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Formal and Informal Meals
The Industrial Revolution that took place in England at the end of the eighteenth century spawned a new prosperity for more people than ever before, and by the nineteenth century a middle class that wished to live and dine like aristocrats had come into being. The majority of these households employed help of some kind and multi-course meals were served formally, course by course, a custom that continued into the early twentieth century. Although both genders were trained "in the service," only men assisted with formal dinner service, a tradition that continues today.
World War I brought increased opportunities for people to work in munition factories and offices, employment that offered better pay, improved work conditions, and greater independence. Live-in help became hard to find. This situation laid the groundwork for informal dining. By the Great Depression, only 5 percent of American households employed domestic help. The labor-saving technology of the midtwentieth century made daily chores less burdensome; as a result, few households engaged servants and informal dining was the norm.
Following World War II, to conserve on the cost of new homes for returning servicemen, dwellings were constructed without dining rooms, and a space called a dining area was reserved at the end of the living room, an expanse less formal than the special room devoted to dining.
Today informal dining is a way of life for all but the rarest occasions. Seldom is help needed to cook and serve a meal (although it is always welcome). Life is more relaxed, menus are simpler, and the table setting is informal. But like formal attire, which is seldom worn but is a necessity for certain special occasions, so too is the knowledge of how to proceed at a formal affair.
In the literal sense of the word, a formal dinner is one of strict protocol, like an affair of state, an elegant refined mode of entertainment experienced by approximately 0.5 percent of the population, one reserved almost totally for ceremonial occasions, such as diplomatic affairs, weddings, anniversary parties, corporate banquets, fundraisers, and catered events.
A formal table setting dazzles the senses with a profusion of sparkling crystal, gleaming silver, glistening porcelain, exquisite floral arrangements, majestic candelabra, and magnificent table decor. Place cards define seating arrangements and menu cards enable the guests to pace themselves through the multi-course meal, where the finest cuisine and wines are served.
To enable the host and hostess to remain seated and relaxed, the meal is prepared by a chef: a minimumof four courses, but usually five, six, seven, or more courses are served. To create an atmosphere that is always gracious and non-disruptive, a majordomo oversees the service of food and wine. Maids are engaged to take wraps and provide general assistance. Attendants park cars.
In order to present a multi-course meal at peak flavor and optimum temperature, a formal dinner is served on time and the guests are expected to arrive promptly. Because formal occasions always occur late in the day, cocktails are served at 8:00 or 8:30 P.M. Dinner is announced 30 to 45 minutes later.
A formal dinner involves extensive and expensive preparation, and usually a considerable number of people are seated at different tables. To eliminate confusion about who sits where, a seating plan is provided for a large group, displayed in the foyer on a leather folder or on a small easel-like stand.
To keep the palate ready, hors d'oeuvres and canapés are not served, and the cocktail period is brief, approximately 30 minutes. To expedite service, pre-poured drinks are passed on a tray - for example, champagne and a premixed cocktail, such as a martini. The term cocktail first appeared in a New York newspaper, circa 1806, which defined liquor mixed with sugar, water, and bitters as a "cocktail." Eventually the cocktail hour came to mean the 60-minute interval between the arrival of one's guests and the announcement of dinner.
During cocktails the gentlemen stand until the hostess is seated. And the hostess stands until the last guest has arrived (another reason for punctuality). Although the ladies may sit during the cocktail period, generally they stand for ease in conversation with the men. The majordomo checks with the chef to make sure all is ready and announces dinner when the time is right.
In today’s busy world, most people have neither the time nor the inclination to entertain in a formal manner, and an informal meal ranges from an elegant four-course affair served at a fully appointed table, to a simple two-course meal taken before the fire, to potluck with guests contributing dishes, to buffet service of a one-dish meal, to a picnic with tableware made of paper and plastic. When assistance is needed, family or friends may help, although the host cooks the meal. A professional may be hired to serve and clean up.
The hour for an informal gathering is up to the host. Some allot a short time for cocktails and serve dinner early; others favor a longer period for cocktails and present dinner late. To buffer the preprandial drinks and the wine served with the meal, the host may provide hors d'oeuvres and canapés.
Approximately 15 minutes before the meal, the host announces that dinner is almost ready, a courtesy that allows the guests time to finish drinks and conclude a story in progress.
An informal meal is served wherever space allows; at one end of the living room, in the den, or from a kitchen counter with guests eating from plates held on laps. The important point is not the location of the table but the spirit of the occasion!
Because a two-to-four-course meal takes less time to eat than a five-to-seven course menu, guests sit at the table for approximately 45 minutes. The need to regroup and stretch after dessert is not as imperative as it is in formal dining and after-dinner coffee is served at the table or in another room (hopefully a room free of preprandial paraphernalia).
Service techniques for formal and informal meals, as well as buffets and luncheons, are described more fully in the following sections:
- Mike Lininger, Editor, Etiquette Scholar
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