In giving "dinners," the apparently trifling details are of great importance when taken as a whole.
We gather around our board agreeable persons, and they pay us and our dinner the courtesy of dressing for the occasion, and this reunion should be a time of profit as well as pleasure. There are certain established laws by which "dinner giving" is regulated in polite society; and it may not be amiss to give a few observances in relation to them. One of the first is that an invited guest should arrive at the house of his host at least a quarter of an hour before the time appointed for dinner. In laying the table for dinner all the linen should be a spotless white throughout, and underneath the linen tablecloth should be spread one of thick cotton-flannel or baize, which gives the linen a heavier and finer appearance, also deadening the sound of moving dishes. Large and neatly folded napkins (ironed without starch), with pieces of bread three or four inches long, placed between the folds, but not to completely conceal it, are laid on each plate. An ornamental centre-piece, or a vase filled with a few rare flowers, is put on the centre of the table, in place of the large table-castor, which has gone into disuse, and is rarely seen now on well-appointed tables. A few choice flowers make a charming variety in the appearance of even the most simply laid table, and a pleasing variety at table is quite as essential to the enjoyment of the repast as is a good choice of dishes, for the eye in fact should be gratified as much as the palate.
All dishes should be arranged in harmony with the decorations of the flowers, such as covers, relishes, confectionery, and small sweets. Garnishing of dishes has also a great deal to do with the appearance of a dinner-table, each dish garnished sufficiently to be in good taste without looking absurd.
Beside each plate should be laid as many knives, forks and spoons as will be required for the several courses, unless the hostess prefers to have them brought on with each change. A glass of water, and when wine is served glasses for it, and individual salt-cellars may be placed at every plate. Water-bottles are now much in vogue with corresponding tumblers to cover them; these, accompanied with dishes of broken ice, may be arranged in suitable places. When butter is served a special knife is used, and that, with all other required service, may be left to the judgment and taste of the hostess, in the proper placing of the various aids to her guests' comfort.
The dessert plates should be set ready, each with a doily and a finger-glass partly filled with water, in which is dropped a slice of lemon; these with extra knives, forks and spoons, should be on the side-board ready to be placed beside the guest between the courses when required.
If preferred, the "dinner" may all be served from the side-table, thus relieving the host from the task of carving. A plate is set before each guest, and the dish carved is presented by the waiter on the left-hand side of each guest. At the end of each course the plates give way for those of the next. If not served from the side-table, the dishes are brought in ready carved, and placed before the host and hostess, then served and placed upon the waiter's salver, to be laid by that attendant before the guest.
Soup and fish being the first course, plates of soup are usually placed on the table before the dinner is announced; or if the hostess wishes the soup served at the table, the soup-tureen, containing hot soup, and the warm soup-plates are placed before the seat of the hostess. Soup and fish being disposed of, then come the joints or roasts, entrees (made dishes), poultry, etc., also relishes.
After dishes have been passed that are required no more, such as vegetables, hot sauces, etc., the dishes containing them may be set upon the side-board, ready to be taken away.
Jellies and sauces, when not to be eaten as a dessert, should be helped on the dinner-plate, not on a small side dish as was the former usage.
If a dish be on the table, some parts of which are preferred to others, according to the taste of the individuals, all should have the opportunity of choice. The host will simply ask each one if he has any preference for a particular part; if he replies in the negative, you are not to repeat the question, nor insist that he must have a preference.
Do not attempt to eulogize your dishes, or apologize that you cannot recommend them—this is extreme bad taste; as also is the vaunting of the excellence of your wines, etc., etc.
Do not insist upon your guests partaking of particular dishes. Do not ask persons more than once, and never force a supply upon their plates. It is ill-bred, though common, to press any one to eat; and, moreover, it is a great annoyance to many.
In winter, plates should always be warmed, but not made hot. Two kinds of animal food, or two kinds of dessert, should not be eaten off of one plate, and there should never be more than two kinds of vegetables with one course. Asparagus, green corn, cauliflower and raw tomatoes comprise one course in place of a salad. All meats should be cut across the grain in very thin slices. Fish, at dinner, should be baked or boiled, never fried or broiled. Baked ham may be used in every course after fish, sliced thin and handed after the regular course is disposed of.
The hostess should retain her plate, knife and fork, until her guests have finished.
The crumb-brush is not used until the preparation for bringing in the dessert; then all the glasses are removed, except the flowers, the water-tumblers, and the glass of wine which the guest wishes to retain with his dessert. The dessert plate containing the finger-bowl, also a dessert knife and fork, should then be set before each guest, who at once removes the finger-bowl and its doily, and the knife and fork to the table, leaving the plate ready to be used for any dessert chosen.
Finely sifted sugar should always be placed upon the table to be used with puddings, pies, fruit, etc., and if cream is required, let it stand by the dish it is to be served with.
To lay a dessert for a small entertainment and a few guests outside of the family, it may consist simply of two dishes of fresh fruit in season, two of dried fruits and two each of cakes and nuts.
Coffee and tea are served lastly, poured into tiny cups and served clear, passed around on a tray to each guest, then the sugar and cream passed that each person may be allowed to season his black coffee or café noir to suit himself.
A family dinner, even with a few friends, can be made quite attractive and satisfactory without much display or expense; consisting first of good soup, then fish garnished with suitable additions, followed by a roast; then vegetables and some made dishes, a salad, crackers, cheese and olives, then dessert. This sensible meal, well cooked and neatly served, is pleasing to almost any one, and is within the means of any housekeeper in ordinary circumstances.