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What Makes a Formal Dinner

If posting is sparse for a while, it’s because we just moved to a new place and this week they’re painting our new kitchen, so it will be a few more days before we can get in there to unpack the kitchen stuff and start cooking. In the meantime, I’ll simply do my best, even if all we have made in the new place so far was lemonade to drink together out of a mason jar in the backyard. We traded the jar and my laptop back and forth, mooching internet access off a neighbor, as we do not yet have our own.

Anyways, here’s a photo and essay from the vaults.

Dave and I wanted to host a formal dinner party last New Year’s Eve, and we had a bit of an adventure trying to determine what makes a formal dinner. In the end, of course, I turned to Miss Manners.

I have trusted Miss Manners implicitly ever since I first read her response to the lady who wrote in asking what she should do when her husband wishes to kiss her after having eaten garlic and developed strongly odorous breath.

“Well, Miss Manners isn’t going to do it for you!” wrote Miss Manners. My hero! She should have also pointed out that anyone who minds garlic breath is not worth kissing at all.

In her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Miss Manners set out a list of the fourteen courses to be served at a formal dinner. They are as follows:

1. Oysters or clams on the half shell. Fruit or caviar may be served instead.
2. Soup, giving each guest a choice of clear or thick.
3. Radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds.
4. Fish, served with fancifully shaped potatoes and cucumbers with oil and vinegar.
5. Sweetbreads or mushrooms.
6. Artichokes, asparagus, or spinach in pastry.
7. A roast or joint, as we say, with a green vegetable.
8. Frozen Roman punch, to clear the palate and stimulate you to go on.
9. Game, such as wild duck or little birdies, served with salad.
10. Heavy pudding or another creamed sweet.
11. A frozen sweet. It is a nice touch to have tiny crisp cakes with this.
12. Cheeses. with biscuits and butter. Or you may serve a hot savory of cheese, which is more filling.
13. Fresh, crystallized, and stuffed dried fruits, served with bonbons.
14. Coffee, liqueurs, and sparkling waters.

We followed her guidelines, more or less, but I don’t think we would do so in the future. Formal dinners no longer need follow such rigorous guidelines. Miss Manners may consider that a great shame, but it seems to open the door to far more creativity. We could have such fun serving a vast array of very small tasting dishes to be shared among the guests, and play with all the diversity that allows.

But perhaps we lose something by being so used to small, very different sorts of dishes being served at each meal. My father likes to tell me that when he was growing up, he thought of each record as a work that made sense when listened to in its entirety, each song in order. Each song led into the next, and the record as a whole was the work of art. But I always rip my CDs immediately after purchasing them and listen to the mp3s on shuffle. So many of us have lost the ability to hear a record as more than just a jumble of songs, or a meal as more than just a jumble of dishes.

I know how to cook individual dishes that work in themselves, but I don’t know how to plan a meal where the courses lead each into each in a rising crescendo of taste, until the coda of coffee in the end. I still consider Miss Manners’s fourteen course list to be too restrictive, but it was a good starting point in my quest to learn how to put together a complete meal. I will certainly post about other good resources on this as I come across them.

In case you were wondering, the little birdie in the photo was a seared quail with cranberry vinegar reduction. When that course was served, our guests very formally and correctly put down their silverware and ripped into the little birdies with their bare hands.

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4 Responses to “What Makes a Formal Dinner”

  1. Ivonne says:

    Next time you have a formal dinner … please invite me!!!???

    By the way, I hope you post some pics of your new kitchen!

    Danielle, you’re a great writer!

  2. Danielle says:

    Ivonne – Next time you manage to get down to NYC, let me know and we will absolutely have you over for dinner!

  3. Diana says:

    Ooh, I love Miss Manners! I think my favorite of her replies was to the request to explain why on earth the newlyweds were supposed to leave the wedding reception early. “Miss Manners fears that there is no way she can make young people today understand why brides and bridegrooms were eager to get away to be alone with each other, instead of partying all night .”

    And that looks like quite a dinner.

  4. novalis says:

    I was there and it was tasty (also, I am testing comments).

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