Dining Out is an accomplishment in which we English do not excel. It demands a certain politic pliancy both of mind and body which we cannot boast. It is that one among the Fine Arts in which we are immeasurably behind our continental neighbours. In fact we are the worst Diners out in the world. We do not understand the principle of it. Even the South Sea Islanders understand and practice it better; for when they go to a dinner party, it is for the express purpose of dining upon an enemy; whereas an Englishman when he does not dine at home dines upon his friend. The truth is that in civilized society, Dining out has nothing whatever to do with eating and drinking. Who asks a man to dine out that cannot afford to dine at home? The thing never happened. It is altogether incompatible with the “scope and tendency” of dinner parties.
… eating and drinking have no more to do with the immediate end of Dining Out than love has to do with that of marriage,. or marriage with that of love. In England there is nothing to be done, or even undertaken, without a dinner party. From the governing of the nation to the goings on of the pettiest of its parishes, all begins and all ends in a dinner. Accordingly there is no country in which dinner parties assume so pleasing a variety as they do here. We have dinners on all occasions from the Coronation of the King to the Christening of the newest born of his subjects; dinners in all places from the palaces of the peers in Saint James's, to the buck slums of the beggars in Saint Giles's; dinners of all dimensions from the calipash and calipee of the cabinet minister to the pot- luck of the cabinet maker. We have dinners of all denominations: diplomatic dinners, and patriotic dinners, and pugilistic dinners, and parliamentary dinners; cabinet dinners and reform dinners, ministerial dinners and opposition dinners, … theatrical dinners, and literary dinners and scientific dinners. Is a minister to be ousted from his place? The cabal is concocted and carried on at a dinner party. …
Instead of Dining Out, of course, the English held Dinner Parties. After the above justification, the author goes on to “invite” his readers to a typical dinner party at the home of a “characteristically English” family who move “in the first circles of city life.” He describes the progress and rituals of the meal in excruciating detail – from the “fine young women” (the daughters of the host), the seating arrangements, the conversation, and the manners, right to the withdrawing of the fine ladies from the table, leaving the men to pass the wine around “two or three times.”
Sadly, in spite of all of this peripheral detail, the author gives no information about the food. For an idea of what was served at a mid-nineteenth century dinner party, I turned to The English Cookery Book: Uniting Good Style with Economy, by John Henry Walsh (1859.) Note that, as was usual for the time, a menu recommendation incorporated advice as to how to position the dishes and decorations on the table. Also, the meal consisted of two courses, each with a variety of dishes, much as had been the tradition since the middle ages. The method of service that we are familiar with now –called service à la russe was already starting to become popular, but still had several decades to go before it became the norm.
BILL OF FARE FOR 16 OR 18 COVERS
IN AUGUST OR SEPTEMBER.
Remove – Chickens
Lobster Patties (Vase) Lamb Cutlets, with
stewed beans in centre.
Veal cutlets (Vase) Currie
Remove – Neck of venison
Vegetables – potatoes, peas, salad
Jelly (Vase) Cheese-cake
Stone Cream (Vase) Apple Cake
Put a small pot of preserved strawberry, gooseberry, raspberry or apricot jam in a crystal dish. Peel off the rind of one lemon, squeeze out the juice, run it through a bit of muslin and pour it over the fruit. Take a quarter of an ounce of gelatine, dissolve it in a small drop of water put it into a small brass pan, adding half an English pint of good cream, the rind of the lemon, and two ounces of lump sugar. Let it boil for two or three minutes, run it through a bit of muslin into a small basin, and stir it occasionally till cold. Pour it upon the fruit in the dish. Set it to cool, it will be firm in half an hour. Before dinner, take half an English pint of cream, a tea spoonful of sugar, and whisk it to a froth. With a spoon heap the frothed cream high on the top of your dish. This is a beautiful cream and can be made just a few hours before dinner.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, by I Williamson, 1862
Quotation for the Day.
Best way to get rid of kitchen odors: Eat out.