Setting A Table the 19th Century Way Creates A Feast For The Eyes As Well As The Palate

October 07, 1990|By Molly Culbertson | Molly Culbertson,1990, Country Home-- Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Throughout the history of America, the dining table has been where family and friends not only have taken nourishment but also have nurtured each other. Dining rituals can reveal much about the generations before us.

It is the table that has been central to a family's existence. Until only a few decades ago, it also was the hub of social life, where homeowners shared their decorating and entertaining skills and displayed some of their most prized possessions.

By the 1700s, the goal of every homeowner, rich or poor, was to lay a groaning board with elegant vessels and an abundance of food. This excessive ideal has its roots in England, where, in the 15th century, kings displayed their worth and power by serving meals in extravagant settings -- on crowded, elaborate tables. Eventually, the custom of showing personal wealth at dinner was adopted by the British aristocracy, many of whom brought it to America when they emigrated.

Setting an intricate table -- feast for the eyes as well as the palate -- was an important social skill in early America. It was hard work to prepare all the food, press the linens, polish the silver and clean the crystal, yet having dinner parties provided a welcome pastime in an era when most social recreation took place at home. Learning to create the proper settings and plan extravagant meals was considered as necessary for young girls as learning needlework. As women, they would find endless pleasure in entertaining -- and in criticizing the dinner tables of their friends.

Until the 20th century, people seldom went to clubs or ate in restaurants. Instead, they entertained each other in their homes. They played the piano or sang for each other, read aloud or played parlor games.

Eating was the focus of the festive evenings, and a meal could last for hours. The first course might be served soon after the first guests arrived; the last might not appear until well after midnight.

Two women in particular, Elizabeth Beeton in England and Fannie Farmer in the United States, helped spread a greater sense of modesty and frugality in at-home dining.

Elizabeth Beeton published a "Book of Household Management" 1861, which promoted a belief that hostesses provided protection against a society's decay. In it, she wrote, "The nation which knows how to dine has learnt the leading lesson of progress. It implied both the will and the skill to reduce to order and surround with idealisms and graces the more material conditions of human existence, and wherever that will and that ++ skill exist, life cannot be wholly ignoble."

Fannie Farmer, credited with providing Americans with the first complete and reliable cooking guide -- the "Boston Cooking School Cook Book," published in 1896 -- emphasized the importance of healthful, relaxed meals to wholesome family life.

Together with etiquette authors of their time, these women helped create the concept of restrained elegance. They urged a less lavish kind of dining that, they suggested, was to be coupled with carefully considered table manners.

The following are some recipes for dishes that would have appeared on a traditional 19th century table.


Makes 8 crumpets.

1 cup flour

1 package active dry yeast

2/3 cup milk

5-6 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

Combine 1/2 cup flour and yeast in small mixer bowl. Heat milk, 1 tablespoon butter and salt just until warm (115 to 120 degrees), stirring constantly. Add mixture to dry ingredients along with egg. Beat at low speed 1 minute, scraping sides of bowl. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup flour and beat until smooth. Cover and let stand in warm place until doubled.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet. Lightly brush 4 crumpet rings or egg poacher rings with butter and place in skillet. Pour 2 tablespoons batter into each ring and cook over medium heat 4 to 5 minutes or until browned on one side. Remove rings. Turn crumpets and cook 4 to 5 minutes more. Remove pan from heat. Wipe pan and rings clean. Return pan to heat. Add 2 tablespoons butter and cook remaining batter. Split crumpets and toast to serve.

Cod cakes

Makes 12 cakes.

8 ounces salt cod

3 cups diced potatoes

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons butter

-- pepper

cup finely crushed salted crackers (21 crackers)

oil for deep-fat frying

Soak cod in water to cover 12 hours, changing water once. Drain. Dice cod.

Cook cod with potatoes, covered, in large amount of boiling water 15 minutes. Drain and mash well. Beat in egg, butter and pepper.

Using 1/4 cup mixture for each, shape into 2 1/2 -inch patties about 1/2 -inch thick. Coat with crackers. Fry, few at a time, in deep hot oil (375 degrees) 2 minutes. Turn and fry 2 minutes longer.

Lemon Layer Cake

Makes 12 servings.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups buttermilk or sour milk

1/2 cup shortening

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 egg whites

lemon butter frosting

lemon slices (optional)

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