Dinner is served

Have you ever struggled to decide what to make for dinner? Well, today’s post has two Design Vocabulary terms that should change the way you ever look at dinner again. We’re talking about two very different styles of serving dinner in the last two centuries and what prompted the change. But first, I have a guest hostess helping me with this post…

A most important introduction

Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Isabella Beeton:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Her husband was a successful publisher and in 1861, Mrs.Beeton published her own book with his firm. The Book of Household Management, more commonly referred to a “Mrs. Beeton’s”, was a best seller from its first publishing well into the 1920’s.

While there is now detailed evidence to suggest that many of her 100+ pages of recipes and much of her detailed household advice came from others, including her own servants, there is no question that her book was ground breaking as “a guide of reliable information for the aspirant middle classes”. In short, she was THE original Martha Stewart.

Mrs. Beeton is helping me today by supplying most of the images in this post from the many editions of her book. Like Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton included beautiful displays of finished recipes in her book to inspire her readers. While some of her dishes may seem a little frilly or even impossibly over dressed to our eyes today, the images provide valuable insight to what was stylish and desirable to hostesses of earlier eras.

And oh, sooooo many dishes were needed! Let’s grab a seat at the table to see what’s going on…

À La Française

Pronounced “ah-la-frawn-SAYS”, this was the style of serving dinner for many centuries across Europe. What was once the style of dining for nobility and the aristocracy had trickled down from the Middle Ages to be common in all middle class homes up until the mid 19th century.

The goal for this serving style was to show a bountiful display of food which, in turn, attributed wealth and hospitality to the host and hostess. This is the most important thing to remember about the “à la française” dinner service. The show of the food for the guests was essential.

To this end, multiple dishes of food were prepared, well beyond the quantity that would seem appropriate to us today. A dinner for six to eight would require a minimum of four courses and include the following quantities of food.

First course: (on the table when the guests enter the dining room)

  • Hare soup
  • Pigeon bisque (soup)
  • Oysters
  • Oyster sauce
  • Cod’s head and shoulders
Second course:
  • Boiled turkey
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Asparagus tips
  • Saddles of mutton
Third course:
  • Cheese fondue
  • A joint of beef, garnished with pasta
  • Spit-roasted ham
  • Two salads
Fourth course:
  • Covered cream pie
  • Punch jelly (from a jelly mold)
  • Brace of partridges
  • Warm paté
While you may not recognize the names of some of the above dishes, you can certainly see how much food this is for only eight people. And this isn’t a menu for a big Saturday night dinner party, either. This would just be a husband’s business or networking dinner party on an average Wednesday.

All of the dishes in each course would have been carefully and symmetrically put on the table simultaneously by servants, so as to show off the quantity the food. There is a whole separate list of rules about where on the table which food could and could not be placed in relation to other foods. It’s enough for a whole other post on this topic, but just take it from me, it is quite fussy.

Then the food would be carved, plated and served to each guest by the host and hostess at the heads of the table and passed to each guest’s place by other guests. This often meant that your portion of food did not arrive on your plate warm, but this was the norm. Did I mention the garnishing? Well, you can’t just place pork chops on a large platter! You have to dress them to look extraordinary:

It was not expected that everyone eat or even sample every dish placed on the table, but that the guests could pick and choose to suit their own tastes. You can probably imagine the havoc this could wreck on a household budget. We take it for granted that our food costs today will be significantly lower than our housing costs. In 19th century Europe, those household budget percentages were much closer together.

To make ends meet, a good mistress used what we all use today to make her food budget stretch further. Today, we call them “leftovers”. In fact the most common household family/non-dinner-party meal of Victorian England appears to have been nothing but creative courses of leftovers. The average middle class family was said to enjoy only three “fresh”/new dinners a week. There were even popular recipes in ladies magazines with detailed instructions on disguising the leftover dishes in ways that a hungry husband won’t complain about them.

Now imagine being a household cook, “below stairs”.  You must have your recipes memorized because “Mrs. Beeton’s” is really for the mistress of the house to read and use to direct the servants. At every meal, you must time all the dishes of each course to be served together.

Then, while preparing the next courses you must wait to see if the family and any guests at least try all of the dishes, thus proving them to be appetizing and therefore good work to your boss, the mistress of the house. A good cook was the pride of any Victorian household staff and a very highly coveted commodity among ladies of society.

Soooo much work for everyone from the servants to the guests, and so much money spent! When a change from this very expensive dinner service arrived, it caught on fast.

À La Russe

Pronounced “ah-la-ROOSE”, this “new” style of dinner service first made its appearance around the 1830’s when a Russian prince began entertaining guests in his Paris apartment in the style of his homeland. (“Russe” is the French word for “Russian”.)

Paris and its social elite quickly adapted this dining style as their own. And since Paris was the fashion and diplomatic center of the world in the 19th century, reports of the style soon spread to other world capitals. The actual arrival of this dining style in Washington D.C. (at The White House, no less!) was the talk of the town. By the late 1880’s, the “à la Russe” service was considered standard everywhere.

You, dear reader, are already familiar with dining à la Russe. See if this sounds familiar:

  • You enter the dining room and are seated at the table
  • The table features a decorative centerpiece
  • After all the guest are seated, the first course is served
  • The first course consists of the same dish, on identical plates, served to all of the guest at the same time by servants
  • All subsequent courses are served to and cleared from guests directly at their seats, by servants
  • There is no quest for symmetry in the placing of dishes on the table
  • Large dishes requiring carving or complex serving are kept on a sideboard (or buffet, as we call them today)
  • Large dishes on the sideboard are carved by servants so that each guest could choose their own size of serving
  • No serving of food arrives at your place setting cold
  • Desserts are placed on the table to tantalize you as you make your own dessert selection

Of course, this is the way we all dine in nice restaurants today, although the dessert course is now often represented in pictures in some restaurants. I’ll bet most of you serve your family dinners and your large holiday meals this very same way, too. So what was the attraction to such a huge change so quickly? A most basic reason: it was much cheaper.

The “à la Russe” service is estimated to have cost the host and hostess one-third of what the same dinner would have cost them in the “à la française” style. There was no more need to fill the table with so many dishes that may or may not be eaten. The dishes served need not be filled to the very rim with a large quantity of food either. And no one was suffering over the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Hello, new customers!

It wasn’t just the middle class household budget that appreciated this dining change. The manufacturers of tableware were delighted at all the new possibilities and took great advantage of them. Whole new lines of silver cutlery and tableware were created to serve the “à la Russe” dinner service.

The “à la Russe” table now has a much more visible service, since we removed all of those overflowing dishes of food. You can’t just get by with a simple colored tablecloth anymore. You need a beautiful embroidered one or a luxurious damask one or something in a delicately printed silk…

What are you going to put in the center of the table now? You could easily place lovely dishes and compotes of the dessert course fruit out to bring some delicious color to the center of attention. (See the photo above for examples.) Indeed, when “Mrs. Beeton’s” finally resolved itself to this new normal, the later editions even offered some inspiration for mixing in fruit and flowers. (Now you know where your great-great-grandmother’s silver centerpiece bowl comes from…)

Have you ever eaten with a salad fork? They never existed before the “à la Russe” dinner service. The same can be said for the soup spoon, the fish knife, the oyster fork, the cake fork, the egg spoon, the iced tea glass, the iced tea spoon, the mayonnaise ladle, the lemon fork, the olive fork, the sugar spoon, the asparagus serving fork, the ice cream cutting knife, the ice cream fork, the jelly scoop, the salt spoon, the tomato server, the bon bon tongs, the “one tine butter pick” and dozens of other rather expensive yet very specific utensils that are now (mercifully) no longer quite so in demand. And now you know why we dine like we do.

It’s feeling a lot less difficult to figure out what you’re serving for dinner tonight, isn’t it? Do you think you could prepare a meal worthy of Mrs. Beeton’s? This British couple didn’t think so…

…but then one day they decided to clean out their basement. You have to see it to believe what they found! You can read the full article with fantastic pictures right here.

So, what’s for dinner at your house tonight? No, seriously! Leave your dinner plans in a comment and let’s compare how we all eat in our homes today…minus all those servants!

Posted on September 30, 2011, in Design Vocabulary, Food, Other. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Well put me down for a brace of partridges and some cod shoulders…hold the head, please.

    I can see why they were so excited to change. Who wouldn’t love hot food and a lower food budget. And the leftovers…Beef tongue again?

    Great post. I had no idea.

  2. I love the color prints of the food! I can really picture the huge spread set out by the servants, everyone all dressed to the nines. Fantastic.

    How awesome is that lost Victorian kitchen! What a find!

  3. Im sure I am not up to snuff 🙂

    Love the prints. Where did you find them? I don’t see any links to the source.

    • All of the food images are color plates scanned in from editions of “Mrs. Beetons”, which I explained in her little “intro” near the top of the post. I own one old edition and my city’s fancy main library has several even older ones. The books have long since been out of print, but they occasionally pop up in antique stores.

      I have also seen some of the more “appetizing” plates available on note cards and tea towels in the UK, which are easy to frame and decorate with around the house. Here’s a link to one good source:


      I have secretly coveted that apron for years!

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