In my house, we use manners but we do not have many formal dinners, in fact over 41 years of marriage I think we might have had one possibly two. But our historical characters were quite particular about what to serve, how to serve, how to act, etc. Enjoy this tidbit from The American Code of Manners ©1880
It is strange that the Russians, so lately redeemed from barbarism, have taught the world how to serve a dinner. All diplomatic dinners, all state dinners, and most fashionable dinners, are served d la Xime; which means that nothing appears on the table to eat, but all is handed by the servants from a side table or from behind a screen.
General Washington probably carved his own turkey, even at a state dinner, but President Hayes does not know at all what he is to have for his dinner until he looks at the menu by his side, which was laid there by his butler.
The dinner-table is merely a splendid picture, which remains a picture to the end, unless some one is so unlucky as to overturn a glass of claret on the table-cloth. The epergne or centrepiece in England is generally a splendid piece of silver, covered with flowers and fruits, with a "hot house pine" somewhere in it or about it. Fine candelabra and vases are at either end, and dishes, holding sugar plums and dried candied fruit, are at the lour corners. Very handsome pitchers of glass, holding wine, and elegant decanters are allowable. In fact, everything ornamental is allowed, and nothing that can by use become unseemly is admitted to such a dinner. We all know how disorderly, at certain moments, a dinner looks at which the carving and helping at table are allowed. In the dinner d la Rmse the table always looks well, for the plate before each guest, constantly renewed, is alone responsible for any viand. The company enter, as we have said, the host first, with the lady to whom the dinner is given, and his guests follow, each gentleman standing behind his lady's chair until the hostess has entered and taken her seat. They find before them oysters or clams on the half-shell, on majolica plates, with bits of lemon in the centre of the plate. The servants pass red and black pepper and salt. These are removed and two soups are passed, so that each guest has a choice of soups. These removed, two choices of fish are offered to each guest, and so on, through an elaborate dinner of from ten to sixteen courses, the table meanwhile remaining a beautiful, fresh thing, with flowers and fruits and charming objets d'art to look at. The butler should always place the principal dish for a moment before the hostess, that she may signify by a nod If she is pleased with it.
Books of etiquette sometimes elaborately tell people how to use a napkin and how to hold a fork. But it seems incredible that in the nineteenth century anybody can be ignorant of these simple customs. If there is such a person, let him know that it is not etiquette to pin a napkin up to his coat, or to spread it over his breast. It shonld be across his knees, convenient to his 1 hand. The fork should always be held in the right hand for eating oysters, peas, or anything that is to be conveyed to the mouth, and only transferred to the left hand when meat is to be cut, and it is needed to steady the morsel.
In Europe, particularly in Germany, very wellbred people still eat with the knife; but in this country, in France and England, it is semi-barbarous to bring the knife in contact with the lips. It often shocks well-bred Americans to see a German princess carry cauliflower, peas or potato salad to her delicate mouth on the point of a silver knife, hut such a sight is possible. It is very ugly, and should be avoided here.
The custom of serving dinners d !n Rome should prevent any one from asking for a dish a second time; indeed, this is never done at a state dinner. There is little need of it.
We have spoken of the epergne. The fancy now, in this country, is to replace the high ornaments by low baskets of flowers, and to do away with everything which prevents conversation across the table. Low dishes of majolica, crystal and silver are liked by some. Very many opulent hostesses have the table entirely covered with flowers, and only a space left for the plate, knives, forks and glasses of each guest. This is very beautiful, especially in mid-winter, and for a round table, which is very sociable, it is quite charming. But the high epergne is very stately, and makes a table always look well. A pretty and simple Epergne, which holds flowers for every day, is always a charming object.
Be very careful to avoid mistakes as to the hour of a dinner. Five minutes grace was all that General Washington allowed, and we could follow his example in this as in larger things. A half hour's delay spoils the fish and makes the cook lose his temper. One great " diner out," in New York, always carries his invitations with him, so that if he seems late or early he may dofend himself in his own eyes by glancing at it in the hall.
A small boutonniirc or bunch of flowers awaits him with a card in an envelope, which tells a gentleman, before entering the parlor, which lady he is to take in to dinner. If he does not know her, he must whisper this to the hostess, who will present him to the lady.
At a dinner, forget all animosities. If you are seated next to your deadliest enemy, talk and laugh and make yourself agreeable, to spare your host and hostess annoyance. Everybody is bound to be as agreeable as he can for the benefit of the whole mass.
Be careful, if you have not experienced servants, to instruct them in everything before dinner. Have plenty of side tables and sideboards, where the extra dishes, knives, forks, plates, spoons and glasses may be found. Have extra napkins at hand to replace one which may be stained with wine. No condiments should ever be put on a table except salt, of which every guest should have a little private silver cell before him. After the meats and game, a servant should go with a crumb scraper, removing the crumbs, and another with a silver salver to remove all the glasses, except those for sherry or Madeira, or a goblet for ice water, all ladies liking ice water in America.
The butler mentions the name of the wine before pouring it. If you do not wish it, touch your glass with your finger, with a motion which checks him. It is proper to ask for bread, for water, or for champagne, at a dinner. These substances alone seeming to be always desirable, and served ad libitum.
The host has his duty plainly marked out before him. Above all things he must be attentive to the ladies on either side of him; he must encourage the timid, draw out the silent, throw the ball of conversation down the table, remember every man's specialty and draw him out; he must try to simulate case and frankness, and banMommie, even if he has not these virtues; he must never show temper, even if the butler is drunk. Let a host avoid all boasting of his wines; he can mention their age, and beg of his guest to taste his "Steinberger of'46," or his "Claret of the Comet year," or his "Old Warrior Madeira," but he should not show ostentation, or remark upon the cost of anything. The model host makes himself only felt by his munificence, as a stream announces its presence by the verdure along its banks. But all hosts are not millionaires, and yet would like to give dinners.
A maid-servant in a neat cap and apron can be taught to serve a dinner as, well as a man. She can have a side table on which she deposits the soup tureen, and from which she helps all the guests. A maid-servant should be (if she is the waiter) taught to carve, so that she can save her employer all trouble. Two women often serve a dinner elegantly in England, and can be taught to do so in this country. The great point is to have things done neatly and quietly.
If a gentleman still chooses (like General Washington) to do his own carving, he should have his knife sharp and learn to cut a joint or a bird sitting. Ladies often carve elegantly, and it was considered indispensable by our grandmothers that every lady should have this accomplishment. It is, however, rapidly going out, and nowadays the tea and coffee at breakfast are often served from a side table, and all the dishes passed to the guests even at breakfast.
The objection to the old fashion is that it takes away the attention of the hostess from her guests if she has to serve every dish. Certainly for a large dinner, a ceremonious dinner, it would be impossible.
A dinner table should not be crowded. If the room is large enough, a dinner of twenty-four is just as agreeable often as a dinner of ten. It depends on the companion next to you in all cases.
On rising from the table the gentlemen sometimes accompany the ladies to the parlor, and then return to smoke, and sometimes only go to the door, always remaining standing till the ladies have disappeared.
Except at Washington, Albany, Harrisburg, or other cities where official position is especially recognized, we do not in this country observe official rank at a dinner party. A governor or a mayor is asked to sit anywhere, without loss of consequence or dignity. Mrs. Stevenson may give a dinner to Mrs. Brown, and there may be a governor, an admiral, a mayor and a general in the company; yet she takes in Mr. Brown. That is our republican way of doing things. In Washington there must be some show of respect to the Diplomatic Corps: but even there, senators, judges and even foreign Ministers sit wherever their hostess chooses to place them.
The President, of course, being our highest official, is always the guest at any house which he chooses to visit, and he should never be asked to sit anywhere but at the right hand of the hostess. To him and to his family the American people always give willing precedence.
The menu, or bill of fare, is generally written in French, as our cooks are generally men of foreign birth, who understand that language better than any other. It is a pity that there is not an English vocabulary for these delicate dishes which form the staple of our splendid dinners. Yet French is generally understood. To translate it literally makes great nonsense. People must learn that " vol au vent de volatile " means simply chicken pie, and that "cotelettes a la financiere" are nothing but mutton chops with truffles and coxcombs, and that "pommes de terre aux maitre d'h&tel" are simply boiled potatoes, and so on. The knowledge is easily acquired.
Colored cooks are notably good ones. The Baltimore cookery is world-renowned; and that of New England, where recipes were handed from generation to generation, was sometimes exquisite. We need not be dependent on French cookery. But there is an American ignorance which is startling on the subject of cookery, and if ladies do not study it as an art, it will, in the rural districts, be soon impossible to get a good dinner.
To fry things, to bake meats in hot ovens, to abjure the gridiron, to ruin a beefsteak and to kill the juicy excellence of a roast, these are our national sins. To cook indigestible lumps of pastry, to feed a nation on pies, on heavy bread— who can expect greatness, wisdom or honesty from a nation of moody dyspeptics?
The dinner question is in the hands of the women. What woman does not like to see her table neat and attractive? How many aids she has now, in the beauty of the modern glass and china, the profusion and cheapness of flowers, the excellence of canned vegetables, making her independent of the seasons, and in the profusion of the American markets, foreigners say that we throw away enough at any meal to support another family.
Dinner cards have come in, in great variety, on which the visitor's name can bo written. These, painted, etched, engraved and ornamented with flowers, feathers and Japanese figures, are in tremendous variety at all stationers and jewelers. Those are the prettiest which are done by the young people of the house or the lady herself, with quotations from Shakespeare or the poets. They show a personal thought, which is always complimentary- One should read of famous dinners. There is an account in Brillat Savarin's "Book on Taste" (" Physiologic du Gout")— a charming account by Lady Morgan of a dinner at Baron Rothschild's, which is worth reading now, to see how little the formal European dinner has changed. Charles Lever's books are full of dinners, and so are Bulwer's. The Englishman considers that he has done his duty by you if he asks you to dinner, and nowhere does a man of good English position appear so well as at his own dinner table. The best of everything he has is at your disposal.
The old, inconvenient habit of changing the table-cloth is done away with; the guests are not now troubled. That was the result of the " carving-at-table" process, which was likely to endanger the purity of the cloth. If all the meats are carved elsewhere the cloth remains immaculate.
The fashion of drinking healths has passed away. The modern dinner is a very unceremonious thing compared with the dinner of General Washington's time. It has steadily increased in elegance and has decreased in ceremony and stiffness.