Dinner is Served…The Changing Face of Dining Traditions
The tradition of sitting down to a fine meal with family and friends is one that dates back as far as civilized mankind. But, it wasn’t until the 18th century that dining traditions began to vaguely resemble our more modern practices. Step back just a few centuries, and what people ate, when they ate, and most incredibly, how they ate would have likely made Miss Manners cringe.
The Revolution of Flatware
The use of utensils for eating was not a new idea during Medieval and Renaissance times, but there was no flatware or silverware, as we know it today. Knives were the only utensils commonly used during meals, along with perhaps the odd wooden spoon. Knives were perfect for spearing food, and on occasion, other diners. In 1669, King Louis XIV banned pointed knives at the table in an attempt to curtail violence at banquets.
Most food, however, was eaten with one’s fingers from a communal trencher. The upper classes ate with their first three fingers as a show of dignity, distinguishing them from the lower classes that used all five fingers to scoop and grab their food. Of course, there were a few rules of etiquette….diners were never to lick their fingers; it was preferred they wipe them on the table cloth, and spitting food across the table was considered bad taste.
Though the table fork was introduced as early as the 11th century, it proved to be extremely controversial and even scandalous for hundreds of years, not gaining widespread favor in Europe until well into the 18th century. Italian gentlemen were among the first Europeans to embrace the use a two-pronged fork as an eating utensil in the early 1600s, though many considered the practice ridiculous and some even believed it to be heretical.
Forks were slower to catch on among the French and even slower to find favor with the English who saw them as effeminate and needless. In 1633, King Charles I of England declared, “It is decent to use a fork,” thereby ushering in what many considered the beginning of civilized dining. It would be almost a century, however, before the King’s decree would truly begin to take hold.
The Georgian period, which officially began in 1714 with the coronation of George, was a time of dining transformation. Sterling flatware, massive dinner services, furniture created specifically for dining, and the dining room itself all converged during the Georgian period and provided the backdrop for many majestic gatherings.
Dinners of the Georgian period were formal and elaborate affairs that often lasted four or five hours, sometimes culminating in a second sitting for supper. The meal consisted of the French “table d’hote,” usually served in two courses. Guests entered the dining room to find porcelain and sterling serving dishes overflowing with soups, meat, fish, pies, vegetables and relishes which were freely passed around the table. Later, a second full course of roasted game birds, pastries and pies would replace the first. Of course, diners were not expected to sample everything on the table, but were to eat from the dishes closest to them. Savvy guests knew that a small bribe to a well-placed servant meant that the tastier dishes would always be within arm’s length.
After dinner, when the ladies retired to the parlor for gossip and conversation, the men remained around the table for drinks and would remove chamber pots from the sideboard to relieve themselves.
While the early Georgians had certainly come a long way from the more chaotic experience of the medieval table, consider that the fork, only introduced a century before, was just gaining widespread acceptance. Many people still ate with a knife and their hands. While some French hosts provided two or three communal knives at the table, diners who wished to use a fork were expected to bring their own.
And so it went until the middle of the 19th century when a new period of dining unfolded.
Dining in the Gilded Age
For the Victorians, dining was not just about the meal. It was an event that could make or break an aspiring socialite. There is the story of one young and aspiring New York hostess who threw a lavish dinner party to gain rank among elite society. Invitations went out to 100 top socialites, but because she was rather low on the social ladder, only 40 guests showed up for the dinner…only to find an expensive Fabergé bauble on their plate as a gift! You can imagine the gossip that ensued. Later that same year, this same lady sent out another 100 dinner invitations, and this time, 140 guests arrived!
The Victorians were the first to identify a specific room as the dining room and the furnishings and accessories were often the most expensive in the house. After all, this one room meant all the difference in one’s social position. The dining room was appointed accordingly with massive tables, buffets and sideboards. Walls were covered in lavish papers, murals and gilded mirrors and every corner boasted decorations of porcelain, silver and glass.
The Victorians also introduced a bewildering assortment of flatware. A far cry from the simple knife of their ancestors, a different utensil now existed for every conceivable use. There was a spoon for cream soup and another for clear soup, special serving spoons for oysters, tomatoes and ice cream. There were luncheon knives, dinner knives, butter knives, dessert spoons, breakfast coffee spoons, dinner coffee spoons, and so on.
A single place setting at a formal Victorian dinner might have included up to eight different forks, eight knives with accompanying knife rests, any number of spoons, seven or more crystal stems, a butter pick, game shears, nut picks, asparagus tongs, and salts. Add to that lavish epergnes, silver serving dishes, fruit stands, cruets, cake stands, condiment dishes and, finally, a lavish centerpiece, and it seemed there was scarcely room for the food.
Etiquette books abounded to educate inexperienced diners terrified of using the wrong fork to eat their asparagus. After all, knowing the code for this baffling assortment could mean the difference between serving and being served.
By the middle of the 19th century, most “civilized” people were eating the Russian way, in which guests were served each course in measured portions…the same way we eat today. Guests were treated to meals of eight or more courses, which may have included raw oysters, soup, salad, fish, roasted chicken, ham, vegetables, dessert, pastries, sherbets and coffee. A dinner party could go on for hours as guests took time for digestion and conversation between courses.
Victorian manners had also evolved. Blowing one’s nose on the tablecloth and picking one’s teeth with a knife, acceptable at the Medieval or Georgian table, were most assuredly frowned upon. Victorians also believed that bodily functions should be kept in check whilst at the table and that included the use of the chamber pot, which had been moved, thankfully, to the water closet. That discreet spot in the sideboard was now reserved for table linens and silverware.
Setting the Stage
Throughout the centuries, silversmiths have devoted their talents to creating splendid items for the dining room. Paul de Lamerie secured his position in history as one of the world’s finest silversmiths by producing magnificent serving pieces for 18th century gentry. Paul Storr would follow suit almost a half century later as he gained renown as the premier silversmith of the Regency period.
This was the golden age of the flatware service with companies vying to outdo one another both in the United States and abroad. Tiffany & Co. introduced many of their most beautiful and enduring patterns during this period, including Chrysanthemum, English King and Olympian, rendering them in immense flatware services, tea services and hollowware of every description.
Delicious food, beautiful surroundings and lavish table settings glittering with silver and gold have delighted the senses for centuries. While our traditions may have changed, we still wonder at these amazing creations. Their beauty is timeless and reminds us even today, some traditions are worth preserving.
Paul Storr was considered the finest silversmith of the late Georgian period, known for perfecting the works, styles and designs of the Regency period. Storr received commissions from royalty and nobility, creating incredible pieces that graced the dining rooms of castles, manors and chateaus throughout Europe. This rare sterling silver soup tureen, complete with matching underplate, was created especially for the Monteith family of Scotland and would have held a commanding place at the center of the dining table.
When an impressive entrance was called for, any hostess would have been proud to wheel this amazing meat carving trolley into the dining room. Created by the noted French firm of Christofle & Cie, the trolley features a finely engraved silverplate server set atop a handsome mahogany base. A hidden hot water basin kept the roast warm tableside as the chef carved each guests serving.
Epergnes are wondrous table decorations popularized in the 18th century to accommodate large banquets. The design originated in France and the name is derived from the French term épargne meaning, "to show thrift," the concept being to maximize tabletop space. It was generally used as a centerpiece holding compotes, exotic fruits, nuts and other luxuries brought from the Far East and elsewhere. This wonderful sterling silver example was crafted by English silversmith Thomas Pitts in the neoclassical style around 1785.
In many Victorian households, it was the dining room that held the most magnificent furniture. This monumental piece, known as the Robinson Crusoe sideboard is considered by many furniture experts to be an icon of Victorian furniture. The sideboard exhibits breathtaking relief carving detailing the events in Daniel Defoe's acclaimed novel Robinson Crusoe.