“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.
Formal dinners in the old style, à la française, had evolved from earlier medieval and Renaissance models, and “set” as a system in the course of the eighteenth century. Diners, let us say about twenty-five of them, would arrive at table to find it laden with food. Dishes, candles, salts, and ornaments had been placed with careful attention to the hierarchy of dishes and the position they could therefore command upon the table, to symmetry (dishes for dinner à la française often came in pairs), and to the relative heights of fruit pyramids and decorative objects. Order was especially important because of the crowding of the table: table-setters are warned to take care lest dishes “look as if they had fallen down like hailstones.” The whole was designed to give an impression of opulence and abundance. And this, everyone knew, was but the first, the introductory course of dinner.
Among the dishes on the table were tureens containing two or more varieties of soup. These would be served first, then the tureens and the soup plates were removed and the former replaced by dishes called relevés, “removes” in English—perhaps roast mutton and turkey en daube, or two large fishes. The guests could also begin eating the entrées, the “entries” to the meal proper, which might include cheek of veal, cutlets, tongue, volau-vent, sole, chicken, sweetbreads, and eels. Two large entremets completed the picture: say, a cake and a fish. Around the large creations clustered little dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, placed literally “outside” the main “works”: hors d’oeuvres stood spatially apart, not temporally first as they do today. They were what we might call “side dishes,” and consisted of such things as small pies, anchovies, tuna in marinade, oysters, eggs, artichokes, and radishes. They sometimes remained in place during the first and second courses, while the larger dishes were changed.
The second course began after all or most of the dishes of the first course had been removed from the table. At this point the top tablecloth was rolled away, revealing a clean cloth underneath, to provide a pristine start to the second course. This consisted of the really big pieces: Jean-Paul Aron says that if a meal were a musical offering, this part of it would have had to be an organ chorale. In came various roasts, and the spectacular items which the French call pièces de résistance. (Nineteenth-century French gourmands loved to see themselves as “attacking” a particularly splendid dish, as if it were a fortress; a pièce de résistance was worthy of the siege machines and armed might of even the doughtiest gourmand. Another theory to account for the phrase is that diners had to “resist” eating too much from the lesser dishes and wait for these climactic creations to arrive.) Accompaniments to these large dishes were salads, vegetables, and sweet entremets: creams, jellies, ices; to our way of thinking, the second course was like a second complete meal. The last course, dessert, was cheeses, sweets, pastries, and fruit—but might include meat pâtés as well. It was set out on another fresh tablecloth, or on the gleaming bare wood of the mahogany table, each dish resting on a protecting mat. Dessert plates, knives, forks, and spoons were brought in especially for this course.
Dinner à la française could be adapted to special circumstances, such as the availability of a huge West Indian green turtle. In the mid-eighteenth century it was discovered that these turtles could be transported live to England, if kept in fresh-water tanks during the journey. A sixty- to one hundred-pound turtle could make a whole first course at a particularly splendid feast. Here the soup was the climax, and set in the centre of the arrangement. It was made from the head and lights of the animal. The belly was boiled, and the back roasted; these were two separate dishes, laid at the top and bottom of the table. Corner dishes or hors d’oeuvres were concocted of the fins and guts, done in clever rich sauces. Turtle dinners, and especially turtle soup, became signs of enormous prestige. Since not many people could find or afford the real thing, mock-turtle soup was devised, using a calf’s head and plenty of Madeira. In the early days one did one’s utmost to procure a turtle shell in which to serve it; people who had access to the genuine article could be relaxed on this point, and often served their soup in a tureen.
The two first courses each comprised a mets in French (something “placed” before the diner); the sweet, light, or amusing dishes which they included were intended to provide a break, or entremets, “between the mets.” In the Middle Ages entremets were entertainments, put on for the guests while they were digesting one mets and getting ready to attack another. These theatrical presentations, called “sotelties” in English because of their subtle or ingenious inventiveness, could include singing, juggling, sword-dancing, mock battles, and masques symbolically representing the politics underlying the feast. Olivier de La Marche, maître d’hôtel to Charles the Bold, described an entremets during which he himself entered the dining hall sitting “on an elephant” led in by a giant in Saracen dress. Olivier represented the Eastern Church held captive by the Mohammedans, and, wearing a long white dress, he pleaded in a falsetto singing voice with the duke of Burgundy, lord of the feast, to undertake a crusade. When Charles the Bold married Margaret of York at Bruges in 1468, the entremets included a dwarf riding into the banqueting hall on a gilded lion, a pedlar pretending to sleep while monkeys stole his wares and gave out purses, brooches, lace, and beads to the company, and a dromedary ridden in by a wild man who threw coloured balls among the guests.
A “soteltie” could also be an entertainment in the form of a dish decorated to resemble a castle, or the Four Seasons personified in sculptures, or a series of warlike tents. Sotelties could equally be made of carefully carved wood and embroidered banners; very magnificent table decorations of this kind would often be given away after the dinner to favoured guests. But edible triumphs of the imagination were more appropriate, and more obviously created for this special occasion alone; they could be combined with the theatrical element, as when a jester leapt into a giant tureen full of custard, or when four and twenty blackbirds flew out of a pie. Bartolomeo Scappi describes a feast he organized in a garden in Trastevere, on May 31, 1536, at which there figured nine elaborate scenes which he had designed and created for the table. They included a sugar Diana with moon, bow, and dogs on a leash, accompanied by five Nymphs, each with appropriate attributes. There were butter sculptures of an elephant with a palanquin, Hercules with a lion, and a Moor seated on a camel, together with a pastry Paris holding his apple, confronting Helen and the three goddesses who sought to please him. The purpose of these creations was simply to impress and delight the guests, to give them something to talk about and to remember. (It will be noted that we are still describing them.) The entremets at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meals had dwindled to dishes definitely meant to be eaten, but as a break in the proceedings, not to be taken seriously or “attacked” like the pièces de résistance.
The cleared or “de-served” table (desservie in French) is the origin of the term “dessert” which was given to the course brought on last. Dessert was intended in some measure to clear the palate. Scappi says that after the table has been cleared, hands are washed, clean napkins provided, and guests are presented with toothpicks in dishes of rosewater, stalks of fennel to chew, bunches of scented flowers to refresh the nose, and small comfits and confections. Anise and peppermint candies with the same purpose as these are still offered at the end of Indian dinners, and often after our own restaurant meals. Dessert, which descended from the post-prandial, mainly sweet “banquet” and “voydee,” described earlier, became much more substantial than this, but it is still intended to be a light-hearted flourish to finish off the meal.
The guests at Baroque and Rococo dinners à la française sat much closer to each other than we do, round the edges of the huge table which was required for the laying out of all the dishes, candles, and elaborate centre-piece decorations. They were expected to eat from the dishes placed in the immediate vicinity of their places. It was permissible to ask a servant to pass a helping of something placed some distance away, especially if the host had recommended it as he spoke his “menu” at the beginning of the feast, but it was not done to ask too often. People were more obliged than we are to notice what neighbours were missing and could not reach, or carve, or cut without their help. The arrangement makes it easier for us to understand how the custom had arisen of sending morsels of certain delicacies as signs of favour towards friends seated at a distance; part of one’s education in manners was learning which were the “noblest” morsels of meat, so that one could offer them to one’s neighbours.
The enormous banquet-menus which have come down to us, listing a plethora of dishes, roasts, soups, game, fish, cakes, blancmanges, pâtés, and fruits in a seemingly horrific abundance and confusion, make more sense if we consider the way in which these were served, as parts of courses, each of which constituted what would today be a complete meal in itself, in its variety and range. But nobody was expected even to try all of the dishes; in spite of the spectacle which was considered de rigueur for a feast, one could, if one wished, eat very abstemiously indeed at a dinner à la française.
The Russian Prince Kourakin was credited, in the 1830s in Paris, with first introducing an entirely new way of serving feasts, the ancestor of our own. (Antonin Carême had observed the method when he was at the court of Alexander I in 1818, but had thought it unsuitable for French cuisine.) Félix Urbain Dubois, who served as chef to Prince Orloff in Russia, did a great deal to popularize the “Russian” method of service when he returned to Paris in the 1870s. Germans also frequently served their meals in this manner, and sometimes the new dinner sequence was called à l’allemande. Dishes began increasingly to be served in succession. After the soup followed by the entrées, a joint or large fish was typically brought in whole and first presented to the host and guests so that everyone could see it in its magnificent entirety. It was then either carved by servants at a side table or taken back to the kitchen to be divided into portions. These were carried round on platters to the diners, who took what they wanted and placed it on their own plates.
Ordinary, non-festal behaviour at meals had doubtless always relied on courses following one another, one course comprising one shared dish at a time. Feasts, however, demanded plenty, and dinner à la française offered that plenty as a feast for the eyes as well as the appetite; it also offered broad and immediate choice. The arrival of feasting à la russe made extravagance a matter of the number and quality of dishes appearing in succession; it also enormously increased the number of the personnel needed for the last-minute preparation and serving of all the dishes individually to the diners. The more servants you could provide, the more impressive your dinner à la russe—and the more different from normal everyday eating. Among the rich it soon became polite to impose utter helplessness upon formal diners at table. No one was allowed to help themselves, or to pass or ask for anything: the numerous servants were there to be depended upon. An early complaint about the new system was that owners of enormous numbers of serving dishes were no longer able to display all their silver and valuable porcelain. Individual choice was abruptly curtailed, and hierarchy—apart from precedence in being served—was forced to become far more subtle than it had been: everybody was offered the same food.
The first course was soup and entrées (hors d’oeuvres soon became permissible, as first courses, only at lunches or informal suppers; and at modern dinners, egg or fish “entrées” follow the soup as a separate course). The plates were removed, and the next course appeared, then the next. Dessert, being the most decorative part of the meal, was sometimes on the table from the beginning, as in the version of dinner à la française which was called an ambigu. But dessert was never eaten until the table had been cleared and swept free of crumbs. On entering the dining room, guests at a banquet found at their places written menus, rather like theatre programmes; by the end of the nineteenth century, a special dessert menu was provided for an especially grand dinner.
Under the new system every course had to be a culinary triumph, because all of it was offered to everyone. Variety now lay in temporal juxtaposition and range, the decoration and presentation of each dish, and careful attention to overall structure as sequence. There was far more space left on the table now that it was not encumbered with many dishes; this was taken up in the 1890s by a new richness in floral decorations. Soon thereafter taste veered towards preferring plenty of free white space: guests were sitting further apart and concentrating more on keeping out of other people’s way than on looking for opportunities to help them. And in any case tables, even for banquets, were becoming narrower, and adorned with fewer large silver and gilt objects.
Carving the meat at the table could be by-passed. Dishes did not have to stand on the table, waiting for people to help themselves; they could be served at once, and hotter than ever before. No second helpings were offered round the table at formal meals. Very soon the long-drawn-out banquet was a thing of the past, and speed was prized as a sign of control and efficiency of service. (It should be mentioned however that as early as 1680, swift, choreographed battalions of footmen were greatly admired: one huge Parisian banquet was proudly reported to have taken only two hours to eat, even though it featured more than six hundred dishes.) By the 1920s in America, Emily Post was recommending that a formal evening, beginning with the arrival of guests at eight, should be over at no later than ten-thirty: introductions and pre-dinner talk, dinner with several courses served in succession, coffee and liqueurs (the women and the men taking these in two separate rooms), and general conversation afterwards had all to have been completed within two and a half hours. Luncheon parties began at 1:30 p.m. and “by 2:45 the last guest is invariably gone”; lunch itself consumed no more than thirty to forty-five minutes of anyone’s time.
The formal dinner parties we have been considering cost a great deal of money, and were not expected to be everyday occasions, even for the rich. The formal dinners held today continue to be ceremonious expressions of various kinds of consensus and relationship. The food at a large banquet may struggle against being a mere pretext through its copiousness, complexity, and magnificence. A “buffet” meal foregoes table, immobility, and precedence, but partly compensates for loss of formal éclat by means of the display of food; it is a return to some of the principles of dinner à la française. But ceremonial intensity need not be commensurate with the quantity of food consumed: it is possible for a meal to consist of very little, as for example in the Eucharist or in the Japanese Tea Ceremony or Cha No Yu, where the simplest elements bear all the ceremony of a huge banquet.
The recent fashion for nouvelle cuisine is a social expression of the modern ideal that successful people ought to contrive to be not only very rich but also very thin. Food is not mounted in an extravagant and copious display, to be divided among the guests; modern individualists receive individual plates, each already bearing its exquisite and exotic, though meagre, portion. This might consist, for example, of a scattering of colourful shreds of vegetables and flowers. Or there may be three slices of duck breast lying on a sheet of concentrated but unthickened sauce; this sauce may be streaked or dotted with sauce of a different shade, ton sur ton. Sauces go under, not over, the food, lending it background and visual enhancement rather than comfortably cloaking it; the sophisticated skimpiness, expensive simplicity, and image-consciousness of nouvelle cuisine remind us of the fashionable clothes designed for its consumers. Japanese restraint and refinement of taste are suggested by layout, conscious juxtapositions, and the attention to colour, shape, and texture. Restaurants love nouvelle cuisine because anyone tempted to pander to an appetite must order several artistic creations in order to make up a meal.
The ancient three-fold pattern of the formal European dinner, even the dinner à la française—overture, climax, sweet final flourish—provides the structure for much simpler, and more simply filling, family meals: soup, meat and two veg (notice the threefold principle in microcosm for this central course), and dessert. Tea and a biscuit do not constitute a proper meal; nor would a series of sweet dishes, or nothing but greens. Soup is a meal, but only if it is thick enough, and accompanied, say, by bread and cheese. Breakfast often fails to be considered a meal. The French are amazed by the British breakfast because—unlike the “Continental” repast consisting of coffee and a roll—a traditional British breakfast is a real meal, with cereal and milk or grapefruit in the place of soup or hors d’oeuvres, then eggs and bacon, and finally toast and jam (for dessert). For many people a meal is not really a meal unless it features something hot. And leaving out meat changes the entire structure of the proceedings. Vegetarian dishes cost less, are shared more easily, and can be cooked more quickly, in spite of the peeling and chopping, than meat. But they generally force us (to whom vegetarianism is not traditional) to use considerable imagination and effort to keep everyone happy, and convinced that they are eating a meal.
An airline dinner is a useful device to keep passengers pinned to their places and occupied for an appreciable length of time. People hurtling through the air in a metal tube, both uneasily aware of what could go wrong and stupefied with boredom, are deemed to require solace. Eating is comfort—provided that nothing untoward or unexpected occurs during dinner. In the early days of air travel, until the early thirties, travellers ate at tables set out in the plane, as in a restaurant. There were wine bottles, flowers, cloths on the tables, and male stewards (then called couriers) in white jackets, serving the meals. The shuddering and dipping of the aircraft caused spills, and the noise was so infernal that conversation had often to be carried on by means of written notes—but still things were done “properly,” which is to say as far as possible as they were done on earth.
The first passenger aircraft in service after World War II fitted people into planes as though they were in a bus: airline management had realized that the future lay in cutting corners, increasing the numbers on board, and relying on the prestige of technology to make up for any loss in luxury. The gamble paid off. The new air travellers packed themselves into small spaces with a sense of fun, awe, and excitement. At first, seats were reversible so that passengers could turn them round and sit facing each other for meals; soon even that kind of encouragement to companionship was denied. But a three-course dinner with a hot meat component is still provided for everybody (except those who exempt themselves on health or vegetarian grounds), whether they are ready to eat or not, on the fold-out flap which anchors us to our places while dinner is served.
No effort is spared to impress upon us that we might be cramped and uncomfortable, but we are certainly experiencing a technological miracle. A tray is usually the receptacle for dinner, with pre-moulded compartments or fitted containers keeping every course separate. The separateness is spatial, not sequential: an airline meal is one course of a tiny dinner à la française. There will be cellophane coverings and plastic lids (we are hygienic, we are safe) and cutlery, pepper, salt, and paper napkin in a neat bundle. Until air travel became entirely banal, people used to save their little plastic knives, their mustard packets, and swizzle-sticks stamped with airplane motifs, as souvenirs; they were familiar objects, but small and sufficiently odd-looking to remind us of those strange meals aloft, and to prove to others that we had been there. The knife, for instance, often has an almost triangular blade: its bizarre shape looks convincingly modern, but it is actually designed so that we can eat with elbows so tightly compressed to our sides that the blade must descend almost vertically upon the meat. Nobody with any sense would eat the hors d’oeuvres of an airplane meal first. They are almost always cold, and the heated meat and two vegetables will cool off in a matter of minutes. We therefore attack the main course first, then rip open the hors d’oeuvres, toy with the stiff lettuce (most of us leave this “entremets” uneaten), then attempt the block of cake.
For the higher price of their tickets, first class and “business” class passengers get better food as well as wider seats. In their anxiety to please their richer customers, and to mark as clearly as possible the difference between them and the mere “economy” or “coach” class, airlines spend as much as four times the amount on meals for the well-heeled in their curtained-off enclosure up front as for those in more straitened circumstances behind. In North America food service is becoming an important selling point on aircraft, now that the few airline companies which are left have agreed among themselves to refrain from the turbulence that used to be caused by competitive fare cuts. So more imagination is being tried when compiling menus, china and metal cutlery are increasingly supplied, and meals, especially in the upper class, may even be served in courses (à la russe).
The “companions” close to our sides (we face other people’s backs) are likely to be strangers. Meals are provided in strict accustomed sequence: breakfast, lunch, dinner, with “proper” tea-breaks and drinks, in spite of time changes, and regardless of the fact that eating events may take place with very short periods of sedentary time between them. An airline meal is not large: who would expect a large meal in our cabined and confined state? But it is invariably complete, and as complex as possible. It tries to carry all the connotations of a shared, comforting, “proper” dinner. It is supposed to supply a nostalgic link with the cultural presuppositions with which flying conflicts, such as warm kitchens, stable conditions, and the products of the earth. Manners, here, impose passivity and constraint; ornamentation is taken care of by the oddity of our being served dinner at all in such circumstances. There is no question of argument, and only very limited choice. Airline passengers are extraordinarily docile and uncomplaining. They give up space and ceremony, believing that this is only fair since they are gaining time and ought to be grateful for safety.
The three-part meal turns up again in another “food event,” the time-saving hamburger. Here we have a meal wherein all references to companionship have been firmly deleted. Circles are symbols of completeness and self-sufficiency. The traditional European plate is round: diners at table are separated from one another, marked off by the cutlery, and expected not to trespass upon others’ places. Circular hand-held hamburgers make the most individual and unshared of meals; table, tablecloth, conversation, and cutlery are all unnecessary. Utterly round buns (giant hamburger industries destroy every imperfectly circular bun) enclose disks of ground meat, every one of them exactly alike in weight, consistency, and colour. Subordinate to bread and meat, but colourful, glistening, and frilly, are the tomato slices and lettuce leaves. Trimmings may be chopped onions, ketchup, pickles, or mustard; a slice of processed cheese can supply an extra course.