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Artful Dining

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<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/table_russe.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_47670.jpg" align="left" hspace="8"></a>by

<b>Darra Goldstein</b> <br>


During the Gilded Age, the leisured class elevated dining to an art, discarding

once and for all the early American virtues of plainness and unpretentiousness.

Such visible ostentation was a mark of how far American society had traveled.

When John Adams brought silver forks home from France for the presidential table,

he was accused of abandoning the ways of democracy. But by the nineteenth century’s

end, the dining room had become nothing less than a stage where every impressive

detail was carefully conceived, from the wallpaper to the sideboards to the performance

of the meal. The dining table itself was adorned with lavish centerpieces, sparkling

goblets, and an extraordinary range of specialized silver utensils that demonstrated

not only the hostess’s wealth but also her savoir faire.


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_chaud-froid.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_21128.jpg" width="143" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="right"></a>The

nineteenth century witnessed great changes in the way the middle and upper classes

dined. As early as 1841, a few sophisticated diners in New York City may have

staged their dinners a la russe, in the Russian style, instead of in the classical

French mode. But such formal dining, with each dish presented in individually

portioned servings, took popular hold in the U.S. only after the Civil War. This

innovation left the center of the table free for extravagant ornamentation. Tables

set a la russe appeared architectural in their use of floral displays and skewers

that emphasized verticality. For additional drama, the hostess might thread silver

skewers with cubes of aspic (a clear gelatin) to shimmer in the candlelight. Exotic

fruits like pineapples were often part of the decoration, and on some tables,

a 'tussie-mussie' -- a small nosegay of flowers and herbs that conveyed symbolic

meaning -- was placed to the left of each plate. <br>


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_community-design.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_35285.jpg" width="160" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="left"></a>Even

more than fanciful decorations, however, silver flatware embodied the excesses

of the Gilded Age table. Beginning in the 1860s, the great American silver companies

like Tiffany, Gorham, Meriden Brittania, Towle, and Reed & Barton produced an

abundance of individual flatware and serving pieces. These manufacturers were

extraordinarily inventive when it came to silver design for the moneyed classes.

Like perfect household servants, they not only responded to, but even anticipated,

the whims and requests of their clients, playing on Americans’ social anxiety

by introducing ever new forms. This attentiveness, reinforced by attractive advertising

in jewelers’ books and illustrated volumes of silver patterns, helped to spawn

the vigorous consumer culture that characterized the last decades of the nineteenth

century. At their most excessive, turn-of-the-century American sets contained

146 pieces in a single pattern; contemporary place settings of English manufacture

did not come close to matching this number. The Russian style further encouraged

a proliferation of flatware pieces, because clean utensils were needed for each

course. In a household with plenty of servants, new utensils might be brought

in for each round of dishes, but more often all of the flatware for the entire

meal was set out at the beginning, leading to considerable anxiety among the diners

over which implement was to be used, and when. <br>


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_asparagus-tongs.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_263.jpg" width="160" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="left"></a>Any

hostess who wanted to be considered truly in the know numbered among her utensils

a poached egg server, an asparagus fork or tongs, a berry spoon, a gravy ladle,

a mayonnaise ladle, sandwich tongs, a cheese knife, a petits fours fork, a horseradish

spoon, a fried oyster spoon, a sweet jelly spoon, an aspic slice, a tomato server,

a waffle knife, a punch ladle, a strawberry fork, an olive fork, a terrapin fork,

a baked potato fork, an ice cream hatchet or saw, a pea server, and sugar tongs,

to name only some of the utensils considered de rigueur. <br>


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_oyster-fork.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_5040.jpg" width="160" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="right"></a>For

soup alone, at least four different spoons were required, depending on whether

a bouillon, cream soup, chowder, or gumbo was served. In the 1860s, American silver

manufacturers devised a new style of spoon with a round bowl that enabled diners

to eat soup from the side of the bowl rather than from the front -- an innovation

that entailed less slurping. But because these newfangled spoons were the size

of many present-day serving spoons, a smaller spoon was developed to enable the

diner to partake more easily of the stylish bouillon often served in small cups.



<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_serving-pieces.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_12049.jpg" width="140" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="left"></a>Forks

were similarly specialized. Fish forks had slightly curved tines to flake the

fish gently, while the tines of salad forks were widely spaced so as not to bruise

tender lettuce. In 1869, Reed & Barton patented a special pie fork with a cutting

edge on the left. But savvy diners knew that this fork should never be used to

eat terrapin, even when it was served in a sherry sauce over toast points for

which a cutting edge might have proved useful. Instead, the terrapin fork with

its almost bowl-like curve allowed the diner to scoop up sauce along with the

turtle meat. <br>


New technology also encouraged this madcap proliferation of forms. With the spread

of railroads and the advent of the refrigerated railway car, previously unavailable

foodstuffs became more commonplace. After 1866, when the first oranges were transported

by rail from Los Angeles to the East Coast, special orange spoons, with a narrow

bowl tapering to a sharp tip, appeared so that diners could enjoy the fruit in

style. Specialized spoons were even fashioned so that gentlemen could eat genteelly

without sullying their moustaches. <br>


Not only did flatware for individual use proliferate, so did serving utensils.

Following a visit to Italy, Thomas Jefferson had introduced a fashion for macaroni

and cheese (a recipe appears as early as 1824 in Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife).

By the second half of the century, macaroni and cheese was deemed an important

enough dish to warrant its own ornate serving utensil. The most common design

had spiked edges along one or both sides so that the macaroni could simultaneously

be cut and scooped without compressing the noodles. <br>


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_chip-servers.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_20174.jpg" width="200" height="186" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="left"></a>The

chic hostess also needed a buckwheat cake lifter -- Mark Twain and Washington

Irving had both lauded these pancakes as one of the glories of the hearty American

breakfast. A Saratoga chip server was another newfangled implement. Today we wouldn’t

dream of reaching for potato chips with anything but our hands, but after they

were introduced to customers at a Saratoga Springs restaurant and became all the

rage, Tiffany developed a special server with a pierced bowl to drain the chips

of any residual oil. Butter knives, which seem so commonplace today, were also

a late nineteenth-century American innovation that did not appear in European

silver services. A master butter knife was set out with the butter dish for transferring

butter to each diner’s bread plate, at which point an individual butter knife

was used for spreading. <br>


<a href="http://www.egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/darra_macaroni-server.htm" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1148345459/gallery_29805_1195_2432.jpg" width="178" height="200" hspace="8" vspace="5" align="right"></a>Today,

as we read the novels of Edith Wharton or see them recreated on film, we can fantasize

about sitting down to a feast of oysters on the half shell, terrapin soup, filet

of beef with sauce remoulade, rock quail with watercress, and an assortment of

relishes, salads, and punches -- each afforded its own perfect utensil. Our modern

style of dining may seem not only lax but unglamorous by comparison. Yet simplified

tables were an inevitable result of twentieth-century social changes. Domestic

help became too expensive for all but the wealthiest families to afford, and when

large numbers of women entered the workforce after World War II, they had little

time to devote to elaborate table settings. Today’s overextended American family

barely manages to dine together, let alone set a faultless table, and the right

serving tool no longer carries much cachet. Even so, the best silver always comes

out on festive occasions, when Grandmother’s oyster ladle serves up the soup,

and her old-fashioned cucumber fork does justice to the holiday turkey or ham.


<hr noshade size="1">

Dear Reader, in case you missed the fun: each photo in the essay links to a larger rendition. Just click on the picture for a more detailed view.<br><br><hr noshade size="1">

Darra Goldstein is the editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and food editor for Russian Life. She is a professor at Williams College, where she teaches Russian language, history and art.

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We published Artful Dining in conjunction with a current exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005.

Not coincidentally, the most recent eG foodcast is a walk through the exhibit with Darra Goldstein. Discussion topic of the foodcast is here.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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