Many people seem to have lost the habit of eating together at table -at least, on a daily basis.
We sometimes bemoan the past and the loss of the niceties in life but, for upper class people in the 18th century, dining was a major kerfuffle.
For starters – women had to change for dinner putting on fancy evening dress consisting of a corset, a bodice, stockings, a petticoat, a gown, ruffles and shoes. This took at least an hour. Men tended just to pop a bit more powder on their hair ( twas ever thus ladies).
Then, there were rules about how, and when and with whom, you went into dinner. Too long and complicated to go into at length but, briefly, the host would go in first with the most senior woman and sit at the head of the table. The lady of the house would come in with her entourage and sit at the other end. Interestingly they did not have equal numbers of men and women and people could sit where they liked. This was considered one of the few opportunities for men and women to mix and choose a future partner – which is perhaps why it was so important to look your best.
Every meal consisted of two courses and a dessert. Sounds modest enough, except one course could have between five and twenty-five dishes. In one course, soup or creams, main dishes, side dishes and pastries would be placed on the table all at once. It looked lavish, all set out in splendour, but the downside was that by the time the guests finished eating the soup, the other foods had to be eaten cold. The dishes were placed on the table with a certain balance.
Meat dishes were placed in the middle, while accompaniments were placed on the sides and corners. The soup had to be placed at one end and the fish dishes at the other. Vegetable, fish or custard dishes were never placed at the centre of the dinner table. The host served the soup himself and guests could start on the wine after they had finished their soup.
The tablecloth, plates and cutlery were all changed for the second course which consisted of as many dishes as the first. However, the dishes for the second course were lighter, with accompaniments to the meats such as fruit tarts, jellies and creams.
After the second course the table cloth was removed again and dessert was served. Dessert usually consisted of food that could be eaten with the fingers such as dried fruit, nuts, small cakes, confections and cheese.
All this took about two hours. A glass of wine was served as a parting shot before the host allowed the ladies to withdraw and the men sat back down to drink and indulge in man-talk. Anyone still thinking the past is a better country?Subscribe to our blog