You may be invited to attend a dinner conducted on formal lines. For such an occasion you will need to know more than the relatively simple rules of etiquette that you practice at the domestic table. In this matter it is well to learn in good time what you will be expected to do.
We have already dealt with the etiquette of invitations, when speaking of parties. All that need be said here is to emphasize the importance of letting your hostess know promptly whether or not you can accept the invitation. To leave an invitation to dinner unanswered is a grave discourtesy. You should have your reply in your hostess’s hands by the date set down on the invitation or in any case at least a week before the function. If you decline the invitation, the hostess may wish to invite another friend, but she will hesitate to do this if the invitation has to be sent so late that the intended guest resents the implication of being a second choice.
Arrival of the guests
Whether the dinner is to be held in a private home or a restaurant, make sure to arrive punctually. This means about ten minutes before the time set down for the dinner to begin. If you arrive late for the meal, you should make an apology to the hostess before you take your place at the table. Unless your hostess arranges otherwise, you should join in the meal with the course then being taken. If you foresee, that you are going to be very late, it would be better not to attend at all; but make sure to get word to your hostess as promptly as possible; by telephone, if necessary.
Dinner is served
After the necessary introductions have been made, dinner is announced; whereupon the guests proceed to the dining-room. The host leads, accompanied by the lady of highest rank. The hostess comes last, accompanied by the gentleman of highest rank. A waiter or other attendant may be on hand to show the guests their places at table. However, it is quite common now for the guests to find their own places by means of cards previously set out on the table.
If a priest is present, the presiding person asks him to say Grace. In the absence of a priest the gentleman of highest rank or the host himself may say Grace.
Each course is served to the guests from the left side. The host or person presiding at the meal is generally served last. It is usual for the guests to wait for the host or hostess before beginning each course. Where this arrangement is inconvenient and the food is likely to become cold, the guests may be invited by the host to begin eating as soon as they are served. In any case it is always wise for younger guests to wait for the principal guests, before beginning to eat.
If you are unfamiliar with a particular dish or are not sure how to deal with it, the best thing to do is to wait a few moments and make some discreet observations of the procedure being followed by the principal guests. They may be presumed to know the correct thing. Even if it is incorrect, you will still be safe in following it. It would certainly be out of place to make inquiries from those around you.
Dinners of the more formal type are usually of about five courses, but they may have as many as seven or eight. The usual order for serving them is: 1. Hors d’oeuvres; 2. Soup; 3. Fish; 4. Entree; 5. Joint or main course; 6. Dessert; 7. Salad; 8. Fruit; 9. Coffee and liqueurs.
It will be useful to consider a few practical points in dealing with each of these courses.
1. Hors d’oeuvres. These are appetizers and may consist of such things as oysters, sea-food cocktail or pickled olives. Usually the hors d’oeuvres are already at each guest’s place when he sits down to table. Oysters are eaten whole. A fork is used for the purpose. Small pieces of brown bread, slices of lemon and a small container of sauce are often served with oysters. The lemon is squeezed over the oysters which may then be dipped in the sauce. Olives are not taken into the mouth whole. They are held in the fingers and disposed of in small bites.
2. Soup. This may be served thin (consomme) or thick (potage). The handling of the spoon when taking soup has already been explained in an earlier section. Sometimes sip-pets (small hard cubes of bread or toast) are served with soup. They are put into the soup just before it is eaten. It is not correct to crumble bread into your soup.
3. Fish. This is eaten with a fish knife and fork. As far as possible you should remove all bones from the fish before taking it into the mouth. The consequences of swallowing a fish-bone can be so critical that custom sanctions their removal from the mouth by means of the fingers. Slices of lemon are usually served with fish and should be squeezed over the fish before you begin to eat.
4. Entree. This is an appetizing dish of moderate quantity, although it may be quite elaborately prepared. It is intended to sharpen the appetite in readiness for the main course, which follows it. The entree may consist of cutlets, croquettes, curry or the like. It is permissible to eat the entree with fork alone in the right hand, if the knife can be conveniently dispensed with.
5. Joint or poultry. This is the principal course. It is the the largest of the courses and may take some time to serve. Make sure that all the various ingredients have been served to you before you begin to eat. Then proceed in an orderly fashion and do not make a hash on your plate. It is always offensive to those seated near you if you allow your plate to get into a messy, untidy condition. Bones should not be taken into the fingers at table. It does not require very delicate surgery to deal with even the most complex parts of a chicken’s anatomy.
6. Dessert. There is no limit to the varied forms this course may take. When stewed fruit is served, care should be taken to remove the seeds in the correct way. Sometimes this is best done by raising the spoon to the mouth and, by this means, conveying the pips or stones to the side of the plate. With the larger fruits, such as peaches or apricots, the stone can be quite easily removed on the plate before taking the fruit into the mouth. Do not toy with the fruit seeds on your plate, parading them around the edge as though you were proud of their number.
7. Salad. After the dessert, salad vegetables and cheese may be served. Celery, lettuce, radish and asparagus are usually eaten with the fingers. Some care is required in eating crisp salad foods lest you sound too much like a hungry rabbit. Cheese is sometimes cut into small portions to which guests help themselves from a common dish, or it may be served in the form of cheese straws. Cheese is eaten with the fingers. Dry cracker biscuits are served with the cheese.
8. Fruit. Fresh fruit is taken at the end of the meal. Special fruit knives and forks are often provided. Most fruits require peeling, and the general rule to follow is to remove the peel on the plate, using the knife and fork. When this is not convenient, as for example with apples, a portion of the fruit may be raised from the plate by means of the fork and then peeled with the knife. In carrying this out, care should be taken not to raise the fork higher than is necessary. Oranges are best dealt with on the plate. They should be quartered and then peeled by means of knife and fork. At table, oranges should not be peeled spirally. Whenever the fruit is not too juicy, it may, after being peeled, be taken in the fingers.
9. Coffee and liqueurs. These may be served at the table or after the guests have retired to the lounge or sitting-room. The coffee served at the end of dinner is usually black. The slice of lemon provided should be squeezed into the coffee and not dropped in. While it is not permissible to ask for a second helping of any course at a formal meal, a guest may request a second cup of coffee.
Wines and wineglasses
The younger guests at a dinner are not likely to be greatly interested in the array of wineglasses which they may find as part of their “cover”. A well-planned meal should provide alternative drinks to suit all tastes. However, either as host or as guest, you will need to know the etiquette of wines and wineglasses.
At each guest’s place it is customary to place three wineglasses near the top right corner of the “cover”. The smallest is for sherry, served with soup and fish. The largest glass is for champagne. It may also be used for fruit-cup or soft drink. These latter drinks are served during the principal course and the courses that follow it. The medium glass is for white wines, claret and port. White wines, such as sauterne, are taken during the early courses, port with the dessert, and claret at the end of the meal. Liqueurs are served in very small glasses at the same time as the coffee. The liqueur glasses are often kept on a small serving-table or sideboard until they are required.
At a dinner it is a common custom to honour a person or an organization by drinking a “toast”. When there is to be a series of toasts, the first is always the Royal Toast. This is proposed by the host after dessert has been taken. The person proposing the toast rises from his place and is followed by the other guests. He then raises his glass, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen,….” as they raise their glasses and drink the toast. All immediately resume their seats. Other toasts, which may be preceded by speeches, then follow and are proposed and drunk in a similar way.
The proposing and acknowledging of toasts can be the occasion of much wit and conviviality at the dinner-table, especially in the hands of those who are gifted with after-dinner eloquence. With a little experience you will have no difficulty in learning the etiquette associated with this pleasant social custom.
Taking your leave
Usually the host or hostess will indicate the conclusion of the meal by a slight nod to one or two of the principal guests seated nearby. All must rise from table when the hostess gives the lead, the gentlemen attending to the chairs of the ladies seated next to them. The guests then follow the hostess into the lounge or sitting-room where they may relax and converse for some time before dispersing. Although there are no laws of precedence in leave-taking, it is advisable not to be in too great a hurry to depart. However, before doing so, do not fail to pay your respects to your host and hostess, thanking them for the enjoyable evening you have had.