Friday, April 10, 2009

Dinner Is Served, Sort of

Candlelight dancing on silver, voices murmuring pleasantries, aromas wafting from delectable tidbits piled on platters — what’s not to like about a nineteenth century dinner?

As Marissa mentioned, during the nineteenth century, the time between the meals lengthened, so that dinner was pushed back to six in the evening in the country and for the middle class in town, and to nine or ten at night for the aristocracy, particularly if you were entertaining. Then of course there were the lovely midnight supper buffets at balls, when you simply couldn’t make another round of dancing without a little sustenance to see you through.

Dinners generally had several courses, but they were vastly different from the courses we think of today. Each course in the nineteenth century was made up of a number of removes—that is one dish started the course only to be removed to be replaced by something else. For example, the first course might start out with two soups, turtle and mulligatawny. After the soup had been served, the footmen would remove the tureens and replace them with platters of fish or meat. And you’re still in the first course.

In each course, it was considered classy to have the entire table covered in dishes, arranged to look colorful and delicious. The footmen lugged them all in and placed them where the hostess had decreed; they also took them all back again when it was time to go to the next course. The host generally carved the main meat such a beef, but a gentleman was supposed to carve whatever meat was placed closest to him. The footmen didn’t pass the dishes around, and guests did not pass platters to each other. You were basically expected to eat a bit of whatever you could reach. So, if you were sitting closer to the eels in aspic and you really wanted to try the cod’s head in cream, you had to manage to subtly signal a footman to pick up the dish and replace it near you or you were out of luck. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the English routinely began to have servants cut up and serve the various dishes to each guest.

Emily Hendrickson, author of the outstanding Regency Reference Book as well as over 40 Regency romances published both in the U.S. and England, offers some suggestions as to what would have been in each course:

  • First course: roast venison surrounded by stewed eels, roast pig, marrow pudding, leg of lamb with boiled cauliflower, jugged hare, pigeons, and carp.

  • Second course: partridge and quails, lobster, green peas, potted pigeons, fried sole, and sturgeon.

  • Third course: pheasants removed by plum pudding, snipes removed by apple tart, apricot fritters, almond cheesecakes, and custards. Dessert, as I mentioned in an earlier post, might also include almonds and raisins.

Depending on the occasion, you might have anywhere from five to twenty-five different dishes, in each course! So, for those of you celebrating Easter with a feast of your own, be thankful you only have to worry about a few foods rather 15 to 75.

In other words, Happy Easter!


Lynnae said...

Great info, Thanks!

YA Librarian said...

Hey ladies. Love the blog. I nominated you for an award.

Regina Scott said...

Ms. I--thank you so much! We are very honored to be nominated for our "efforts to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day." How cool! Thanks for your kind words on your blog too!

Gillian Layne said...

As usual, wonderful information! I have Emily's book on CD, which is a treasure. Any other research references for food that you all use, especially ones that would highlight what each region of England might enjoy eating?

Marissa Doyle said...

Some excellent books are:

"The Art of Dining" by Sara Paston-Williams (published by The National Trust, "Recipes From the Great Houses" by Michael Barry (Past Times Books/SAWD), and "Eating With the Victorians" ed. by C. Anne Wilson (Sutton Publishing). I also have a Dover Books edition of a fascinating cookbook--Francatelli's "The Modern Cook", published in 1846. He was Queen Victoria's chef, and the book contains a year's worth of menus served to the Queen.

Marissa Doyle said...

Oops! Forgot to mention two other good ones: "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog" by Anne Grossman and Lisa Thomas--it's a sort of culinary companion to Patrick O'Brian's Regency period seafaring novels, and "Cooking for Kings" by Ian Kelley, about Antonin Careme, whom Kelley describes as "the first celebrity chef". He worked for people like Tallyrand and the Prince Regent.

YA Librarian said...

You guys rock. You deserve the award! :)

Regina Scott said...

On references, I might also add The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye.

Gillian Layne said...

Ladies! I am floored! Thanks so much for all the wonderful references. :)

Marissa Doyle said...

You're welcome! We're always happy to list sources--don't forget, we're history geeks!