The Waiterless Dinner Party

This is the first article in January of the School for Housewives 1910 series published on January 2, 1910, and touches on what a family can do during a dinner party when the are “servantless.”

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Waiterless Dinner Party

MY ATTENTION has been drawn of late to the large number of what we are in the habit of calling “really nice” people who are servantless. I do not mean now those I have spoke of several times as “the half-way poor,” borrowing the phrase from a magazine article. Still less do I refer to “reduced” families who are compelled to retrench even painfully in the style of living to which they were accustomed in bygone days. There are settled all over prosperous and well-kept neighborhood families in easy circumstances that cannot command skilled domestic labor. Spacious and well-appointed dwellings in the fringe of handsome suburban towns are kept in perfect order, and the domestic machinery is run the year round with no “hired help.” The washing is put out or a laundress comes for a couple of das per week to get that part of the work out of the way. For the rest, mother and daughters are responsible. I know dozens of such homes. So smooth is the action of the machine of daily living that the deficiency in the matter of servants is hardly perceptible to the casual visitor. It is only when the refined women who have reduced housewifery to a fine art would receive friends in more ceremonious fashion than in the afternoon call and informal dropping in to tea or luncheon that there is a jar in the aforesaid machinery.

It irks me to accept invitations to luncheons and dinners when I cannot reciprocate the courtesy in kind,” said one frank-spoken matron to me. “And my girls feel it even more keenly. Let me tell you what nearly killed poor Eleanor last week. Mrs. Welmar, our German laundress, has proved so obliging and capable in her own line that my daughters were ready to believe that she could follow their directions n playing waitress at a small dinner party they felt constrained to give fore some southern visitors in the neighborhood. They are charming people, and my girls received much hospitality from them while they were in Charleston last winter.

“The good soul is not ill-looking, and she was ready to sport cap and apron, and to learn all the young ladies would teach her about the business of the table. They drilled her faithfully, and were satisfied with the result of the rehearsal.

“Well, the company assembled and were got to the table in good form. The first three courses were served and removed without misadventure. When Mrs. Weimar saw us fall to work upon the piece de resistance, she apparently counted upon a period of comparative inaction Whereupon she seated herself upon a chair in one corner of the dining room, keeping us well in sight in case she should be needed, and fanned herself beamingly with her apron.”

It was, as I agreed wit the narrator, very dreadful. We likewise agreed that it was convulsively funny—to an outsider.

“You see,” concluded my friend, “it was impossible to foresee the faux pas. Consequently, none of us had warned the pro tempore waitress not to sit down in a rocking chair and fan herself while smiling upon us and wiping her heated face. I don’t mind doing the housework. We three have systematized it until it is not burdensome. You would be amazed to see how much spare time we have. The wonder grows how hirelings contrive to be always busy over what we get out of the way in one-tenth of the time they devote to it. I do mind having no waitress or butler. It is the one drawback to suburban life.”

Without Apology.

Yet I visit households where visitors are freely entertained at dinners and afternoon teas and luncheons. With gay insouciance (I would not use the French word if we had a synonym in English) the situation is explained in a few words to the guests. After that no apologies are made. The business of the meal goes on without comment upon the fact that one of the young ladies of the family rises from the table and glides quietly around the board, making the necessary changes in far less time than a trained hireling would do the same. Talk flows more freely for the absence of an alien element, and while not one jet or tittle of gracious ceremony is omitted, there is a pervasive tone of “jolly,” good fellowship which is wanting from the conventional repast.

I have said that my mind has been drawn to this subject much of late. Thought is concentrated upon it today by the receipt of a letter which may be taken as the spinal cord of my Talk.

Like many of our most suggestive communications, it comes from California:

“My sister and myself have lived in a mining camp since we were children. Now that we are back in civilization we find ourselves woefully ignorant of many things we ought to know. We should like to entertain a few friends at dinner. Please tell us how to serve the meal as simply as possible, yet nicely.

“1. Should my sister and myself or our mother wait on the table?

“2. Where is the serving table placed and what is put on it?

“3. When is salad served, and may coffee be passed with the dinner?

“4. Are vegetables put into small individual dishes?

“5. Are butter knives used at all?

“6. Our father is not with us, so who should do the carving?

“All this may sound very childish, but it means much to us. Maybe it will help others who know no more than we do.”

Two California Girls.

And there are hundreds of others. I am thinking of them as well as of you while I try to answer your frank queries.

1. Unless you have a regular waitress or a maid-of-all work who can change courses and pass dishes it would be well for one of your girls to perform this office. Not your mother! She should not rise from the table during the meal. At the conclusion of each course one of the daughters should rise quietly and remove the plates and the dishes from the table. Do not pile them upon one another. Have near at hand a large tray covered with a napkin to which you transfer the plates as you remove them. When all are upon it, lift the tray and carry it into the kitchen. Bring back the next course upon the same tray. Set it upon the side table and take the plates in order from it, setting them before the guests. A little practice and presence of mind will enable you to do this quietly and swiftly without breaking in upon the conversation or attracting attention to yourself. Perhaps it wold be well for the sisters to take turns in the task. If both leave the table at once it will disturb the orderly course of the meal.

2. The service table is at a convenient distance from the kitchen and from the dining table. Upon it are arranged dishes that do not need to be served hot, such as plates of bread and cakes, fruit plates, cruets of vinegar and oil, salad plates and finger bowls, each set upon a doily upon a dessert plate and half filled with water.

The use of the large tray obviates the necessity for other use of the service table.

3. The salad comes between the meat and the sweets. Keep it upon the ice or in a cold place until you have set the plates for it upon the table, one before each eater, and the crackers and cheese in place.

4. The distinctively American practice of serving vegetables in what an amused foreigner called “bird baths” has (happily) been discontinued, except in fourth-class boarding houses and back-country hotels. Since you have no waitress, do not affect the style of those whose daily dinners are served “a la Russe,” from the service table and kitchen. Set the dish or meat (the piece de resistance) at the foot of the table, where it will be serve by yourself or your sister, your mother having the head of the board. Set the dishes of vegetables also upon the table, as was done by your grandmother, and twenty-five years later in thousands of homes. Set before your mother the other dishes where she can reach them easily. Thackeray maintained to the end of his days that the fashion of setting all the dishes of a course upon the cloth at once was far more comfortable than the present custom. He said that his meat got cold before he could be helped to a potato, and he had reason and common sense on his side.

5. Butter knives are laid upon the bread-and-butter plates set at the left of the larger plate. I may observe here that capricious fashion frowns upon the introduction of the butter pat or ball into the dinner menu. It is contended that well-seasoned dishes require no addition of condiment or “savory.” All the same, have your butter plates. Lay upon each a slice of bread and a bit of butter beside the butter knife.

6. By all means carve the meat in the kitchen before the meat is served. If it be lamb or beef or other piece of “butcher’s meat,” slice neatly and lay the slices back in place, keeping the original form of the roast. Do the like with poultry, putting the dismembered sections into comely shape. This plan saves time and trouble in serving.

May I add some hints as to the arrangement of the table?

The Nice Touches.

Your cloth should be the prettiest you have in damask and glossy from the iron. If you have tasteful centerpieces, embroidered or in drawnwork, select the daintiest for the middle of the table. Upon it should stand a low bowl or vase of cut flowers, or a pot containing a growing plant. If the pot be a plain crockery, cover with crimped tissue paper bound into place with ribbons. If you have a single bud and leaf laid beside each plate, with a pin thrust into the stem by which the boutonniere may be pinned upon the front of the woman’s gown or fastened in a man’s buttonhole, you introduce an added touch of graceful welcome. Set dainty dishes of bonbons and salted nuts within reach of all. Also celery and salt and pepper. A folded napkin lies upon what is known as “the service plate,” unless this be occupied by an “appetizer,” such as grapefruit, raw oysters, oyster cocktails or the like, in which case it is laid at the right of the plate. Between it and the plate are arranged the knives that will be required for the different courses, the first to be used lying furthest on the right. The left of the service plate is flanked by the forks arranged in like order. The soupspoon lies at the back of the plate. If the dessert is to be eaten with spoons, one is placed beyond the soupspoon. A glass of water is at the right hand. It is well to have carafes or pitches of iced water on the table when there is no water to replenish glasses from the sideboard. Make it the business of one of the amateur waitresses (Query: May they be styled “footwomen”?) to watch the glasses and fill them quietly without remark. A plate of reserved bread should also be at hand.

Small cups of black coffee follow the guests to the drawing room. Sugar goes in with them. Never cream! It is a gastronomic solecism to cream a demitasse of black coffee. Its specific work is to assist digestion. If clogged with cream it loses its effect.

I have outlined the order of a simple meal that may be made elegant by the exercise of just taste, thorough breeding and fact.

A popular and deplorable error is to confound simplicity and rudeness—rudeness in the sense of primitive methods and homely accessories.

Some one has said that it is a woman’s duty always and everywhere to look her prettiest. There are refining influences in making the everyday life, from which we cannot escape as comely as we can with the materials nearest our hands. All summer long I encourage my servants to keep flowers upon the kitchen table. I fancy that they are more punctilious in the matter of clean tablecloths for the habit. A tumbled or a spotted cloth is shamed by the fresh blossoms.

To sum up our argument: Elegance is not contingent upon wealth and is never allied to pretension.

“To thine own self be true.”

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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