“A Western banquet,” says the narrator of Anthony Burgess’s novel Earthly Powers (1980), “recapitulates the history of the earth from primal broth through sea beasts to land predators and flying creatures and ends with evidence of human culture in cheese and artful puddings.” The German Romantic poet Novalis felt that the course of dinner was like a human lifetime—“The dinner itself is, like life, a curve: it starts off with the lightest courses, then rises to the heavier, and concludes with light courses again.” “The full Tuscan dinner,” according to N. Newnham-Davis, “does not follow in the order of fish, entrée, roast, piêce de résistance and game, but of boiled (lesso), fried (fritto), stewed (umido), and roast (arrosto). Fish, for example, might be found under all four headings.” Such perceptions of the nature of dinner—it is always a “full” or formal or “proper” dinner which is meant—show us how fundamental to a meal is a sense that it evolves and progresses in an orderly fashion, tells a tale, symbolizes life, society, the cosmos, Paradise. A well-planned meal must contrive to provide variety, contrast, and completeness, to range from liquid to solid, cold to hot, and through all the flavours from savoury to sweet.
The “plot” of the meal can vary enormously from culture to culture. We have only to recall that a Chinese banquet often begins with fruit and ends with soup; there may or may not be dessert in the middle—but not at the end—of the meal; and conversation tends to take place before eating begins, rather than during the chewing or after the meal is over, when the Chinese feel that everyone is too replete to start discussing business or the meaning of life. We shall look first at fully fledged feasts as they have evolved in our own immediate past. One of the purposes of feasts is to dwell on ritual, including the order of the proceedings. Deliberately “non-ritual” meals are discussed later.
The programme for a feast goes by the French name, menu, which derives from the Latin minor or minutus: it gives the details of the performance, as do the “minutes” of a meeting, but gives them prophetically, before eating starts. Menus are polite provisions at large feasts, because they enable guests to judge how much of everything they can eat and still find room to do the meal justice. They were used by restaurants from the beginning, as a list of the possibilities available, and as a form of advertising. Nineteenth-century restaurant menus were huge and often entirely wishful fictions, offering, according to Emile Goudeau in 1893, “a hundred soups, a hundred removes, three hundred entrées, two hundred roasts, four hundred side-dishes, and two to three hundred wines.” The idea that all restaurants should have a menu, and that customers should expect everything on the menu to be available (though some dishes might still be subject to seasonal availability), became conventionalized only in the 1890s in France. “Today,” Goudeau continues, “the short menu of a single sheet … offers only what it can produce: fifty to sixty dishes.”
Menus written on tablets were known in ancient Greece and Rome, but far more common at feasts was the custom of someone—either the host or a specially instructed slave—pointing out the different dishes, explaining on occasion what each contained and how it had been made, and informing guests of the provenance, the freshness, the age of the foods and wines. The need for written menus at modern feasts is the result of an important change in the way formal meals were constructed, which spread in Europe and America from about the mid-nineteenth century. The earlier presentation, known as dinner à la française, was divided, much as the Roman banquet had been, into two courses—three, if the introductory soup and fish is counted as a separate course—and dessert. But on the large table at which everyone sat stood a throng of dishes of many culinary varieties. The food itself lay there, to be described. Menus had to be written down for the guests when the new serving system was introduced: dishes then appeared in succession, from backstage as it were, and diners needed to be informed about what they could not yet see.