Monday, November 22, 2010

Taking to Table: An Introduction to Place and Table Setting.

"Many Happy Returns of the Day", William Powell Frith, 1856.

Let’s face it. It’s one thing to embark on an historical cooking project, dive head-long into the text, strategize and shop out the dish or meal, and then cook. Don’t you end up missing something? Oh, I don’t know. . . call me crazy, but that’s the process, which is all well and good. However, it’s historical cooking, right? So, how ‘bout exploring some HISTORY!!

The first section in Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book, is actually dedicated to table settings. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect place to start exploration of not only a time period, but the why’s, when’s, and how’s of the period in which it was written. The book, originally written in 1871, has an entire section devoted on the proper/fashionable/acceptable modes of table setting for the basic meals in which families – Jewish or otherwise – would have set their table for taking their breakfast, luncheon, and dinners. The details are fairly thorough, covering the basics as well as additional information on how best to make the tablescape as utilitarian and appealing as possible.

I kept reading and re-reading this section as I was considering NOT (I know, I know.) actually including this element in the project. Then it occurred to me – How Can You NOT?!?! This information is as essential as the food you’re about to cook! It’s a snapshot of an element of daily life that was sacrosanct! You cannot honor the works of this author, those hard-working cooks who used these recipes, or the families and individuals who ate the meals without also including what this fundamental aspect of their communion was like. Give the provenance! Provide the details! Allow the vision of what that table looked like when the family was gathered and for a few brief minutes each day, hummed with domestic harmony!

Mrs. Levy has been good enough to provide us with a sampling of information on her views of how the table should be set for various meals and their stages, however, there are a few loopholes for modern reader understanding. It should be noted that in some instances information considered common knowledge to the audience she originally wrote for is not mentioned. To help flesh out those parts, I’ve taken the liberty of pulling additional sources from or around the time period to help fill in those gaps. For your consideration, please feel free to visit the following for additional information and resources to continue whetting your Victorian appetite:

Mrs. Isabella Beeton, Author, “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management”:

Mr. Arthur Martine, Author, “Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette”:

Miss Eliza Leslie, Author, “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book”

Judith Flanders, Author, “Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England.”

So, here it is, Gentle Reader! Welcome to 1871! Hope you’re hungry!

For the meals described and featured in both the text and interpretations, the following format has been used:

* Original Description from the Text.
* Interpretation of the text.
* Commentary, Additions, & Changes, Etc.
* Line Drawing / Diagram of Set Table.Modern Photograph of Set Table According to Description & Changes

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