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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!

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The magic cookbook

I have a little organization idea to share with you from my own home. I’d love to be able to tell you it comes from a Martha-like moment of both beauty and creativity, but I can’t. It really comes from years of wrestling foil and plastic wrap back into a drawer that has too many outdated take-out menus in it already.

And, lo! Inspiration struck:

“What is a ‘Magic Cookbook’?”, you may well ask.

It is a magical book of savory delights and cuisines from faraway lands. As you turn through its pages, you mouth waters at its every list of delicious foods. And the most magical part: By dialing a phone number on one of these savory pages, this food will be prepared for you to enjoy in your home. It may even *gasp* be delivered to directly your door.

You with me? The inside of this magic cookbook looks like this:

We love to cook, (check out some great recipes right here), but there are nights when we bow to the masters of other world cuisines to sate our cravings. We love food from Mexico, Spain, India, Thailand, China…almost any place that requires our passport to visit. (I did mean “almost”. After much open-mindedness, Ethiopian food is very literally off the table for us forever.)

However, all of this fabulous cooking is exactly what filled up our foil-and-other-stuff drawer in the kitchen. So, I made myself a cute little binder cover sheet on plain cardstock. You can download and print  my cover as a pdf right here if you like it, too. Then, I was off to Staples, where I picked up one of these:

This book is $4.29. (Click on the picture for the link.)

Next, I cleaned out our menus and slid one menu into every pocket of the presentation book. Done.

Now our take-out menus co-habit the shelf with our big cookbooks and we can find them all easily when we need them. And the foil drawer closes without either of us almost losing a finger.

Could this little idea help you at your house? It can’t solve the too-many-leftover-duck-sauce-packets-in-the-fridge issue, but I try to help where I can! Now dish with me: What is your favorite type of take-out food? Leave a comment and make the rest of us hungry for lunch…

Psssst! If you’re looking for the Toolbox giveaway results, the winner will be announced in a separate post this afternoon. Be sure to stop back by to see if it’s you!

Beyond lemonade

It’s summertime and if your house is like mine, you might have a few extra lemons around the house to use in your summer recipes. If you like the idea of homemade lemonade, I recommend this recipe, from the Simply Recipes website.

Image courtesy of Simply Recipes

However, we shouldn’t just think of lemons as cooking ingredients. Real lemons, their juice, peels and even their already squeezed halves can be a great non-toxic cleaning tools around our homes.

As part of our Greener Living Challenge, I’ve gathered together a list of many ways we can use lemons to clean responsibly (and cheaply!) around children, pets and adults. See if you can find a new use for this mighty citrus in your home:

  • Remove soap scum and mildew: Apply lemon juice onto the surface of any soap scum or mildew. Let it sit for up to 2 hours. Rinse the area throughly with warm water. (No room ventilation required.)
  • Clean your Tupperware: Mix lemon juice and baking soda into a simple paste and scrub those old food stains right our of your plastic food containers.
  • Save your paintbrushes: Boil lemon juice in a pot on your stove top. Soak hardened paintbrushes in the boiling juice for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, rinse the brushes and your pot in hot, soapy water. Allow the brushes to dry completely before putting them away.

    Image courtesy of Wikipedia

  • Protect your clothing: Dry lemon rinds in open air for 1-2 days. Fill sachet bags (like these) with the rinds and then hang them in your closets. The lemon rind will repel moths and keep your clothes smelling nicer than moth balls.
  • Wipe out your microwave: Place one slice of  lemon and 1 cup of water into a glass microwave-friendly bowl. Microwave for 30 second and then let the bowl sit in the microwave as the steam works its magic. Remove the bowl after a minute and wipe down the inside walls of the microwave.
  • Perk up your laundry:Add one cup of lemon juice to the washer while washing your white loads, along with your usual laundry soap. Wash as normal. Your whites will look brighter.

    Image courtesy of Wikipedia

  • Return the sparkle to your glassware: Soak cloudy coffee pitchers, glasses and other similar items in a mixture of lemon juice and water. rinse thoroughly and then wash and dry as usual.
  • Make your own metal polish: This solution works on stainless steel, brass and copper only. Make a simple paste of salt and lemon juice and scrub the tarnished surface. Allow the paste sit, untouched on the metal for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, rinse the metal surface, dry thoroughly and polish as needed.
  • Refresh the air in your home: Simmer 2-3 juiced lemons in 4 cups of water over low heat for a few hours to give your entire home a lemony clean scent. Citrus is also a powerful, energizing scent that can lift your mood.

Did you find a new way to use lemon around your home? What idea surprised you on this list? Do you a have another great way to use lemon that you’d like to share? Leave a comment!

Problem Solver: Emergency Soup

Is there anything more annoying than a summer cold?

I could probably think of some things, now that I think about it…but that is not really where I’m going with this today. No. Today I’m going to offer a little appeasement to the cold & fever gods so that we may all be protected for the summer.

I call this idea “Emergency Soup”. It seems like a really simple concept. So simple that once you understand it you might be thinking, “Well, I think she could have written about something more interesting than that for today!”

Let me assure you, you will only think that because you are feeling fine as you read this.

Here’s the concept:

  1. Go to your grocery store and find the soup aisle.
  2. Pick out the soup you prefer when you are sick.
  3. Buy several cans of said chosen soup.
  4. Store (hide!) those cans of soup at the back of your cabinet/pantry and do not use them, under any conditions, unless you are sick.

It does seem so simple, doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many years it took me to figure out the brilliance of this plan when I was a workaholic single 20-something. But once I had experienced the joy of discovering the Emergency Soup, JUST when I NEEDED it most, there was no way back.

I defended my Emergency Soup from kitchen pillaging roommates, my husband’s random snacking tendencies and recipes requiring more chicken broth than I had remembered to buy. The Emergency Soup had my back whenever I

  • was sick
  • felt like I might be getting sick
  • made a highly questionable late night meal choice because I was in my 20’s

and Emergency Soup can be there for you.

Whenever someone wakes up to sinus pain and an important meeting on the same day, it will be there. Whenever a spouse can’t run to the store because “the game” is starting, it will be there. Wherever a child vomits in their bed at 2am but insists on chocolate pudding for lunch at noon, Emergency Soup WILL BE THERE!

Seriously, though. Pick up a few cans of soup on your next grocery trip and sock them away, out of the everyday reaches of your family. When you really need it, you, too, will exclaim:

“Emergency Soup to the rescue!”

Then you can write a comment on this post that starts with, “I LOVE Emergency Soup!” Or you can leave a comment now, if you like. Go, now. And stay healthy this summer, my friends!

A well-mannered lap top

Here’s a question for you: Do you use paper napkins at your house?

I ask because I’ve had a nice tidy basket of cloth napkins that I keep for holidays and “for good”. These napkins rarely saw the light of day once or twice a year. (Unless you count the times I’m routing around in the basket looking for different good napkins. Why are the ones I actually want now always at the very bottom of the good napkin basket?)

I have always been a real fan of pretty table linens, but they can be such high maintenance. I do not like to iron tablecloths. So, years ago, I discovered that you can get really pretty vintage table napkins at antique stores. They are so much easier to care for than big tablecloths. Here are some of the many I have collected:

Aren’t they pretty? They kinda take you back to that time when you were taught to keep your napkin on your lap like a nicely mannered child. The fabric is so thick I really don’t have to iron them. A thorough washing is all they ever really need.

When you find these napkins in antique or thrift stores, they generally don’t come in an even set. You know how people always spill something at holiday tables. Well, I figure whoever had these before me sacrificed that one napkin when Aunt Elaine knocked over her wine or some other such emergency. We’ve all been there, right? So now you know how to find a great deal on some beautiful napkins!

But that’s not what this post is about.

You see, I do have a nice tidy basket of pretty napkins, but I no longer keep them “for good”. I’ve learned to stop saving things “for good” because we are good enough in our lives right now to use the “good” napkins. You can read more about this philosophy in this post.

Hello, color choices! You can click on the picture for the link.

I’ve also added to our napkins, because I found we didn’t have enough “good” napkins to put to work in out daily lives. I found great bargains on new ones at Overstock and Amazon. (When you need just one more thing to get the free shipping: napkins!) Here’s our basket of napkins from our kitchen.

They come in lots of colors and most of them average out to have cost less than a dollar. We just spot treat them if they are really stained, like after Indian curries or BBQ, and toss them in the wash.

But the real reason I want you to think about cloth napkins is because you only have to buy them once. This makes them a perfect replacement for paper napkins and paper towels in your home. That’s right! This is a Greener Living post!

How much do you spend on disposable paper cloth every year? I bet if you add it up it will come to more than a one-time, discounted purchase of several sets of napkins. You’re already doing the laundry, what’s a few more squares of cloth?

Image courtesy of the NRDC

The National Resources Defense Council estimates that if every household in the United States used one less roll of paper towels, we could save 544,000 trees. How many paper napkins are equal to a roll of your paper towels? How much of that paper do you throw away? When you throw it away, where does it all go?

So, just to re-cap, switching to cloth napkins:

  • Saves you money in the grocery store
  • Uses what you probably already have (Get out the good stuff!)
  • Cuts down on de-forestation
  • Cuts down on waste in your nearest landfills

Win for your wallet, win for your style, win for the planet. Isn’t it nice to know that one simple change can make such a difference? Who knew that using your good manners could help save the planet?

Want some more ideas? Visit the “Greener Living” link at the top page, in the menu bar of this website. This page has all of the posts collected together from our year-long Earth Day challenge, which you can read about right here.

Using the “Good” china

Do you have things in your home that are too “good” to use?  For example, you might have some wedding china that you use only when you have “company”.  Or maybe you have a special set of dishes that you only use at certain holidays?

I did.  We had these things in my childhood home and I had started the same ritual saving in my own home.  My family has some Southern roots, with some of the older traditions around weddings.  So, when I was engaged, we spent weeks trying to find a formal china pattern we liked. After endlessly browsing catalogs and stores, my now-husband was the person who found the perfect pattern, in a tiny Lenox china outlet store in the Pennsylvania countryside.  Jackpot!

"Coronet Platinum", Image courtesy of Lenox

We put the pattern on our registry and hoped for the best.  Not every one likes to buy bone china dish sets anymore, since the concept of formal dinner parties has kinda gone the way of Mrs. Cleaver mopping the floor while wearing a pretty dress, heels and pearls.  However, we had many wedding guests jump on the china bandwagon. (Hmm.  There’s a noisy image.)

So, when we returned from our honeymoon, we unwrapped all the china gifts, wrote all the appropriate thank you notes and packed all the lovely, new china away into a dark china cabinet for the next few years.

Well, that is the real tradition, isn’t it?

Enter my great aunt Millie, who was in her ’90’s at the time.  In a casual conversation with my mom about the secret to aging happily, she said that when she turned 60, she started using her formal china as her every day china because, “I’m good enough for the good stuff!”

Such a simple concept, but so right!  What were we hoarding all of this nice china for anyway?  For the “special” meals?  Thanksgiving?  Once a year?  So by the time we have reached Millie’s age (should we all be so lucky), we will have used this china for only sixty meals?  That does sound kinda crazy.

My mom went home and put all of her every day china in a garage sale. My dad adjusted to the new set up after a few variations of, “How can I eat a tuna sandwich off of the good china?!”  At the end of the day, dishes are designed to be eaten off of regularly.

Now I am a convert to the “good” china, too.  I do still have my every day china, because, believe me, this woman needs her microwave.  (Fine bone china + microwave = very expensive shards.  Don’t try this at home.)  But I really enjoy using and seeing my formal china around the house.  Sometimes I put a bunch or oranges in a vegetable serving bowl and put it out on the counter, other times we try out new recipes on the dinner plates.  Whatever the mood, we are enjoying our china now.  And so can you.  You aregood”. Now.  Life is too short.  Dig through your cupboards and pull out the good stuff.  Enjoy!

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