Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What is Etiquette?

In the beginning, people ate solely for survival. And, they considered themselves fortunate to accomplish this daily adventure. How grand it was to spear a fish, whack a wild animal over its head, and cook it over the new modern invention called fire. Protocol demanded that you devour it before another animal came to devour you. There were no forks, spoons or knives. There were no cloths, napkins or centerpieces. There were no servers or guests. Etiquette meant Et-it-Quick, or every man for himself. It is uncertain at what point in time food turned into feast, carnivorous became connoisseur, or decorum became necessary for social existence. The short history below outlines our immediate heritage in hopes of attaching some meaning to our own proper table behavior as we enter the twenty-first century.

Service à la Française, which was the norm during the reign of Louis XIV, was confined to the grand houses. A proper menu consisted of no fewer than six courses, beginning with a selection of soups, pies and sweetbreads. The second service included four fish dishes and four selections of ham, goose, chicken or veal. A total of thirty-six entrées, including fish, rabbit, partridge, roasted lark, game birds, poultry and whole sides of meat, were presented with pasta, vegetables and salads. The most important aspect of the dinner was its visual extravagant opulence. All the food was placed on the table at onetime, and each guest helped himself. As food was passed around, reached for and requested from the person closest to it, dining bordered on a sort of free-for-all with the more assertive guests receiving the bounty. If a servant were present, the person wanting vegetables or meat or bread had to call him over and point to the location of the desired food. One can only imagine that any attempt at conversation was impossible as the noise level reached a crescendo of intensity.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Prince Alexander Borisovitch Kourakine, the Czar's ambassador to Paris during the Second empire, brought with him a new form of service, which became known as "Service à la Russe". The timing was perfect. In England, the middle class had begun to emulate the grand style of French nobility with little success because they lacked the experienced staff, displays of silverware, candelabra and cooks, leaving the hostess and, perhaps, one or two untrained servants the burden of bringing the abundant variety of foods and numerous courses to the table. The easiest solution was the invention of the buffet table. The difference was that guests did not leave their seats to fill their plates, but waited for the servants to pass the platters for them to help themselves. If the waiter were told their preference, he filled their plates and placed them in front of the guests. Plates and platters were served from the left of each guest and taken away from the right. Wine was offered first to the host to taste and then poured from the right of the guests. A beautifully garnished platter was brought to the table for everyone to admire before being portioned out by a server or hostess. Known as "à la Anglaise au guéridon", (English style at the table), it is still used in a few fine restaurants and private homes who have staff or servers. An alternative is to fill the plates in the kitchen (as in most restaurants) and bring them to the table when the guests are seated. This has the advantage of assuring hot food for each guest as well as allowing the cook/hostess to decorate each plate artistically. The disadvantage is that the guest may not select for himself.

Tune in Channels 22 & 199 nightly to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"

Lucullen Feast

Lucullus (Lucius Lucinius), the renowned Roman, spent the modern day equivalent of $90,000 on a dinner for just three people: Cicero, Pompey, and himself. He and his countrymen had inherited a tradition of fine food and fancy eating from their predecessors, the Etruscans. To emphasize the importance of earthly pleasures, a silver model of a skeleton was exhibited at their dinners as a reminder to enjoy the good things of this world while they could. Reclining on couches, they raised goblets fashioned from gold and silver studded with precious gems and toasted the genius of the Emperor. Olives imported from North Africa accompanied this Acocktail hour@, with blindfolded culinary experts competing for honors as they determined whether the olives eaten had been picked with bare hands or by pickers wearing gloves, as well as the area in which they had been grown. The first course generally included sausages flavored with Indian pepper, which had made an eleven-month voyage to Rome. Syrian plums mixed with pomegranate seeds were brought from the Near East. Local vegetables were garnished with imported salt pickles from Byzantium. Oysters from Greece or Britain accompanied the first course.

Live ostriches from North Africa and crocodiles from Egypt were paraded around the aristocrats’ table. To prepare for a dinner for six, the host brought delicacies from the far corners of the known world some 8,000 miles east and west.

Once, when he prepared to dine alone, he noticed the menu appeared dull. Beckoning his steward, he commanded, “give the cook orders to prepare a dinner in his finest style”. When the servant, expecting an impressive guest list, inquired whom he would be serving, he received the abrupt answer, “tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus”, coining forever the expression, “the Lucullan feast” for those who know their own company is reason enough to create an elaborate occasion.

Tune in to Comcast Channels 22 & 199 nightly to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"