An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals

Manners and social usages,


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To achieve a perfect little dinner with small means at command is said to be a great intellectual feat. Dinner means so much–a French cook, several accomplished servants, a very well-stocked china closet, plate chest, and linen chest, and flowers, wines, bonbons, and so on. But we have known many simple little dinners given by young couples with small means which were far more enjoyable than the gold and silver “diamond” dinners.

Given, first, a knowledge of how to do it; a good cook (not a cordon bleu); a neat maid-servant in cap and apron–if the lady can carve (which all ladies should know how to do); if the gentleman has a good bottle of claret, and another of champagne–or neither, if he disapproves of them; if the house is neatly and quietly furnished, with the late magazines on the table; if the welcome is cordial, and there is no noise, no fussy pretence–these little dinners are very enjoyable, and every one is anxious to be invited to them.

But people are frightened off from simple entertainments by the splendor of the great luxurious dinners given by the very rich. It is a foolish fear. The lady who wishes to give a simple but good dinner has first to consult what is seasonable. She must offer the dinner

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of the season, not seek for those strawberries in February which are always sour, nor peaches in June, nor pease at Christmas. Forced fruit is never good.

For an autumnal small dinner here is a very good menu:

table image

Of course, in these days, claret and champagne are considered quite enough for a small dinner, and one need not offer the other wines. Or, as Mrs. Henderson says in her admirable cook-book, a very good dinner maybe given with claret alone. A table claret to add to the water is almost the only wine drunk in France or Italy at an every-day dinner. Of course no wine at all is expected at the tables of those whose principles forbid alcoholic beverages, and who nevertheless give excellent dinners without them.

A perfectly fresh white damask table-cloth, napkins of equally delicate fabric, spotless glass and silver, pretty china, perhaps one high glass dish crowned with fruit and flowers–sometimes only the fruit–chairs that are comfortable, a room not too warm, the dessert served in good taste, but not overloaded–this is all one needs. The essentials of a good dinner are but few.

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The informal dinner invitations should be written by the lady herself in the first person. She may send for her friends only a few days before she wants them to come. She should be ready five minutes before her guests arrive, and in the parlor, serene and cool, “mistress of herself, though china fall.” She should see herself that the dinner-table is properly laid, the champagne and sherry thoroughly cooled, the places marked out, and, above all, the guests properly seated.

“Ay, there’s the rub.” To invite the proper people to meet each other, to seat them so that they can have an agreeable conversation, that is the trying and crucial test. Little dinners are social; little dinners are informal; little dinners make people friends. And we do not mean little in regard to numbers or to the amount of good food; we mean simple dinners.

All the good management of a young hostess or an old one cannot prevent accident, however. The cook may get drunk; the waiter may fall and break a dozen of the best plates; the husband may be kept down town late, and be dressing in the very room where the ladies are to take off their cloaks (American houses are frightfully inconvenient in this respect). All that the hostess can do is to preserve an invincible calm, and try not to care–at least not to show that she cares. But after a few attempts the giving of a simple dinner becomes very easy, and it is the best compliment to a stranger. A gentleman travelling to see the customs of a country is much more pleased to be asked to a modest repast where he meets his hostess and her family than to a state dinner where he is ticketed off and made merely one at a banquet.

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Then the limitations of a dinner can be considered. It is not kind to keep guests more than an hour, or two hours at the most, at table. French dinners rarely exceed an hour. English dinners are too long and too heavy, although the conversation is apt to be brilliant. At a simple dinner one can make it short.

It is better to serve coffee in the drawing-room, although if the host and hostess are agreed on this point, and the ladies can stand smoke, it is served at table, and the gentlemen light their cigarettes. In some houses smoking is forbidden in the dining-room.

The practice of the ladies retiring first is an English one, and the French consider it barbarous. Whether we are growing more French or not, we seem to be beginning to do away with the separation after dinner.

It is the custom at informal dinners for the lady to help the soup and for the gentleman to carve; therefore the important dishes are put on the table. But the servants who wait should be taught to have sidetables and sideboards so well placed that anything can be removed immediately after it is finished. A screen is a very useful adjunct in a dining-room.

Inefficient servants have a disagreeable habit of running in and out of the dining-room in search of something that should have been in readiness; therefore the lady of the house had better see beforehand that French rolls are placed under every napkin, and a silver basket full of them ready in reserve. Also large slices of fresh soft bread should be on the side table, as every one does not like hard bread, and should be offered a choice.

The powdered sugar, the butter, the caster, the

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olives, the relishes, should all be thought of and placed where each can be readily found. Servants should be taught to be noiseless, and to avoid a hurried manner. In placing anything on or taking anything off a table a servant should never reach across a person seated at table for that purpose. However hurried the servant maybe, or however near at hand the article, she should be taught to walk quietly to the left hand of each guest to remove things, while she should pass everything in the same manner, giving the guest the option of using his right hand With which to help himself. Servants should have a silver or plated knife-tray to remove the gravy-spoon and carving knife and fork before removing the platter. All the silver should be thus removed; it makes arable much neater. Servants should be taught to put a plate and spoon and fork at every place before each course.

After the meats and before the pie, pudding, or ices, the table should be carefully cleared of everything but fruit and flowers–all plates, glasses, carafes, salt-cellars, knives and forks, and whatever pertains to the dinner should be removed, and the table-cloth well cleared with brush or crumb-scraper on a silver waiter, and then the plates, glasses, spoons, and forks laid at each plate for the dessert. If this is done every day, it adds to a common dinner, and trains the waitress to her work.

The dinner, the dishes, and the plates should all be hot. The ordinary plate-warmer is now superseded by something far better, in which a hot brick is introduced. The most recherhé dinner is spoiled if hot mutton is put on a cold plate. The silver dishes

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should be heated by hot water in the kitchen, the hot dinner plates must be forthcoming from the plate-warmer, nor must the roasts or entrées be allowed to cool on their way from the kitchen to the dining-room. A servant should have a thumb napkin with which to hand the hot dishes, and a clean towel behind the screen with which to wipe the platters which have been sent up on the dumb-waiter. On these trifles depend the excellence of the simple dinner.