Mistress of Herself, Though China Fall

Ladies and gentlemen, the whirlwind launch of The Vintage Eats Project has given us the vapors.. But luckily the roommates were fast with the smelling salts and vinegar presses! Did you happen to catch this interview that we did with Barth Anderson at Fair Food Fight? How about our trip to the Pabst Mansion? Are you thoroughly familiar with the rules? What about our motivations for starting this whole thing?

We know that we promised a huge cooking post with step-by-step photos for today, but returning from Milwaukee on Monday and launching right back into our day job has made it damn hard to even *shop* for food (we confess: we totally haven’t and have been pretty much living the typical cook’s life. Coffee, mostly lukewarm.), let alone create a multi-course Victorian feast. But rest assured, fair readers, that we will pull through – it will just be on Monday at noon. Til then, let’s continue our research on what a typical Victorian dinner party might have entailed, shall we?

We have this book: a Household Encyclopedia, published in Boston in 1896, that has about a dozen pages on dinner party etiquette. That’s where our title quote comes from, and that’s what we’re evoking to remind ourselves to stay calm, even when plates are flying all around us. Here are some other useful things from the book that would have concerned our friends at the Pabst Mansion, and, indeed, all high society Victorian folk. They’re fun to imagine, and very energy-intensive to implement:

How Ladies Should Dress

“Full dinner dress means a low dress; the hair arranged with flowers or other ornaments; and a display of jewelry, according to taste. For a grand dinner [as the Pabst family would likely have hosted on a semi-regular basis], a lady dresses as elaborately as for a ball; but there is a great distinction between a ball dress and a dinner dress. A dinner dress must be good in quality; it should be of silk of the latest make, with an ample train. The hair should be dressed as to be in keeping with the prevailing fashion, and at the same time becoming.”

Gentlemen’s Dress

“The theory is that gentlemen dress for dinner in such a manner as to be prepared for any kind of entertainment – opera, concert, theatre, party, meeting, or even ball – which they may have occasion to attend during the evening. The dinner or evening dress consists of a black dress-coat, black waistcoat and trousers, white cravat, patent leather boots (!), and white kid gloves.”

The Various Courses

“Soup is always first served – one ladle to each plate. Eat it from the side of your spoon. Do not take it too hot; and do not ask twice for it, or dip up the last spoonfuls, or tilt your plate to get at it. Fish follows soup… The entrees follow: – They are, for the most part, served in covered silver side-dishes. It is not customary to do more than taste one, or, at the most, two of them. They consist of sweetbreads, pates, cutlets, and made-dishes generally, and over-indulgence in them is apt to unfit one for enjoying the rest of the dinner, while it is not very good for digestion. Eat, such as can be eaten that way, with a fork.”

General Hints

“You should sit at a convenient distance from the table, and sit upright. Do not lean back, or tilt your chair, or stoop forward towards the table… Do not be impatient to be served… Do not pick your teeth at table, or put your hand over or in your mouth. Do not hesitate to take the last piece of bread or cake in a dish handed to you. Your host has more for other guests. When a plate containing food is handed to you, set it down before you, and do not pass it to your neighbors…

Always act simply and easily, as if you were accustomed to doing things properly.

Alright, cool. So we know what ladies and gentlemen should be donning. We get the order of courses. The general hints are helpful, indeed, but what of all of this can we see happening nowadays? How do we bring back a little gentility into our lives?

For discussion’s sake:

About a month and a half ago, we caught an article written by Boston-based food blogger, MC Slim JB, entitled Jackets-Required Fine Dining Is Dying. Does Anybody Care? What do you all think? Should we bring back jackets and ban golf shirts from formal dining situations? Does relaxing a dress code mean that manners in general are more relaxed – to a fault? The Victorians, after getting over their initial horror, would emphatically say yes. Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

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Published in: on 11 May, 2011 at 12:00  Comments (7)  

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  1. If you don’t have it already, you might enjoy “Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts” by Susan Williams. I pulled it out of my reading “pile” last night after reading your post – there’s some great material about Victorian dining culture! I saw a video of a historical society presentation she made awhile back – will try to dig it up for you. I bought the book in my quest for a comprehensive guide to Victorian table wares – I’ve sold period silverplate and dishes and sometimes it’s hard to know if you’ve got a tomato spoon or petit four server in your hand.

    As for requiring/expecting formal dress at dinner, I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, I dislike many stiff, formal conventions. On the other, I have bad flashbacks of tourists in tees and shorts infiltrating a carefully set restaurant dining room. We polished every wine glass and piece of flatware and had to know our food, our wine & the Latin names of the flowers in the table arrangements. Seeing people in outfits I’d only wear to clean the garage seemed a bit disrespectful to both the wonderful food and dining experience. Yet they were paying good money for it, and I earned a good living from waiting tables in Santa Fe. Sigh. Yes, I’m torn…

  2. Hi! I learned of your site from “Vintage Cookbooks” on FaceBook a couple of days ago, friended you on FaceBook, and have been trying to figure out how not to scare you with my enthusiasm.

    I was a docent at a history museum here in Dallas for 16 years ~ Dallas Heritage Village http://www.dallasheritagevillage.org/
    The first 8 years I was a touring docent, and then I became a cooking demonstrator in their 1900 house, cooking on a wood burning stove one Saturday a month. About the time I started the cooking, I read the book “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. That book inspired me to make the experience as close to a 1900 experience as I could. Not only using period recipes, but trying to source foods that would have tasted the same and use kitchen items available then as well. In 2002, the museum decided that the house would become a Jewish home and I didn’t have the knowledge or the passion to continue in that theme.

    During my tenure, and ever since, I have collected cookbooks and some knowledge and some kitchen cookware and gadgets. Early Sears & Roebucks catalogues can help you identify some cookware described in early cookbooks (pudding pans come to mind).

    I look forward to reading more of your blog. I’m not sure exactly what you are asking from your readers, but if I can contribute anything or look up things in my library for you, feel free to ask. I love the research and I love sharing what I have learned, but I am not much of a writer.

    As to the formal dining question, I think that some standards are nice. The food and decor are just part of a dining experience. The diners, their dress and behavior, are another aspect of dining. If one would not use paper plates and plastic flatware for a formal dinner, why would you want to wear golf shirts and flip-flops? We not only feel different when we dress up, others respond to us differently. (I have a teacher friend that thinks that discipline in the classroom started being more of a problem when teachers started dressing more casually in the classroom.) Cities have found that when they clean up neighborhoods and repair the houses, that crime rates go down. Looks and behavior do seem to go hand in hand.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check it out!

    I’m torn too. I like a democratic meal, where people feel comfortable enough to interact freely with the food and between themselves. I don’t think food should be stuffy or too pretty to eat. At the same time, I think that the level of effort the participant puts forth should at least match the level of effort it took to produce the object/service/event in question. In my little ideal world, I want there to be an appropriate level of dress that people just know to observe, based on the occasion. There are too many people out there who don’t try… ever.. and it’s a sad decline from decades past. I’ve recently started reading this blog – do you know her? – called Vixen Vintage, where Solanah says all too plainly – it’s gross to see people in dirty sweatpants and Crocs out at the grocery store. It’s equally gross and offensive to see those same people sitting next to you at a restaurant, or in church or at the ballet. How do we bring back dress codes without killing off everyone’s individual sense of fashion and comfort level?

  4. Hi there! No need to tone down the enthusiasm! Never, never :-)

    You have such a cool job history? How did the sourcing process go? I imagine that using the kitchen implements from back then would have been a huge challenge. I’m thinking of potagers in particular ;) I visited the Herman Grima house in New Orleans a few months ago and was amazed at the cooking process that happened on a daily basis back then. What do you do now?

    I am also not quite sure what I’m asking from my readers, truth be told. The project had to come out, but where it goes, we’re not sure yet. But I would definitely love for you and our friend the Cookbook Maven, to contribute. Would you consider it? If you love the research and sharing, I’ll write it all up with credit to you. It’s the writing process that I love best :-)

    I absolutely agree with you about feeling differently when dressing up. I just recently started putting my vintage aesthetic to work in my wardrobe and have a bit more bounce to my step lately. Can you think of any obsolete Victorian behaviors/etiquette that would be worth bringing back? We won’t even start on the wardrobe.. although that might be an interesting discussion too!

  5. Count me in & I’ll contribute what I can. (Need to check out that Vintage Vixen, too!)

  6. Thank you for the warm reply.

    Sourcing? I’d just do my best. Farmers’ markets and Whole Foods were good places to start. A local butcher could provide special meat needs. I had an herb garden at my house. Sometimes, I would just make do. Here in the Dallas area, I think that it would be easier today than it was then.

    The main challenge for me was in learning to use the stove. It took practice and good wood to get it right. I made sponge cake and I made and canned jams and applesauce. My husband would also assist at times, and he loved making waffles with an antique waffle iron that fit on the cookstove.

    Today, I am a stay at home mom with two children (15 & almost 9). I still volunteer, but now most of that is at their two schools, and a historical museum/farm closer to home ~http://www.heritagefarmstead.org/ They don’t have cooking demos, but I help with school tours and a few other events. I have done a few presentations for private schools, talking mostly about daily life in the colonial times. The students are always amazed that simple corn meal can be the main ingredient in such different foods as Johnny Cakes and Hasty Pudding and Indian Pudding.

    If you think that you can use my participation and research, I would love to see if we can work together.

    One dining behavior that I would like to see come back, is the use of cloth napkins and napkin rings in family dining. During Victorian times, the laundry was done only once a week, and each family member would be assigned pretty much only one napkin for the week. However, each family member had a unique napkin ring that would identify their napkin. The ring may have been inscribed with perhaps an initial or an animal. This would have been done in family, not for guests. Disclosure – I have a drawer full of napkin rings that we pick from, and I wash napkins twice a week. It’s not only green, but my children love picking just the right napkin ring for their mood or the season.

  7. Denise – yours is a fascinating history, indeed! I love those simple foods as well and became enamored with some of the early American (and English influenced) recipes I came across as a kid! I loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and remember being very curious about Meg’s Blanc Mange and the fact that there were foods in the world unknown to me. Luckily my parents did let me experiment, and I remember making Indian Pudding, Cottage Pudding with Lemon Sauce and Molasses Taffy (and being the one who enjoyed them the most!)

    Interesting you should mention the bit about napkin rings, too, as the history of their use seems little know outside of Victorian dining circles. In the course of my reading, I learned that one would never offer a guest a napkin in one of those fancy napkin rings people admire today because it would imply you were giving them a dirty napkin! Proper company dinners commanded a clean, folded napkin – that’s all. I possessed a number of those fancy figural napkin rings at one point and it was very interesting to learn about how they were really used.

    Another interesting example is how people conceive of the term “high tea” as referring to some fancy white glove event. I’m told by English friends that it simply refers to lunch – a midday meal taken by miners (or other working class folks) above ground or away from the factory. I believe “formal tea” is the more correct term for what Red Hat ladies engage in, but there are few who make the distinction.

    I am still learning about this type of food lore and etiquette, but I’m fascinated and would love to learn more. So, I’m very excited that you’re interested in this project and looking forward to the chance to work with you and Jen! Maybe I can help with photos and excerpts from cookbooks and information about how recipes changed with the times?


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