Dinner is Served
Selecting a Menu
I’ve been researching menus for a dinner party to take place in my as yet unnamed work in progress.
In a past post I’ve mentioned The Lady’s Assistant, a fascinating manual and recipe book for ladies and their housekeepers and cooks.
A historical hostess had the option of serving elaborate dinners with multiple dishes. After the Victorian era, etiquette mavens considered these elaborate meals vulgar. I’m not sure why, though the huge holiday spreads put on by my relatives were definitely more smorgasbord than fine dining, not at all appealing to a member of the elites.
In any case, during the Regency era, our hostess would also most likely employ service à la française instead of service à la russe.
Family Style Dining?
When I first came across a discussion of these terms in one of the online groups I belong to, I suspected the difference was something like “family style” vs. service by waiter.
But both methods of service involved, well, servants. Here’s an explanation from an excellent blog article at https://www.hertzmann.com/articles/2004/service/
The main difference between service à la russe and service à la française is a matter of time and space. In service à la française, the dishes, at least in each course, are arranged spatially but presented to guests all at once. In service à la russe, the dishes are arranged temporally, i.e., served in succession, one after another. Plus the dishes are all offered to the guests by waiters, not passed by the guests. Instead of offering each guest a different assortment of dishes, everyone now is offered the same dishes throughout the meal. Also, with service à la russe, roasts are carved in the kitchen or on a sideboard, making it easier for the guests to select the portion they desire. And the food arrives at the table still warm, a problem for service à la française due to the elaborateness of its preparations.
By the last decade of the 19th century in France, service à la française is a memory and service à la russe has become de rigueur.
Service à la russe prevails
It makes sense that for fine dining, à la russe would prevail. Servers would not have to bring all the various dishes at one time, each diner could more easily sample every dish, and the food would stay hotter.
The 1887 edition of The Original White House Cook Book outlines some rules for “Dinner-Giving” that show hostesses in the United States had adopted the prevailing new style.
A plate is set before each guest, and the dish carved is presented by the waiter on the left-hand side of each guest. At the end of each course the plates give way for those of the next.
My Heroine’s Dinner Menu
So what will my heroine serve? I’m not sure yet, but my heroine is the sensible sort, and not at all “high in the instep”. She’ll serve something simple like this recommendation from The Original White House Cook Book:
A family dinner, even with a few friends, can be made quite attractive and satisfactory without much display or expense; consisting first of good soup, then fish garnished with suitable additions, followed by a roast; then vegetables and some made dishes, a salad, crackers, cheese and olives, then dessert.
Given that this is 1821 and my heroine is dreadfully short on staff because a ghost has scared most of the servants away, she will probably employ service à la française.
Do you have any suggestions, readers? I’m particularly interested to know what kind of fish she might catch in the stream near her Yorkshire home.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons