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The Art of Entertaining

I have always prided myself on being an excellent host on all occasions. A dinner party is perhaps the greatest test of ones nerves as what is planned often rarely occurs. It has always been my great desire to through a full Fifteen course Victorian Dinner Party. Over the years I have gathered the necessary plates, sauceboats and tureens for my ideal dinner though I have yet to conduct this affair. The closes I have come would be my Christmas Dinner, which usually consists of Five Courses for six persons. The following is an outline as to what a Turn of The Century Dinner Party should be.


By the late 1800’s, dinner was considered the most of all social occasions. A style of etiquette emerged as dinner parties become more elaborate with time. A wealthy society matron might give a dinner party once or twice a week, while a middle class woman might give just one a month if her budget allowed. Dining was entertaininment. It was not fashionable to be late to a dinner party. Guests arrived fifteen minutes before the invitation stated, gathered and were then escorted to the table when dinner was announced as cocktail parties where unheard of during this period. There might have been as many as four or five dinner parties a week, with each one lasting up to four hours. A dinner party was given as a sign of social status as well as entertainment. Each dinner was grander than the last, elegance being the operative word. With each additional course that were served, the lady of the house was allowed to use and display more of her elegant china and serving piece, thus telling everyone how wealthy she was. With all of this dinning among the upper and middle classes in America, we can see why there was such large amounts of fine porcelain imported from the East and Europe. There was a large market for fine china and elaborate sets with lots of gold trim were sold as well as very simple sets. There could be as many as fifteen courses for dinner with usually a menu placed in front of each guest. This allowed the guest to make a choice of soups, entrees, desserts, etc. There also could be ten to fifteen pieces of silverware at each place setting along with glassware for the various wines and liqueurs served throughout the meal. Research has shown as that in a single Haviland Limoges Pattern there were sixty-five pieces per place setting. I am sure that many other companies followed suite. The well appointed table would have all of the items for a comfortable meal within easy reach, so that one would not be required to ask or wait for anything, including: individual bean or vegetable bowls, salt cellars, bone dishes, etc. Bread and butter plates were not used at a dinner party as the roll was placed directly on the table or nestled in the napkin. I do not follow this pattern as I feel this may surprise a diner or may stain valuable damask napkins. Many pieces of porcelain were used in the various courses of a dinner party; only the very wealthy would have been able to serve the dinner that is listed below. Plus the types of courses would vary, as food preferences would often change.

The First through the Seventh Course

THE FIRST COURSE: OYSTERS Almost every meal began with raw oysters. These were considered to be a classless food due to their abundance and popularity. Plates were designed to hold between three to six oysters with a place in the center for a sauce. THE SECOND COURSE: SOUP Soup or stew was an important part of dinner. Three would have been both clear and thick soups offered at a dinner party. In a low or middle class family soup with bread might have been served as the evening meal or with the main meal at noon. There were tureens for oyster stew, clam chowder and regular soups. Soup bowls were designed for the correct soups. Clear broths were served in bouillon cups and were the same size and shape as teacups but with two handles. Some of the bouillon cups came with came with covers to keep the soup warm until it was eaten. There were also cream soup bowls with under plates, rimmed soup bowls that came as a set with tureens. By the mid- to late 1800’s handles were for looks only as etiquette did not allow cream soup or bouillon bowls to be picked up. Silver bouillon spoons were provided as well as specialized spoons for every other type of soup. THE THIRD COURSE: HORS D’OEVRES Anchovies, sardines, pickled oysters, cucumbers or celery might have been served at this course. Any type of fancy or platter would have been used. THE FOURTH COURSE: FRESH FISH Fish of almost any kind was used, from cod to a whole salmon. Fish was poached, fried, steamed and was served with or without sauce. The platters were over twenty-two inches long to allow for very large fish. Fish sets frequently had pictures of marine life painted on them, with a different scene on each piece. THE FIFTH COURSE: RELEVES (REMOVES) This course might have consisted of a joint of roast beef, lamb or braise of meat, served with two or three green vegetables and potatoes. Since refrigeration was in its infancy most of these dishes would have been served with a sauce to mask the freshness of the meat. THE SIXTH COURSE: SORBET This was also called Roman Punch, a lemon sorbet spiked with rum or champagne and served for a refreshing interlude after the rich salmon and duck courses to cleanse the palate. In Europe, and presumably in America, certain jellies were served between courses in place of the sorbet. THE SEVENTH COURSE: THE ENTRÉE This course often consisted of croquette, sweet breads, fricassees, and etc. garnished with vegetables, either on the same plate or in individual vegetable plates. Some of the vegetables might have been served with a sauce or special gelatin molds.

The Eighth through the Fifteenth Course

THE EIGHTH COURSE: VENISON, WILD PIGEON OR OTHER GAME This was sometimes referred to as the Roast Course although it was usually canvas back ducks or quail. However, since hunting was considered great sport, any other game might have been served. As with the fish sets most of the pieces in these sets had wild game or birds painted on the plates and platters. THE NINTH COURSE: SALAD Today we tend to think of salad as being mainly green lettuce and tomatoes. In the late 1800’s however, salad was a little bit of everything as lettuces were only available in the country during the spring and summer. Salads often consisted of various vegetables, beans, beets, turnip tops, as well as macaroni and potatoes. One of the more popular salads of the Victorian Era was made of lobster and could be found at almost any dinner party. THE TENTH COURSE: DESSERSTS Several desserts would be served, all of them rich in cream, sugar and eggs. Sweet pastries, puddings, creams, charlottes and cakes were brought to the table served in exquisite pudding bowls, comports or platters. THE ELEVENTH COURSE: ICE CREAM AND GELATINS Ice cream and ices made from fruit were always an important part of any meal. They were often ladled with a large spoon into an ice cream platter, which is deeper than a normal platter. The dessert was then brought to the table and the accompanying smaller dishes were filled. Gelatin molds of every shape were also served. Both of these dishes were much appreciated after such a heavy repast. THE TWELVETH COURSE: FRUIT, NUTS AND CHEESE Fresh fruit were brought to the table in fruit stands or comports. These were to be served on specialty plates. Nuts would have been placed in individual nut cups at each place setting. Various types of cheese, such as Stilton, would have been brought to the table in a cheese container. THE THIRTEENTH COURSE: COFFEE AND PETIT FOURS After dinner coffee, also called Turkish coffee was more of an espresso and served in small cups with hot frothed milk. Petit fours and bonbons might have also been served at this time. Officially this was the last course and the ladies would of adjourned to the parlor for tea and pastries while the men would stay in the dining room with brandy and cigars. THE FOURTEENTH COURSE: SAVORIES This was an optional course though many food critics of the late 1800’s felt it unnecessary. A savory consisted of a small bite-sized morsel wrapped in pastry. It might of also have been small bits of seafood. Cheese and ham custards were also often served. THE FIFTEENTH COURSE: A FRESH RELAY OF FINGER BOWLS, WATER AND NAPKINS Techniquely a course involves food though this is often listed as the finale of a formal dinner. Although a diner was never allowed to have their fingers come in contact with food, one often felt the need to cleanse ones fingers after a meal. This course in still in favour at such places as Royal Palaces in the United Kingdom and the White House in Washington DC.