This article will focus mostly on dinners/suppers in the Regency era – each meal of the day (breakfast, tea, dinner, supper) could require an article in and of itself! Because most of our characters will be interacting at dinner, and because dinner followed the most strict etiquette and would be where most of our characters end up socializing, I will focus primarily on that meal.Dining Styles: A la Francais versus A la Russe
To discuss dining in the Regency, we need to talk about dining throughout history. In the 19th century, there were two styles of dining. The first was Service a la Francais
– or, in English, French style. This style is what we would think of as “family style” – all the dishes are on the table, and you pass them. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. The guests and their host and hostess would enter the dining room to find the table set with several dishes elegantly presented and an opulent centerpiece. To start the dinner, the hostess served the soup, and the host served the fish, from their seats. Footmen would deliver the dishes to the guests, once filled. The host also carved all the meat joints, while remaining seated.
Servants would assist in passing dishes. There could be anywhere from four to twenty dishes, depending on the size of one’s table and pocketbook. If you liked one dish, you could take more of that; if you disliked a dish, you did not even have to eat it. A gentleman could pay a compliment to a lady by sending her a choice cutlet via the servants, or having the best tart served to her, thus showing his preference and demonstrating his knowledge of her tastes. (“How romantic! Lord Sneddon saved me the pheasant neck!”)
Each course would last about thirty minutes – it was up to the hostess to pay attention to her guests and make the decision about when to have the next course brought out. After the first course, all the plates would be cleared, the centerpiece removed and the servants would roll up the tablecloth – and yes, this was all done while the guests were still seated and making pretty conversation. Underneath the first tablecloth would be a second tablecloth. The centerpiece would be returned to the table, the places set again with fresh plate, silver, water glass and wine glass, and the next course brought out. The guests would chow down. After that course was done, the centerpiece and dishes were removed, and the second tablecloth rolled up, revealing the lovely polished tabletop. Placemats were laid down, and dessert was served.
Of course, Service a la Francais
took many servants – ideally, there would be a servant for each guest. There was a lot more traveling around the table to serve people. However, the elegance and opulence of the style made it popular. It gave the cook a chance to create lovely presentations – think whole hog’s heads, giant cakes and aspics, and towers of fruit. Also, each guest could eat as much of each dish as they desired.
The other style was Service a la Russe
– Russian style. This is what we think of as the modern “plated dinner” and probably what most of us are familiar with. Fourteen courses was the average size, although they could be as small as 5 (which was the size of a small Sunday luncheon) and were only limited by one’s budget and time. Each place would be set when the diners entered the dining room, with all the necessary flatware and glasses laid out for each diner (yes, fourteen forks and yes, fourteen wine glasses) and a service plate (what we call a “charger” today). There would still be beautiful centerpieces in the middle of the table. Once the diners were seated, the servants would bring out each course individually plated. Each course would be about ten minutes. Though there were a large number of courses; each was very small, so the portions were highly controlled.
Invariably, our characters would be using Service a la Francais
. Service a la Russe
would not come into style until later, and was considered very avant-garde, so our characters can expect to eat two large courses of anywhere between four and (in the most opulent and wealthiest houses) twenty dishes, with a dessert course to follow. The Order of Service
Guests would arrive and be shown into the drawing room, where they would gather beforehand and wait for everyone to arrive. Once all the guests were arrived, the host would offer his arm to either the lady he most wished to honor (for example, at a dinner in honor of Belle’s debut, she would take the host’s arm) or the highest ranking lady, and seat her next to him at the head of the table. The hostess would come last, escorted by either the husband of the lady seated with the host, or the highest ranking gentleman, and seat herself at the foot. The idea of “dinner partners” and assigned seating was a very new concept – guests would know who sat where by order of precedence, and would enter the dining room in a sort of “polite mob”, to quote one source, and seated themselves wherever they desired. As a general rule, husbands and wives did not sit together, and hostesses did not seat them next to each other; as in the ballroom, the idea was that one got to see enough of one’s spouse at home, and ought to mingle with others instead.
The gentlemen were responsible for those ladies near them. When dining with service a la Francais
, this meant paying attention to which dishes your companion particularly enjoyed, and helping her to them. It was also the responsibility of the men to come up with suitable topics for discussion, and engage the ladies in them.
After dinner, the ladies would retire to the drawing room to enjoy conversation and company; the gentlemen would stay in the dining room for cigars and port. This was not universal
- the alternative was for everyone to stay in the dining room, and retire together to the drawing room afterwards. It was up to the hostess which she preferred, and the guests would follow suit. If the ladies retired, they usually went to a drawing room and engaged in polite conversation. Sometimes a lady would play the piano, or a game might be played. The gentlemen would later rejoin the ladies for parlor games, music and amusements.The Dishes Served
When one says “5 to 25 dishes”, one means exactly that. In each course, there would be as many dishes as possible. In a time when food was difficult to preserve, and exotic food was vastly expensive, lavish dinners were a great way to show off one’s wealth.
The first course always included soup and fish. Often, there would be more than one choice for each. The hostess served the soup, and the host served the fish. The host also carved all the meat joints, while remaining seated. There would be other dishes as well, and unlike service a la Russe
, there was no one prescribed dish per course. One could find meat, poultry, vegetables, and starches all on the table at the same time, although the second course tended to be lighter than the first. The exception would be the last course – the dessert course. This was reserved for fruits, nuts, candies, biscuits and little cakes. In the grandest houses, there would be elaborate spun or molded sugar statues and ornaments, and sometimes the centerpiece of the table was even edible, made from sugar or towers of candies.
Sometimes, in menus, you will see the word “removed”, such as “glazed onions removed by roast porkchops”. This means that the glazed onions were presented first on the table; then, halfway through the course (or whenever they were gobbled up), they were removed from the table, and that place was taken over by a dish of roast porkchops. This was a way to get as many dishes on the table as possible (yes, THAT is how you find space for 25 dishes!), provide extra food for those who might be peckish after the onions are gone, and provide some variety – if you don’t like the onions, just wait a little while and something different will come along.
Any good hostess worth her weight in the Ton would try and make her dinner something special. Just because everyone likes a good ham doesn’t mean you should serve it – this is the opportunity to cause some waves by serving something unique! Just as balls could be themed, dinners could be themed as well, by giving fancy names to dishes (perhaps a patriotic, military theme, with Waterloo Capers and Trafalgar Ham). The opportunity could be used to introduce brand new dishes from the imagination of one’s cook – although if your character’s chef is going to introduce something new, make sure it is plausible (often, it could just be a recipe with a small twist).Dinner vs. Supper – the terminology
Another important topic is the difference between dinner and supper. The difference between dinner and supper lies in their respective definitions. Dinner, according to the dictionary, is “the main meal of the day”, whereas supper is “a light meal eaten in the evening.” When you ate which depended upon your place in life. Those who needed a heavy meal in the middle of the day (laborers and farmers) ate dinner around noon. However, our characters would not need a heavy meal during the middle of the day. They rose late, had a full breakfast, ate a small luncheon if they desired a sit-down meal, and often had a snack break at tea time. For them, dinner usually meant a meal in the early evening hours – sometime between 4 and 8. If they ate dinner at around 6 or 7 pm, they could still go to a soiree, the theater, or a dancing party, and would probably feel a bit hungry afterwards. So they would have supper at the end of the evening – late, usually around midnight. Supper was often cold roast joints, cheeses and biscuits, rolls, pastries, cakes, jellies, pickles – in short, finger foods to nibble on. If at a ball, this would be served around midnight; at a soiree, hostesses might have servants set out supper at the end of the evening before guests went home. One could have servants make sure there was a supper laid out after one returned from an evening at the theater. It varied widely by household and by the occasion; your characters will simply have to decide that as their schedule allows. The only rule is that supper was NOT a replacement for dinner.
If your character is hosting a dinner, it should be held some time between 5 and 8 – later hours were more fashionable, so realistically dinner should be between 7 and 8. If your characters are hosting a soiree that does not include dinner, it should be held after those times. If your characters are hosting a soiree that includes supper, that should be served closer to midnight.The Buffet Table
The last style of service to consider would be a “standing buffet” or “standing supper”. This is NOT the buffet we are used to, where a whole dinner is set out and the guests simply serve themselves. A hostess who did such a thing would be laughed out of society – who would be cheap enough to forgo all the fanfare of a formal dinner, while still serving the same dishes? Was she too poor to afford enough servants for a proper dinner?
A standing buffet would be supper fare, served on a sideboard or in a separate room from the other entertainments going on. The key word is standing – everyone would stand to eat. There would be no tables at which to sit, perhaps a few chairs set out for the elderly or infirm, but most were expected to stand around, mingle and make conversation, while nibbling on light fare. If a buffet is served, it is NOT served in place of a dinner; it is usually served because whatever else is going on at the time (a soiree, parlor games, musical entertainment) is later in the evening, after the guests have had dinner, and the hostess does not want her guests to feel peckish. Other hints on etiquette/points of review:
Gentlemen could tuck their napkins into their collars. Ladies could not.
Food was not to be delivered to the mouth by using the knife – this is actually mentioned in many etiquette books, which means that people probably did it anyway.
Dress for a formal dinner was on the same level of ballroom attire – but not the same style. A dinner dress could be quite different than a ball gown, because of their different uses, but would be just as opulent.
Gentlemen could make lengthy toasts – and toasts in response to each others’ toasts. If your character is going to toast, do some research – it’s not just a lifted glass and a “To the Navy!”.
Dinner was the largest and most fashionable meal of the day. It could be served as early as 4 pm, while the more fashionable would eat as late as 8 pm.
No one is required to try everything on the table! It was perfectly acceptable to eat just the 2 or 3 dishes within reach.
Several articles on dining in the Regencyhttp://quikonnex.com/channel/item/34050
Good overview of the logistics of dinner and supperhttp://regencyfashion.org/dress/dinn.html
Examples of dinner dresses – note the differences between dinner dresses and ball gownshttp://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbo...oks/book_03.cfm
An American cookbook of the period, but very similar to English cookbooks. Check Google Books and use the time limits on the advanced search option to search for cookbooks.http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/category/regency-food/
Posts on the Jane Austen’s World blog about in-depth dining and food topics.http://www.reg-ency.com