My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 8 – Carving at Table

As we approach Canadian Thanksgiving, we look to Mrs. Beeton to provide us some helpful advice on an important part of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner – how to carve the bird!

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the head of the household would be responsible for carving the meat in front of their guests and serving to those seated around the table. It is not unusual then that Mrs. Beeton devotes chapter 39 to the Art of Carving at Table.

About carving at the table Mrs. Beeton begins by saying this: “To carve well is a graceful combination of science with art, and your true carver would carve symmetrically as well as economically event were he put into the position of dividing a suckling pig between two. Considering how important and useful an accomplishment it is, one is astounded that more people do not make an effort to carve at least passably.”

Mrs. Beeton attributes the dearth of good carvers to the carvers themselves having a high opinion of their own skills even without a concerted effort to take the time to learn the skill. She goes on to lament that:

“How often, too, does one come across the man who grumbles at the cook when the real fault lies with him who cut the food! The greater number of those who dine in a first-rate restaurant and are pleased to pose as gourmets never in this respect appear willing to learn by experience or example, but quietly turn to their neighbour, and discuss the latest news, the weather, and their personal affairs, while the maitre d’hotel is giving an example of an art the acquisition of which had cost him the study of a lifetime and contains perhaps the secret of a great gastronomic success.”

We are told in this chapter of the perils of remaining ignorant of the way to carve any type of meat – the meat is ruined and may not then be enough to feed the gathered group – the biggest fear of all hosts / hostesses.

“Truly the case of the man who is entirely ignorant of carving is parlous. We have all seen him, offering in an emergency to assist his hostess and trying by mere physical force to overcome his lack of skill; with red face and perspiring forehead he hacks and tugs at the dish in front of him, and at every attempt the veins stand out more prominently in is head, while the face of his hostess grows graver, each moment as she begins to realize the appalling fact that the dish will not go round.Hopelessly at sea, he shamefully mangles and hacks the joint or bird before him, serving slices ragged and torn, and accomplishing even this result so slowly that the dish is cold long before he has finished. And all this time, his agony – especially if he be of a nervous temperament – is terrible to contemplate, and the inconvenience to those who witness it distressing in the extreme.”

Mrs. Beeton goes on to then speak to the benefits of a good carver who it is said can get the best taste from the dish by virtue of taking advantage of the cuts of the meat. She says “your true artist cuts in such a way that every piece which he serves is sightly and palatable and does not contain a disproportionately large amount of fat.”

So how does a host/hostess learn to become a master carver? Mrs. Beeton suggests that they should start with learning the anatomy of the animal, then practice carving as much as possible, then just as importantly, make sure to have the right tools – including a very sharp knife. She goes on to say that a deft hand and slight pressure will get the best results. One other thing for the aspiring carver to know is that fish should never be carved with a steel knife as this will spoil the meat. Fish, she says, should be divided using a silver or plated fish slicer and fork. This essentially looks like a cross between a pie slicer and a knife.

After her warning of the perils of poor carving, Mrs. Beeton then provides 9 pages of instructions on how to carve a variety of different cuts of meat and fish. In this chapter she has also included accompanying images of the meats being carved. Here is an example of how these instructions read:

Roast Duck (carving illustration No. 9 Fig.3)
No dishes require so much knowledge and skill in carving as game and poultry, for it is necessary to be well-acquainted with the anatomy of the bird and animal in order to place the knife at exactly the proper point. A young duck or duckling is carved in the same manner as a chicken. First remove the wings, then the breast should be cut off the bone in one slice or several slices if very plump. The legs are next removed and divided at the joints; and unless a contrary request has been made by the person for whom the portion is intended, the foot and the bone to which it is attached, should be cut off before serving. When stuffing has been introduced, the skin should be cut across and the farce scooped out with a spoon. As to the prime parts of the duck, the wings of a flyer and the legs of the swimmer are generally considered the best portions.

Illustration No. 9 of Carving a Roast Turkey and Roast Duck p. 1270a

For our modern aspiring carvers, before you decide to take your sharpened knife to your Thanksgiving turkey, I recommend taking some time to watch the 1993 historical drama – Age of Innocence – directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. This adaptation of the Edith Warton book about Gilded Age New York is a visual masterpiece and there are a few scenes where an anonymous butler is carving different joints of meat as the main characters enjoy multi-course meals similar to those enjoyed by turn of the century diners in upper-class New York society. These are the skills that Mrs. Beeton is recommending her readers cultivate in order to become the highest quality hostesses.

Good luck as you practice your carving skills in the next few weeks!

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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