Hints on the Dinner Table


Dexterity, grace, and tact in carving and distributing the delicate morsels of the dish, have been many a man’s passport into popularity.  Nor is this accomplishment unworthy of cultivation in the elegant woman; affording a pretext, too, for that assistance of some favored neighbor which men love to offer to the fair.

The number of guests to be invited to constitute an agreeable dinner is no longer restricted to the old rule of never less than the number of the Graces, nor more than that of the Muses. Large tables, well-trained servants, dinners a la Russe, and a greater facility in furnishing the viands for the table than formerly existed, have enabled families to extend the number received, and dinners of from twelve to twenty are common, and more convenient than several small dinners.

The invitations should be sent out, if possible, a fortnight previous to the dinner, to avoid disappointment; and etiquette commands the reply to be immediate, to allow the host to fill up his table in case of refusals. The size of the table must always be a first consideration, for all enjoyment of the good things spread before them will be marred if people be crowded; and on the contrary, the table must not be too large for the party: nothing can be more gloomy than a scattered company or an empty chair. From 2-1/2 to 3 feet is a fair calculation for each person, especially since the dimensions of crinolines is lessened; but no more should be allowed.

There is another grand point to remember in issuing invitations—the important social arrangement of the guests. No man of good sense would invite the CAPULETS to meet the MONTAGUES,--a blunder which inevitably checks many topics of conversation, throwing a damp on all attempts to promote universal enjoyment.

Be careful at any rate to assemble, as far as your convenience and judgment permit, the elements of harmony, and you have fulfilled your duty. It is desirable not to have many great talkers, but if you invariably must have some, then match them with good listeners.

In laying the cloth, care should be taken, not only that the table should occupy the centre of the room, but that the cloth should be spread to leave the pattern in the centre of the table, with the design proceeding from the head, and as the cloth is now almost universally left on the table for the dessert, lay-overs or slips are placed round, broad enough to reach two or three inches beyond the plate, to be carefully removed in folds when the crumb-brush has been used after the dinner is removed.

The table being spread, and the dinner announced by the butler or principal waiting servant, the lady of the house must quietly indicate the arrangement of her guests according to rank, age, or any local or occasional distinction, the master of the house leading out the first lady, and the mistress following last with the most distinguished gentleman, who, seated at her right hand, is her assistant in the duties of the table.

The soup and fish are usually placed on the table together, and the covers removed at once; the soup to the lady, the fish before the master; or if two soups, and one should be turtle, that must be at the head. Soup is sent round without inquiry to everybody, to be accepted or rejected at pleasure. Sauterne, sherry, or Madeira may be offered after the soup. After turtle soup, punch is the correct liquor. The fish is carved and served round in the same way as the soup, if only one kind of fish be served; if more, the choice must be left to the guest.

After the soup and fish are served, the Removes, as they are generally termed, that is, the pieces de resistance, the stronghold of the dinner, are brought in; but before they are carved, two or more entrees are usually handed round, and if champagne be introduced, this is the time for it to be offered.

In carving the removes, a servant must be at the side of the carver with the plate, which he must as quickly as possible pass to the guest for whom it is required, another servant following with the vegetables or sauces. If only one servant be employed, the vegetables should be on the table, that the guests may help themselves, for nothing can be more vexatious than to have to wait for them for a quarter of an hour after you have been served with the meat. The same may be said of the sauces, so often, at a scantily-attended table, withheld until you no longer care for them. Such wines as the master of the house chooses to bestow must be offered when needed. Water carafes will be within the reach of all, and beer, if called for, must be served.

In the matter of carving, it should be held in mind that the flavor and the digestibility of the meat depends greatly on the careful mode of cutting it. A delicate stomach may be disgusted with a thick coarse slice, an undue proportion of fat, a piece of skin or gristle; and therefore the carver must have judgment as well as dexterity, must inquire the taste of each guest, and minister discreetly to it. This delicate duty is more fully set forth in the direction for carving each dish. One point it is well to remember: never use a knife when you can help with a spoon. The lighting the dinner-table well is of some importance. People like to see their dinner, but lamps and candles on the table are liable to accidents. Gas is also objectionable; the heat from it is oppressive, and the light too glaring to be pleasant to the eyes, or becoming to female beauty: chandeliers with wax lights or a suspended and shaded lamp we would recommend as most favorable to the banquet and the company. Few dishes are now placed on the table at dessert. There should be at least three glasses placed before each guest, one of which must be of colored glass, and water-tumblers here and there at hand. To each, also, a dessert-plate, a knife, fork, nut-crackers, and doily; the decanters of such wines as the host chooses to bring forth, on their proper stands; and salt-cellars, and sugar-vases with perforated ladles, must also be on the table.

When the lady of the house perceives that her female guests have taken the wine they wish, she signifies by a slight inclination the request to leave the table, and on her rising some chivalrous gentleman opens the door for the ladies to pass into the drawing-room, where it is the duty of the mistress of the house to offer the usual amusements to her friends—music, books of drawings, or conversation; but few efforts are required among well-bred guests.

Coffee should then be brought in. If only one servant be employed, every lady must prepare her own cup. When there are two servants, the cups are on one tray, and the second attendant follows with the coffee-pot, and fills the cup of each person.

If the gentlemen in the dining-room do not join the ladies immediately, coffee is served to them at table when required; and when they appear in the drawing-room, tea is handed round.

The greatest aid to the pleasure of a mixed party is that ease of manner which the habits of good society produce. When the hosts are composed and cheerful, the company commonly follow the example, and awkward restraint disappears.




Original text by George Routledge, edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


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Hints on the Dinner Table