants even in home surroundings survived in Britain. When it became impractical, various solutions were invented, such as the hostess trolley, wheeled in by the harassed hostess.

Eventually, of course, common sense prevailed in most domestic dinner parties and we have returned to a form of service á la française with the food, still in the proper order as decreed by service á la russe, placed on the table with the guests helping each other and themselves. Of course, it would be difficult to offer the choice of a plain dish or ragout but it might just be possible to find out whether your neighbour prefers mashed or roast potatoes.

Happy new year and happy feasting to all.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at December 31, 2005 06:25 PM

What exactly was meant by "a plain dish or ragout?" The terms are not clear to me.

Posted by: Stan at January 1, 2006 09:24 AM

Cook's jargon: a "plain dish" in this sense was "Not rich or highly seasoned" (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.; first recorded in this sense, under "plain", in 1668). By contrast, a "ragout" was "A dish usually consisting of meat cut into small pieces, stewed with vegetables and highly seasoned" (OED, s.v.; first recorded in this sense in 1656-7). That is, Mr. Hurst wanted to know whether Elizabeth preferred good, honest plain cooking such as roast beef, or whether she inclined to more complicated dishes like fancy stews, such as what we would now call beef Stroganoff, the clear subtext being that patriotic Englishwomen would eat roast or boiled meat, perhaps with mustard, while Frenchified lasses would prefer highly spiced, foreign kickshaws. Another term of suspicion that could have been used by Mr. Hurst would have been "made dish", which is an even older term (1598 in the OED) that meant "A dish composed of several ingredients". To Mrs. Bennett, making this would have been a worthwhile household economy, but Mr. Hurst would probably have regarded something like shepherd's pie as fit for no-one but, well, shepherds.

Posted by: David Fleming at January 1, 2006 12:42 PM


Being blessed with a wife from Russia (goose dinner today from New Year!) I would have said that good Russian eating today is more in the "French" style than in the "Russian".

If we have friends round there will be a large number of cold dishes to start off with then followed by a hot dish - but the cold dishes will very probably stay on the table so that diners can take a bit more...

The idea of a table crammed with plates, glasses and bottles is familiar...

There's a good description of a Russian banquet in Napoleonic times in CS Forester's "The Commodore". Poor Horatio Hornblower thinks he's eaten his full, then realises the hot part of the meal is still to come....

Posted by: Chris Black at January 1, 2006 05:24 PM

As I recall Hornblower had a dislike for "made dishes" as well -- it was always presented as an almost-french effeteness. Kind of the quiche of its day.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 1, 2006 05:53 PM


Posted by: bcxbgcbc at April 5, 2007 03:23 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?