How to Entertain at a Dinner

This is the first article in May of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on May 5, 1907, and is the second last discussion on entertaining at meals.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of The Washington Times.

How to Entertain at a Dinner

A DINNER is the stateliest if social functions. The acceptance of an invitation to dine should be regarded almost in the light of a vow. We are all familiar with the dictum of a modern arbiter elegantiarum, who was also a wit: “Accept an invitation to dinner with care. When you have accepted, go, if you are alive. If your die, let your executor go in your place.” It is ill bred, because inconsiderate to the verge of unkindness, to send a regret, unless for reasons that would hinder you from the fulfilment of a business engagement of extreme importance.

The law is based like the majority of social rules upon common sense. In making up her company, the sophisticated hostess selects the component parts as she would compound a cake, considering the effect of each ingredient upon the finished product. I called attention to this fact last week, in our 1uncheon talk. The composition of a dinner party is yet more important on account of the longer time passed at table. The orderly progress of an eight or ten course dinner occupies from an hour and a half to two hours. To be tied to one’s chair when one’s next neighbor has not an idea in common with one, and sometimes no ideas whatever, so far as his companions can discover, is purgatory, not pleasure-making. Invite people who would enjoy meeting their fellow-guests, making sure to have one or more good talkers, who will act like leaven in keeping up general liveliness. So well is the expediency of this ingredient in the social loaf understood that some hostesses who do not number many brilliant conversationalists upon their visiting lists, go outside of the pale of personal acquaintanceship for what may be classed as good table talkers. The subject of table talk is one that has engaged the thoughts and pens of able writers. It is full of interest. With it we have nothing to do today.

Eight the Perfect Number.

Some one has called eight “the perfect number for dinner.” One additional leaf in the family board will usually grant all the room needed for that number. One word on this head may be useful, Avoid crowding chairs together to an extent that will make seating the guests a matter of difficulty, or bring their elbows into contact in the course of the business of the meal. Leave room for the waitress to pass plates to and from each place. But avoid, as the other extreme, wide reaches of cloth that impart to the air of a waste and dreary wilderness. Without crowding the decorations and the dishes of olives, salted nuts, celery, etc., that are catalogued as “hors d’oeuvres,” see to it that no ghastly expanses of white damask make the feast seem scantily set forth. These are minor details, but disregard of them has marred the symmetry of many a dinner.

Dinner is announced by the butler’s or maid’s appearance in the door of the drawing room, with a bow to the hostess, and “Dinner is served.” Have I ever told in this column the anecdote of the new maid who had been duly instructed her employer as to the proper form of announcing the several meal? When told the cook to let company know that all was in readiness for eating, she horrified that mistress by droping her Old World courtesy in the doorway, and voicferating at a pitch that turned all eyes to ward her:

“Please, ma’am, breakfast is on; luncheon is ready; dinner is served.” The matter of her lesson was correct. In manner and in discrimination of times and seasons she was woefully astray.

Your dinner, then, is served. You have already signified quietly to each man woman he is to take into the dining room. The woman takes his right arm, the party moves toward the entrance, the host leading the way with the guest of honor, or the oldest women present or the greatest stranger This question is between host and hostess in advance In unofficial Amen can circles there is no Axed law of precedence in these matters.

Setting the Table.

At each plate is the “service-plate,” and at the right of it as many knives as will be needed before dessert is served, each with the sharp blade turned toward the plate. Outside of the knives lies the soup spoon, with the inner side of the bowl upward. At the left of the plates the forks are arranged. Both knives and forks are laid in the order in which they are to be used, beginning with that farthest from the plate and working inward. If there be raw oysters, the oyster fork is placed at the right of the soup spoon or across the oyster plate itself. The tines of the forks are turned upward.

Spoons and forks intended for the sweets and for Roman punch or sherbet usually accompany the plates, saucers or cups containing these.

A glass of water stands just beyond the extreme tins of the knives. If wines be used, the first wine glass is between the knives and the tumbler of water, and the others are arranged in a curved line beyond the plate. Sauterne or some other light, sour wine goes with the fish; sherry with the roast, or other piece de resistance, and claret with game. If but one wine be served, it is usually sherry or claret. The waitress fills the glasses after each course from a bottle, about the neck of which a napkin is wound.

The table is lighted with candles in “fancy” sticks, or set in candelabra. If you have not enough of these to give sufficient light, supplement it by shaded gas or electric burners.

One cardinal rule in serving a dinner is that a plate must be in place in front of each person from the first to the last course. The soup plate is set down upon the service plate, and is taken up with it; the soup plate, in turn, is superseded by that containing fish, and so on. All the serving is done from the kitchen and side table, now called the “service table.”

The waitress sets down the full plate at the left of the guest and takes the emptied plate from the right. She also sets down clean plates from the right.

In serving, she begins first at the right, then goes to the left of host, or the right and then to the left of the hostess, thus going down, or up, until the master or mistress is reached last. Some still persist in the custom of serving the hostess first of all, but the fashion is passing away. The only excuse for it was that if there were anything wrong wish dish or serving, the blunder might be rectified before the food reached the guests.

Clear Table for Sweets.

Just before the sweets are brought on the relishes, salt and pepper are taken off on a tray covered with a napkin, that the removal may be noiseless, and the crumbs are brushed off with a folded napkin. For creams, etc., plates bearing doilies and finger bowls are set on from the right of the eaters. The are one-third full of lukewarm water. The doilies are transferred to the table by the guests, and the bowls set upon them, leaving the plates clear for dessert.

The water in the finger bowl is usually slightly scented, sometimes by a bit of lemon verbena or rose gerainum left floating in it, on which the fingers may be lightly rubbed. At a recent well-appointed dinner the finger bowls contained liqueur glass in which were a few drops of essence of wintergreen, which, just before handing the bowl to the guest, the waiter deftly tipped into the finger bowl.

Coffee is taken into the drawing room for the ladies. They withdraw from the dining room at a signal from the hostess, the men rising and remaining standing until their fair companions disappear, after which they will sit down for coffee and cigars.

If liquers, creme de menthe, benedictine or wild cherry are the sequitur of the dinner, they are passed in tiny glasses to the women in the parlors, to the men at the table.

It is not form for the latter to protract the sitting over “walnuts and wine,” coffee and cigars, beyond the conventional half hour of separation. Nor is it considered “the thing” to linger late in the hospitable mansion after a dinner party. If the hour for dinner be half-past 7, carriages should not be ordered for a later hour than half-past 10.

Menu for a Spring Dinner.
Clams     Cocktails
Consomme a la Russe
Baked Shad with Sauce Tartare
Fried Potatoes and Cucumber Salad
Sweetbread Croquettes
Crown Roast of Lamb with Mint Sauce
Green Peas     Asparagus
Roman Punch
Broiled Spring Chickens Lettuce and Tomato Salad
Strawberry Ice Cream (with the fruit frozen in)     Cakes
Crackers and Gorgonzola Cheese
Black Coffee

N.B. —Full dress is imperative at a dinner party. Sack coats, Prince Alberts, and skirts of walking length are inadmissible.

OTHER ARTICLES ALSO PUBLISHED…
Family Meals for a Week
Housemothers’ Exchange

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