The Georgian era was a fascinating time for its fashion – clothing became a form of individual expression rather than an indicator of status – and its ghastly monarchs; a succession of Georges.
The French were the most fashionable people in the world, and the British tried to emulate them, even hiring their cooks, who were expected to learn English recipes. Cookbooks were published in large numbers, so cooks were literate and increasingly female. Up until that point all cooks had been men.
The ‘dining room’ was established. Previously all entertaining was done in the largest room in the house. During the eighteenth century the main meal was at 2pm, and then between 5pm and 8pm into the nineteenth century. This meal was referred to as dinner or supper, from the French custom of “souper”. Lunch was a midday meal often called luncheon or nooning.
Entertaining guests was an opportunity to establish one’s class and display wealth. Serving more than one course was a sure sign of status. The majority lived off vegetables, whereas it was a symbol of prestige to serve meat, due to the necessary preparation time for which servants had to be hired. Game birds were limited to land owners as hunting rights were restricted to all except aristocrats who could hunt on their own estates. Even offal was a dish for the wealthy.
No food was wasted and all parts of an animal were eaten, delicacies being the head, brains, tongue and hooves. In fact a hare was often served with its head in tact so that diners would know it was not a cat. Leftovers went to the servants.
Mixing sweet and savoury was common and a traditional English Christmas was beef and plum pudding. Butter, cream, and brandy were essentials of refined Georgian dining.
“Floating island of chocolate’ and ‘drift of snow’ were among many enticingly names deserts of fruits, nuts, ice creams and the occasional cake. The final course was often a palette-cleansing ‘whipt syllabub’; a froth made from whipped cream, sugar, alcohol and lemon or orange juice, served in a little glass and eaten with a small spoon.
One must be able to recognise dishes and know how to serve them. Dishes were placed symmetrically on the table and were contrasting or complementary. Red meats were male, whereas white meats were female, and were positioned at opposite ends of the table. Meals were served like a buffet; the table covered in dishes from which guests could pick and chose.
Matching ceramics were vital, the classiest being Wedgwood. Each dish had its own shape of plate, pointed at the most important person in the room e.g. the head of the hare would face the host. “Flying dishes” were introduced, later to become hors d’oeuvres, which were brought in, eaten, then removed. Food was served covered and warm, not piping hot as it is today. Gobbling down food was frowned upon, although there was a significant rise in obesity among the upper classes.
The dining room was decorated with ornaments that denoted class. The middle classes liked paintings of landscapes and horses. Upper classes preferred portraits of family, ancestors and even the occasional royal.
It was the first time that more than a single knife and fork were laid, and the amount of dining cutlery kept increasing throughout the Victorian era. Two-pronged forks were used until the end of the eighteenth century when three-pronged forks arrived. However, in North America there was hardly a fork in sight, hence the reason that the continent still retains a culture of cutting up all one’s food then eating it with a fork, which would originally have been a spoon.
Men and women were seated alternately, with the master and mistress at the head of the table, usually at opposite ends. The master must carve to assert his status as head of the household. Once the food was served, the servants were dismissed and the master would announce: “Ladies and gentlemen! You see your meal!”. In other words, “Help yourselves!”.