Emily Post and ‘The Menu.’
Dinner parties are not what they used to be. This is certainly a good thing if the gold standard is Miss Emily Post’s standard. In the chapter on formal dinners in her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922) she first notes that “To give a perfect dinner of ceremony is the supreme accomplishment of a hostess! It means not alone perfection of furnishing, of service, of culinary skill, but also of personal charm, of tact.” Miss Post then moves on to give “detailed directions for dinner giving” that are profoundly exhausting to read, never mind try to put into action.
I skipped the sections on the proper selection of guests, how to keep a dinner list, asking someone to fill a place (one cannot be a gentleman short, can one?) and other practices at which I am totally unskilled, and moved straight to the menu section, to see how badly I am performing in that area.
It may be due to the war period, which accustomed everyone to going with very little meat and to marked reduction in all 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
The menu for an informal dinner would leave out the entree, 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. A dinner interlarded with a row of extra entrees, 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!
THE BALANCED MENU
One should always try to choose well-balanced dishes; an especially rich dish balanced by a simple one. Timbale with a very rich sauce of cream and pâté de foie gras might perhaps be followed by French chops, broiled chicken or some other light, plain meat. An entrée of about four broiled mushrooms on a small round of toast should be followed by boned capon or saddle of mutton or spring lamb. It is equally bad to give your guests very peculiar food unless as an extra dish. Some people love highly flavored Spanish or Indian dishes, but they are not appropriate for a formal dinner. At an informal dinner an Indian curry or Spanish enchillada for one dish is delicious for those who like it, and if you have another substantial dish such as a plain roast which practically everyone is able to eat, those who don’t like Indian food can make their dinner of the other course.
It is the same way with the Italian dishes. One hating garlic and onions would be very wretched if onions were put in each and every course, and liberally. With Indian curry, a fatally bad selection would be a very peppery soup, such as croute au pot filled with pepper, and fish with green peppers, and then the curry, and then something casserole filled again with peppers and onions and other throat-searing ingredients, finishing with an endive salad. Yet more than one hostess has done exactly this. Or equally bad is a dinner of flavorless white sauces from beginning to end; a creamed soup, boiled fish with white sauce, then vol au vent of creamed sweetbreads, followed by breast of chicken and mashed potatoes and cauliflower, palm root salad, vanilla ice cream and lady-cake. Each thing is good in itself but dreadful in the monotony of its combination.
Another thing: although a dinner should not be long, neither should it consist of samples, especially if set before men who are hungry!
The following menu might seem at first glance a good dinner, but it is one from which the average man would go home and forage ravenously in the ice box:
A canapé (good, but merely an appetizer)
Clear soup (a dinner party helping, and no substance)
Smelts (one apiece)
Individual croutards of sweetbreads (holding about a dessert-spoonful)
Broiled squab, small potato croquette, and string beans
Lettuce salad, with about one small cracker apiece
The only thing that had any sustaining quality, barring the potato which was not more than a mouthful, was the last, and very few men care to make their dinner of ice cream. If instead of squab there had been filet of beef cut in generous slices, and the potato croquettes had been more numerous, it would have been adequate. Or if there had been a thick cream soup, and a fish with more substance—such as salmon or shad, or a baked thick fish of which he could have had a generous helping—the squab would have been adequate also. But many women order trimmings rather than food; men usually like food.
Well, I hope you are not too intimidated to invite guests over ever again. I give you a recipe for a nice dish from Ms. Post’s menu, which will suit just about any type of event – even a barbecue.
Young pigeons or squabs are the nicest for broiling. Cut them down the back, clean them nicely, wash them and dry them on a clean napkin. Have ready a bed of clear coals, heat your gridiron, grease the bars to prevent the pigeons from sticking, and place them over the fire; turn them frequently, and be careful not to let the legs and wings burn. When they are done put them on a dish, season them with pepper and salt, and baste them well with butter on both sides.
The National Cookbook (1856), by a lady of Philadelphia.