On Desserts and Deserters: A Note on Victorian Banquets
Posted by Avital Pinnick on October 19, 2009
I was catching up on some old episodes of one of my favourite podcasts, A Splendid Table, “the show for people who love to eat” (that certainly describes me!). The host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, posted a trivia Q&A: “What does the last course of a meal have in common with an army wrong-doer?” The answer: both are related to the old French déserter, “to undo.” The last course of the meal was called dessert because your table was cleared away to make room for the last course (usually fruit and nuts).
But I had trouble swallowing one thing — that extra “s” in dessert. If you pursue a degree that requires 4-8 foreign languages, unexplained letters will bother you, too. I looked up both words and their etymologies and found that deserter comes from déserter, “to abandon.” Dessert comes from desservir, “to clear the table.” Similar words but not the same.
The verb desservir suddenly clarified for me the Victorian term “remove.” It’s a little tricky to wrap one’s mind around the concept of a “remove” in Victorian literature because it is a term from service à la française. Service à la française, a very elaborate buffet-style food service, was superseded by service à la russe (the basis for our modern style of eating in courses) so long ago that it’s difficult to imagine the quantity of food or logistics involved in the old days.
Marie-Antoine (aka Antonin) Carême (ca. 1744-1833) was the “king of chefs and the chef of kings.” Born at the height of the French Revolution, he cooked for everyone who was anyone: Napoleon, Talleyrand, Alexander I of Russia, George IV of England, finally ending up with the Rothschilds. He wrote and published a number of books in his lifetime with illustrations of his banquets and pièces montées, elaborate centerpiece confections. His drawing below illustrates the complexities of service à la française.
Drawing by Antonin Carême of an elaborate, tiered buffet, originally published in Maître d’hôtel in 1822 (Kelly, pp. 118-119).
Carême’s drawing depicts a formal dinner. The serving dishes were cleared away and replaced by different dishes during the same meal. Each change of dishes is a “remove” because the dishes are literally removed from the table. The Victorians didn’t have an appetizer table, a main course table with lots of chafing dishes, a salad bar, and a dessert table. Those came much later. In private homes, the buffet was literally moved to the table itself but the same principles applied.
Imagine that I am serving a shabbat dinner for 8 people. Not content with chicken soup and gefilte fish for appetizers, I would serve chicken soup, gaspacho, potato soup, gefilte fish, Moroccan fish, smoked tuna, and tuna salad. The soups would be different in colour and texture to accommodate different tastes.
The soups and fish dishes would be arranged on the table so that they would occupy symmetrical places at opposite ends of the table. The empty space in between the soup and fish dishes would be filled with little dishes of olives, pickles, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, etc. (they were called “side dishes” because they literally filled the sides of the table. Dickens’ David Copperfield uses the term “corners” to refer to little dishes that the hero buys to feed his friends in his lodgings. “Corners” and sides were used to fill the table so that the whole surface would be covered with food.
Back to my imaginary dinner… After my family and guests taste whatever dishes takes their fancy (but NOT all of them — that would be time-consuming and greedy), I would remove all the dishes, thus setting the stage for the second remove. The second remove would be a brisket, a roast chicken, and a lamb stew, symmetrically arranged at the ends and the center of the table. I would place platters of different salads between each of the meat dishes and probably more pickles and roasted vegetables in the sides and corners. My guests would choose a main course and whatever side dishes they desired.
Assuming I still had energy (and a few servants loitering in the scullery), I would remove these dishes and proceed to the dessert course, most likely fruits and nuts arranged beautifully on pedestal dishes with an imaginative centerpiece in the middle. How long would such a gargantuan meal take? Oh, about an hour. Service à la française meant that one prepared a full buffet in stages. No one would (or could) taste every one of the dishes. It was meant to offer as wide a choice as possible.
Of course, it also led to tremendous waste, so some frugal households held parties two nights in a row. The most important guests would be invited to the first party and the B-list guests, like Thackeray’s Major Pendennis (Flanders, p. 285), would be served the leftovers the following night. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provides an example of a menu and table placement for 18 guests (this text uses the modern terminology, “courses,” but the Victorians would have called them “removes”).
For large groups, even state dinners, the food was served from a buffet. On February 21, at the Odéon theater in Paris, the Garde Nationale gave a dinner for 3000 people. Carême designed a buffet with nine tiers of food, similar to the one depicted in his drawing above. Nine tiers! Not too surprisingly, there were many complaints about accessibility and not a few guests went home hungry. In contrast, service à la russe was a model of simplicity and frugality because the food brought to the table in courses. It involved far less waste and it was easier on the cook and servants. But old habits die hard and in 1861 Mrs. Beeton thought it was only feasible if you had a footman to pass the dishes around.
Bit of trivia from Judith Flanders (p. 275). In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1871, Alice says to the Queen, “May I give you a slice [of mutton.” This was the formula for the hostess when carving for service à la française. The host and hostess served the meat themselves and the guests passed around the other dishes. The rest of the meal, however, was service à la russe, with the dishes appearing in courses. This was the transition period between the two styles of food service.