I thought we needed a little light relief today after the weight of Monday’s viands and the solidity of Tuesday’s cold mutton, so today I am going to give you a short piece of nineteenth century advice on table manners. The article is admittedly tongue-in-cheek, but is nonetheless a reminder of points of etiquette about which we no longer need to trouble ourselves today. It seems to be accepted that a large percentage of the younger members of our community do not know how to use a knife and fork, so the advice on how to use the napkin and finger-bowl may appear quaint if not absolutely risible to some – but the pendulum may swing back eventually, so in case you are a little rusty on the techniques, here is some advice on what not to do!
From The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A Professional Cook's Book for Household Use (1883), by Jessup Whitehead:
Use of the Napkin and Finger-Bowl.
It has been stated, and very truly too, that the law of the napkin is but vaguely understood. It may be said however, on the start, that custom and good breeding have uttered the decree that it is in exceedingly poor taste to put the napkin in the pocket and carry it away.
The rule of etiquette is becoming more and more thoroughly established, that the napkin should he left at the house of the host or hostess after dinner.
There has been a good deal of discussion, also upon the matter of folding the napkin after dinner, and whether it should be so disposed of or negligently tossed into the gravy boat. If however, it can be folded easily, and without attracting too much attention and prolonging the session for several hours, it should be so arranged, and placed beside the plate, where it may easily be found by the hostess, and returned to her neighbor from whom she borrowed it for the occasion. If however the lady of the house is not doing her own work, the napkin may be carefully jammed into a globular wad and fired under the table to convey the idea of utter recklessness and pampered abandon.
The use of the finger bowl is also a subject of much importance to the bon ton guest who gorges himself at the expense of his friends.
The custom of drinking out of the finger bowl though not entirely obsolete, has been limited to the extent that good breeding does not permit the guest to quaff the water from the finger-bowl unless he does so prior to using it as a finger-bowl.
Thus, it will be seen that social customs are slowly but surely cutting down and circumscribing the rights and privileges of the masses.
At the court of Eugenie the customs of the table were very rigid, and the most prominent guest of H. R. H. was liable to get the G. B. if he spread his napkin on his lap and cut his eggs in two with a carving knife. The custom was that the napkin should be hung on one knee, and the egg busted at the big end and scooped out with a spoon.
A prominent American at his table one day, in an unguarded moment shattered the shell of a soft boiled egg with his knife, and while prying it apart, both thumbs were erroneously jammed into the true inwardness of the fruit with so much momentum that juice took him in the eye, thus blinding him and maddening him to such a degree that he got up and threw the remains into the bosom of the hired man plenipotentiary, who stood near the table scratching his ear with the tray. As may readily be supposed, there was a painful interim, during which it was hard to tell for five or six minutes whether the prominent American or the hired man would come out on top, but at last the prominent American with the egg in his eye got the ear of the high priced hired man in among his back teeth, and the honor of our beloved flag was vindicated.
And in case you also need to brush up on the best method of boiling an egg so that the whites are tremulously gelatinous, here is the advice from the Hints for Housekeepers section of Arthur’s Home Magazine (1860):
How to Cook an Egg.
What a wretched thing is a badly cooked egg! Whether it be liquid as a lady’s tear, or as solid as a Somersetshire dumpling. If you want an egg well cooked, first try the plan recommended by correspondent of the Cottage Gardener, who remarks: “An egg should not be boiled, it should only be scalded, vulg. coddled. Immerse your egg in, or, which is better, pour upon your egg boiling water. For time: proportion your time to the size and number of your eggs, and the collateral incidents. If you cook your eggs upon your breakfast table, more time will be required. But if you station your apparatus on a good wholesome hob, where there is a fire, and so the radiation of heat is less positive, less time will suffice. The latter way is mine, winter and summer, and the differences of the surrounding circumstances equalize, or nearly so, the time. I keep one egg under water 9 minutes; two, 9 ½; three, 10; and four, nearly 11 minutes. The yolk first owns the power of the caloric, and will be even firmly set, while the white will be milky, or at most, tremulously gelatinous.