My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 6 – Meals, Menus and Table Decorations

Illustration 116 of a dinner setting for 6 people
This illustration #116 shows the more modest table arrangements of a smaller dinner for six people.

As we move into the thick of summer – and maybe some relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions – our thoughts start to turn to gathering with family and friends and perhaps some special menus. This month we skip to chapter 64-66 of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management where we get advice on Meals and their Importance and Arrangement, Table Decoration, Serviettes, and Menu Making – all the things we will need to plan any special occasion or even just the every day home cooked meal. Mrs. Beeton tells us that “one of the chief considerations of life is, or ought to be, the food we eat, for our physical well-being depends mainly on diet.” (page 1676)

Mrs. Beeton compliments the French “modern” chefs who “raised cooking to a fine art, but their influence in the direction of refinement and elegance eliminated much that was gross in the English mode of living.” One of these chefs – Charles Francatelli – was a very strong advocate of simplicity in both cooking and presentation. His influence was partially the reason for dinner served “a la Russe” or in the Russian style, where the table is only set with decoration and sometimes dessert, and all the rest of the dishes are served from the sideboard individually by the servants. Of course, Mrs. Beeton does remind us that “this style of dining is only adopted in households where a sufficient number of servants are available to hand the food around. She goes on to say that “there are still a few old fashioned people who prefer the older custom of having all the dishes placed on the table, and of course this custom must always prevail in lower middle-class households, but it is almost generally agreed that it is much more artistic and agreeable to have nothing displayed but fruit and flowers, however simple and inexpensive these may be. Pleasant and appropriate surroundings contribute largely to the enjoyment of a meal, and as our meals, whether elaborate or simple, are an important item in the sum total of domestic happiness, the greatest possible care should be bestowed on their preparation and service.” (page 1677)

To that end, she goes on to speak at length about table arrangements and meal arrangements. Since we are just past the July holiday weekend for both Canadian and American readers, let’s take a quick look at what our domestic goddess has to say about picnics – a holiday staple! Of primary importance to a good picnic, unsurprisingly, is that the right people need to be present. She says: “provided care has been taken in choosing congenial guests, and that in a mixed party one sex does not preponderate, a well-arranged picnic is one of the pleasantest forms of entertainment.”

Our picnic planners are warned to be careful not too provide too much of one dish or two little of another (as any potluck planner has also learned!). Also, an important consideration is not to forget the condiments – don’t serve salad and forget the dressing or lamb without the mint sauce, or as many have found, wine without taking a corkscrew.

Of course our well planned household manager is also reminded that the best way to have the best time in any occasion – including a picnic – is to make a menu and ensure it includes lists of all the small details you don’t want to forget. Mrs. Beeton includes a list of all the items that are required of any self-respecting picnic: wines, bottled beer, soda-water, lemonade, plates, knives, forks, spoons, glasses, tumblers, tablecloths, serviettes, glass cloths, pepper, cayenne, salt, mustard, oil, vinegar, castor sugar, corkscrews and champagne opener, and a chafing dish and accessories are a useful addition to any picnic. This is a significant list and the Victorians and Edwardians had invented many carriers, baskets, and kitchen implements specially designed for use outdoors and for portability. Picnics were incredibly popular social occasions through the 19th and early 20th centuries and continue to remain popular today.

Mrs. Beeton closes out the chapter on meals with instructions for servants and how to wait at table – one more example of this book being aimed at the upwardly mobile families who may not have had previous experience of servants in their households.

With all this information about meals and the importance of taking them seriously, of course there is also a chapter on table decoration. About this, Mrs. Beeton says: “Hostesses in the season vie with each other as to whose table shall be the most elegant, and often spend almost as much upon the flowers as upon the dinner itself, employing for the floral arrangement people who make a profession of this pleasant occupation. Home decoration is practiced by those who have the time, and we can imagine no household duty more attractive to the ladies of the house than that of making their tables beautiful with the exquisite floral produce of the different seasons, exercising their taste in devising new ways for employing the materials at their command.” (page 1695) Mrs. Beeton recommends flowers as decorations as your budget allows, which could include some of the most expensive hot-house flowers or the more economical wild flowers in season. Table decorations must also be appropriate to the occasion and the ordinary family dinner has different requirements from the wedding breakfast which will often include the bridal bouquet.

And the cap to setting a good table is of course the linens and most specifically the serviettes or napkins. Cloth napkins are de-rigeur and are essential for every occasion. In ordinary family use, they are often folded smoothly and slipped through napkin rings made of silver, ivory or bone; in fact, after the first use this is usually done, each member of the family having their own marked ring.

The chapter on napkins is essentially a how-to lesson on the folding of the napkin. In origami-like fashion, the folded napkins add that extra flair to the well-appointed table. This chapter includes 17 pages of instructions from the easy fan-style fold to the very complicated slipper style. Many of the napkin folds are designed for a place for the bun to sit on the table setting, or provide some height and flair to the water glass which might be used to hold the fan shape or the flower designs. Seen here are a couple of examples of the most popular napkin folds, as recommended by Mrs. Beeton. Give them a try and see if you can improve the look of the table for your next occasion!

Next month, we will take a look at menu planning and a few examples of sample menus for the use of our new household manager.

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services / Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and a proud owner of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

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The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, located next to Lock 3 of the historic Welland Canal, is a leading local history museum and community gathering place, engaging visitors and building relationships with partners, while demonstrating curatorial leadership and innovative programming and exhibits. The St. Catharines Museum is dedicated to engaging visitors in the celebration of our local stories and the cultural identity and history of the City. We are a community resource that interprets, exhibits, researches, acquires, and preserves material culture and stories of St. Catharines.

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