Friday, April 17, 2009
So maybe I just couldn’t leave behind all this talk of food the last few weeks, or maybe it was the vegetarian cheese tart we had for Easter, but dinner remains on my mind. I’m sure it remained on the mind of many a nineteenth century young lady as well. We talked about the various dishes and how you couldn’t necessarily reach that scrumptious apple tart because it was far down the long table. But there were several other pitfalls awaiting the unwary when it came to dining in style.
First was the custom of toasting. Now we’re accustomed to occasions in which someone stands up, makes a little (or a long) speech about something, raises a glass, and proposes that everyone drink to a particular saying: “Here’s to Joe and Judy—may their marriage be long and happy!” “Here’s to Aunt Flo on her eightieth birthday!” You get the drift.
At a nineteenth century formal dinner, it was customary to make silent toasts. You caught the eye of the handsome officer near you and lifted your glass. He drank, you drank. Oh, that sizzling eye contact! It appears that the men more often than not did the first lifting, but as a young lady you would be expected to respond. The fellow on your right might toast you, the one on your left might toast you, the baronet down the table with pockets to let might toast you in hopes you’d think kindly on his offer to relieve you of your inheritance, oops I mean to marry you and make you the happiest of mortals. The elderly balding gentleman with the squint at the end of the table might toast you too (ew!), and the helpful footmen would just refill and refill your glass. It wasn’t uncommon for some to leave the table decidedly tipsy!
But even if you managed to survive the rounds of toasts, there was the challenge of conversing with your dinner companions. Forget about the manly earl across from you. Many a hostess brought out every bit of silver to prove her family was plump in the pocket. Between the ornate epergne overflowing with fruit, the candlesticks dripping in crystal, the finger bowls, the goblets, the vases, and the twenty dishes in that course, you’d be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of the person sitting opposite you. So, you often talked to those on your right or left instead. If those happened to be delightful young gentlemen, you might have a delightful dinner.
If they happened to be your mother and father, I imagine the food might still be good.