Friday, March 27, 2009

Moving to the Big Table

Marissa and I are about to embark on a new series on something near and dear to everyone’s heart: meals! (Yes, meals. It will be fun--trust us!) But before we tell you all about the delectable foods and entertaining traditions surrounding breakfast, luncheon, tea, dinner, and midnight suppers for young people in nineteenth century England, we thought we ought to set the stage a bit.

You see, for much of her life, a young lady wouldn’t even have been at the table!

For many upper-crust families, and even for the burgeoning middle class, children spent their time in another part of the house entirely. A nurse, nanny, or governess would accommodate meals sent up from the kitchen and perhaps served by a nurse maid or under footman, and the children would eat in the schoolroom or nursery. An indulgent Mama and Papa might visit the nursery and take tea with their children, but the adults were sure to be at the big table for any major meal. So when you were invited to dine with them, it was a Big Deal, and served as yet another symbol that you were growing up.

Now, every family had its own rules on when it was time to graduate to the big table, and some families were far more forgiving than others. You might move up for family meals only when you were old enough to sit and behave properly at table. You might move up when you were in your early teens and needed practice in dining with Society. You might not move up until you were officially out. And in some families, you might not move up until you were deemed sufficiently interesting to provide good dinner conversation!

This painting of the Ruspoli family from Italy (1806) illustrates some of the reasons why Mama and Papa might think twice about inviting the urchins to dine. The young lad at Mama’s elbow cannot even stay in his seat and is ready to demand second helpings, the young lady across from her has crumbled her crumpets onto the damask tablecloth and is seriously considering feeding the remainders to Fidolphus the family pet, and things are generally in an uproar, something to be avoided at all costs by the elegant members of the aristocracy and those who sought to copy them. And when you remember that washing still consisted of the laundress brushing, rubbing, and beating the material into submission, you can see why a few spills could be a major tragedy.

Ah, but life at the big table was full of surprises and delights. Tune in next week when Marissa and I give you the dish on dining (okay, you probably saw that pun coming).


Lynnae said...

Great topic. How I would love to experience sitting at one of those tables.

ChaChaneen said...

I lurve meals! Can't wait to read the upcoming posts! Keep them coming!

QNPoohBear said...

That is a fabulous painting and except for the clothes, could be a scene from a family dinner table today. My family must be stuck in the 19th c. because we still have a kids' table even though the "kids" are now almost all adults and outnumber the older adults!

Christina Farley said...

This is so funny that you blogged about this. My husband and I were trying to tame our boys at the table and explaining manners. I was thinking of the old days where kids at in the kitchen and 'graduated' to the table. Now I know why.

Addie said...

At family gatherings we still have the "kids" table, but that usually ends up being me, my sister, and our two girl cousins, so we can all sit together!

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

I'm hungry! Thanks for the bit of food lust.