The final Downton Abbey inspired dinner and etiquette talk is over, the third leaf removed from the table, and the last of the leftovers delivered to the local food share. I think the guests enjoyed themselves; I certainly did despite all the work. I’m hoping to schedule a few more for next winter and looking forward to having as much fun.
I used notes for my talk so I would have at least some chance of remembering to mention everything I wanted to say. I was surprised when one of the guests asked to have a copy. It was nothing more than an outline and I didn’t think anything more about it. But now looking back on the evenings and with fewer dinner preparations to make, I think it might be fun to extend the outline and share.
The idea for the dinners was not my own; it came from several different people at various times. Perhaps that was because, as I said when announcing the dinners, my dining room has been the scene of elegant dinners since before the Titanic went down. Each time someone mentioned it, I immediately dismissed it as impossible for me to do without the staff that is so important to getting the style right. When it was suggested yet one more time, I started to think about alternatives to having a butler and footmen. I had been doing afternoon tea with etiquette talks for some time and I suddenly realized that if I could do the dinners as an etiquette lesson with everyone taking turns at being a footman who cleared and served, it would not only work without the actual staff, but it would be one more piece of the puzzle for everyone to try. Most of the guests did try both roles during the course of the dinners and I think that gave them a greater appreciation for how it all works.
We started in the library each evening. I explained that individual family members or guests would not have wandered into the dining room before everyone had gathered. There was a scene in an otherwise delightfully period take-off of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where two members of the party arrive into the dining room individually, actually sit, and begin the meal before the others. It simply wouldn’t have happened that way in the early 1800’s or the early 1900’s and still doesn’t in polite society. Everyone gathers in another room and they walk in together: hosts, guests of honor, titled lords, married ladies, etc. etc. taking their proper places in the progression. In a proper 1920’s household, the dressing gong would have been rung at 7:00 p.m. so everyone would be alerted to dress and be assembled before 8:00 o’clock when dinner was likely to be announced. In one episode of the series, one daughter kept the assembled group waiting while she put the finishing touches on her new frock and it was with great reluctance that her father finally decided they should go in without her. Luckily she arrived just before that drastic action had to be taken.
Sherry was to be served with the soup course. In preparation, guests were invited to try decanting it with an antique silver decanting funnel I found in London. It pulls apart into two pieces. The top has fine holes to strain the sherry or other wine like port which might easily have sediment at the bottom that is much better removed before it reaches a glass. A few layers of cheese cloth placed in the top of the funnel can easily catch any small pieces. The bottom section curves to send the stream of strained wine against the side of the decanter, causing fewer bubbles. Decanting would have been done by the butler in advance, but many guests gave it a try while waiting for everyone to arrive.
To be continued…