How to host a (Neo-) Formal Dinner

There's really no reason to know how to host a formal dinner these days...but there's no reason to know how to ballroom dance, play bridge or own a set of proper evening clothes. That is, you really can live life without these things...until somehow you need to know, and then, you're stuck.

Fashion tends to play these cruel tricks, now and then. Just when you thought that coming-out parties (OK, you can stop smirking now) were a thing of the past, something you read about in history books that involved Peter Duchin, court bowing and the Gold Room of the Plaza Hotel, hey presto, every little slip of a girl suddenly dreams of a Sweet 16 party (or coming-of-age ritual of your choice and ethnicity) with a hired hall, live music, some kind of ostentatious vehicle, and general who-knows-what. It seems inconcievable now but even weddings had their period of decline in the Seventies, when every right-minded woman either wanted to get married in some kind of countercultural fertility ritual, at the City Hall, or not at all. Nowadays...

What happens then is that everyone rushes to try to write their own parts for a play no one really remembers, but everyone is sure they've seen. For example, look at the vast variety of haberdashery that passes for black tie at any current awards show, versus that shown in footage of any of the Academy Awards dinners of the Thirties or Forties. Even though most of the actors of classic Hollywood were by no means to the manner born, they moved with the confidence and comfort of the Duke of Windsor wearing silk pyjamas, no matter whether they were Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum. Nowadays, there are people who try to impress (with large amounts of jewelry and overpriced sportswear), men who try to be suave (with business suits) and men who try to be Post Modern (which means traditional, but ironic), which means that they might wear almost any combination of white and black tie components, either real or faux, with the dependable T-shirt and jeans as filler. All of these men look neither confident, nor comfortable. Instead, everyone looks nervous: is this right? is it enough? is it too much? (Maybe wearing tight jeans is a bad idea when you're spending the evening sitting down? Maybe they were on to something with braces?)

Now that ballroom dancing (on TV, at least) has become a popular spectator sport, and playing bridge seems to be looming on the horizon, can formal dining be far behind?

During the Gilded Age, an average dinner party in your humble Fifth Avenue mansion or Newport cottage would generally be for thirty-four guests, plus yourself and loving wife. There would be fourteen courses, plus oysters, side dishes (what we'd call relishes today), bread and "dessert" (fruit and cheese). There would also be reception beverages (what we'd call "cocktails") beforehand, liquor in the dining room (after dinner, when the menfolk had the table to themselves) and coffee and tea in the drawing room later, with everyone reassembled. You also needed at least one cook, one butler, one carver, eight footmen to act as waiters, one of those long tables (with chairs, etc.) that old Hollywood movies loved to make fun of, huge amounts of silver, crystal, china, and linen, and numberless other details (seating charts, anyone?). While this kind of thing is all right for historical re-enactors and Titanic freaks, this is impractical for almost anyone else, though reports of New York Society having such feasts surface now and then. However, there is an out. For fewer people, suggests my source, serve not only less food, but fewer courses. This is an authentic menu from 1893 for six to eight people:

  1. Oysters or clams (with olives, celery sticks, and radishes)
  2. Soup (clear or cream)
  3. Fish with potatoes, hollandaise or cucumber
  4. either 2 entrees (grilled/fried small meat/poultry dishes) with vegetables (we're talking small portions here)
    or
    one entree with Roman Punch (a tart or otherwise non-sweet sorbet) as a refresher.
  5. Roast (small game birds, poultry, beef) with salad.
  6. A hot sweet.
  7. Ice cream, cake, candy, fruit and/or cheese (it's a nice touch to have the room-temperature sweets on display on a side table)
Yeah, it's still a lot of food, and you're right, the beef should (in most minds today) go after the bird. Although Roman Punch was dropped during the First World War (in New York Society at least), along with "hot sweets" (pudding, omelets, or souffle), it makes sense to include it if you have two hot proteins in succession. While oysters or clams were de rigeur a hundred years ago, hors d'oeuvres might take their place. Fish can be hot or cold (which takes some pressure off the cook), and although I might get stripped of my Brownie badge to say so, I kind of like the idea of cold pate with salad in place of a roast, if you're going to have a filet mignon or other meaty dish, as an entree. (In which case, omit the sherbet.) As an alternative to a second entree, you might like to serve hot artichokes, asparagus, or hot greens on toast, with a bit of Hollandaise sauce. Although they sound like a great idea, "amuse-gueule" courses just aren't formal -- and if you don't believe me, look up what "gueule" means in French.

Another out is to mix French and Russian services to get a nice hybrid, which means to put the hors d'oeuvres, fish (on a platter or chafing dish), and suchlike on the table all at once, and serve the soup hot. Clear the table after the fish, put the platters of entrees on the table, serve sorbet from an insulated container on a side table, clear again after the roast. Most etiquette books say that this is impractical (most diners serve themselves) for large numbers of people, but for anything less than say, a dozen diners, you're probably pretty safe.

Seating is supposed to by boy-girl-boy-girl (the so-called "Noah's Ark" seating) with married (or other SO's) broken up and the host and hostess on either end. (No, they don't sit that way when they're alone at home. At family meals, she sits at his right side, or they make the table smaller...) Conversation proceeds with each person speaking only to their right-hand partner, "turning the table" with the Roman Punch, at which point, you speak to someone on the other side. At the end of the dinner, coffee and/or tea is served in the drawing room for the ladies, and after-dinner drinks, cigars, and nuts are served at the table for the menfolk, who, after a respectful interval, go up to join the ladies. (This is less sexist than to keep people from hogging their second-half companion's interest -- there is a limit, you know.)

After dinner, general conversation (either in couples, or in small groups) resumes, and it's a nice touch to have cards or other amusements on the agenda, from which the guest can choose their interest. Orangeade and/or sparkling waters should also be on hand after the coffee cups are taken up. Finally, after about an hour or two, warm or cold soup is offered, signalling everyone to go home. (Although I don't like to seem too "restauranty", I like the idea of offering a small favor bag -- either salted nuts, hard candies, mints, or a tiny portion of fancy granola -- as a parting gift, if soup doesn't seem in order.)

And to bed!

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