The Art of Entertaining Part 1


The Art of Entertaining

The Art of Entertaining Part 1

The Art of Entertaining.

by M. E. W. Sherwood.


In America the art of entertaining as compared with the same art in England, in France, in Italy and in Germany may be said to be in its infancy. But if it is, it is a very vigorous infant, perhaps a little overfed. There is no such prodigality of food anywhere nor a more genuinely hospitable people in the world than those descendants of the Pilgrims and the Cavaliers who peopled the North and South of what we are privileged to call the United States. Exiles from Fatherland taught the Indians the words "Welcome!" and "What Cheer?"--a beautiful and a n.o.ble prophecy. Well might it be the motto for our national shield. We, who welcome to our broad garden-lands the hungry and the needy of an overcrowded old world, can well appropriate the legend.

No stories of that old Biblical world of the patriarchs who lived in tents have been forgotten in the New World. The Western settler who placed before his hungry guest the last morsel of jerked meat, or whose pale, overworked wife broiled the fish or the bird which had just fallen before his unerring gun,--these people had mastered in their way the first principle in the art of entertaining. They have the hospitality of the heart. From that meal to a Newport dinner what an infinite series of gradations!

Perhaps we may help those on the lower rungs of the ladder to mount from one to the other. Perhaps we may hint at the poetry, the romance, the history, the literature of entertaining; perhaps with practical hints of how to feed our guests we may suggest where meat faileth to feed the soul, and where intellect, wit, and taste come in.

American dinners are p.r.o.nounced by foreign critics as overdone. The great _too much_ is urged against us. We are a wasteful people as to food; we should learn an elegant and a wise economy. In a French family, eggs and lumps of sugar are counted. Economy is a part of the art of entertaining; if judiciously studied it is far from n.i.g.g.ardliness. Such economy leads to judicious selection.

One has but to read the Odes of Horace to learn how much of the mind can be appropriately devoted to the art of entertaining. Milton does not disdain, in Paradise Lost, to give us the _menu_ of Eve's dinner to the Angel. We find in all great poets and historians stories of great feasts. And with us in the nineteenth century, dinner is not alone a thing of twelve courses, it is the bright consummate flower of the day, which brings us all together from our various fields of work.

It is the open sesame of the soul, the hour of repose, of amus.e.m.e.nt, of innocent hilarity,--the hour which knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. The body is carefully apparelled, the mind swept and garnished, the brain prepared for fresh impress. It is said that no important political movement was ever inaugurated without a dinner, and we may fancifully state that no great poem, no novel, no philosophical treatise, but has been made or marred by a dinner.

There is much entertaining, however, which is not eating. We do not gorge ourselves, as in the days of Dr. Johnson, until the veins in the forehead swell to bursting, but perhaps we are just as far from those banquets which Horace describes,--a gla.s.s of Falernian, a kid roasted, a bunch of grapes, and a rose, with good talk afterward. We have not mingled enough of the honey of Hymettus with our cookery.

Lady Morgan described years ago a dinner at Baron Rothschild's in Paris where the fineness of the napery, the beauty of the porcelain and china, the light, digestible French dishes, seemed to her a great improvement on the heaviness of an English dinner. That one paper is said to have altered the whole fabric of English dinner-giving.

English dinners of to-day are superlatively good and agreeable in the best houses, and although national English cookery is not equal to that on the other side of the Channel, perhaps we could not have a better model to follow. We can compa.s.s an "all round" mastery of the art of entertaining if we choose.

It is not alone the wealth of America which can a.s.sist us, although wealth is a good thing. It is our boundless resource, and the capability, spirit, and generosity of our people. Venice alone at one imperial moment of her success had such a chance as we have; she was free, she was industrious, she was commercial, she was rich, she was artistic. All the world paid her tribute. And we see on her walls to-day, fixed there by the pencils of Tintoretto and t.i.tian, what was her idea of the art of entertaining. Poetry, painting, and music were the hand-maidens of plenty; they wait upon those G.o.dlike men and those beautiful women. It is a saturnalia of colour, an apotheosis of plenty with no vulgar excess, with no slumberous repletion. "'Tis but the fool who loves excess," says our American Horace in his "Ode to an Old Punch Bowl."

When we read Charles Lamb's "Essay on Roast Pig," Brillat Savarin's grave and witty "Physiologie du Gout," Thackeray's "Fitz Boodle's Professions," Sydney Smith's poetical recipe for a salad; when we read Disraeli's description of dinners, or the immortal recipes for good cheer which d.i.c.kens has scattered through his books, we learn how much the better part of dinner is that which we do not eat, but only think about. What a liberal education to hear the late Samuel Ward talk about good dinners! Variety not vegetables, manners not meat, was his motto. He invested the whole subject with a sort of cla.s.sic elegance and a humorous sense of responsibility. Anacreon and Charles Delmonico seemed to mingle in his brain, and one would gladly now be able to dine with him and Longfellow at their yearly Christmas dinner.

Cookery books, receipts, and _menus_ are apt to be of little use to young housekeepers before they have mastered the great art of entertaining. Then they are like the system of logarithms to the mariner. Almost all young housekeepers are at sea without a chart. A great, turbulent ocean of butchers, bakers and Irish servants swim before their eyes. How grapple with that important question, "How shall I give a dinner?" Who can help them? Shall we try?



"Let observation, with extensive view, Survey mankind from China to Peru."

The amount of game and fish which our great country and extent of sea-coast give us, the variety of climate from Florida to Maine, from San Francisco to Boston, which the remarkable net-work of our railway communication allows us to enjoy,--all this makes the American market in any great city almost fabulously profuse. Then our steamships bring us fresh artichokes from Algiers in mid-winter, and figs from the Mediterranean, while the remarkable climate of California gives us four crops of delicate fruits a year.

There are those, however, who find the fruits of California less finely flavoured than those of the Eastern States. The peaches of the past are almost a lost flavour, even at the North. The peach of Europe is a different and far inferior fruit. It lacks that essential flavour which to the American palate tells of the best of fruits.

It may be well, for the purposes of gastronomical history, to narrate the variety of the larder in the height of the season, of a certain sea-side club-house, a few years ago:

"The season lasted one hundred and eighty days, during which time from eighty thousand to ninety thousand game-birds, and eighteen thousand pounds of fish were consumed, exclusive of domestic poultry, steaks and chops. On busy days twenty-four kinds of fish, all fit for epicures, embracing turbot, Spanish mackerel, sea trout; the various kinds of ba.s.s, including that gamest of fish the black ba.s.s, bonito from the Gulf of Mexico, the purple mullet, the weakfish, chicken halibut, sole, plaice, the frog, the soft crab from the Chesapeake, were served. Here, packed tier upon tier in glistening ice, were some thirty kinds of birds in the very ecstasy of prime condition, and all ready prepared for the cook. Let us enumerate 'this royal fellowship of game.' There were owls from the North (we might call them by some more enticing name), chicken grouse from Illinois, chicken partridge, Lake Erie black and summer ducks and teal, woodc.o.c.k, upland plover (by many esteemed as the choicest of morsels), dough-birds, brant, New Jersey millet, G.o.dwit, jack curlew, jacksnipe, sandsnipe, rocksnipe, humming-birds daintily served in, golden plover, beetle-headed plover, redbreast plover, chicken plover, seckle-bill curlew, summer and winter yellow-legs, reed-birds and rail from Delaware (the latter most highly esteemed in Europe, where it is known as the ortolan), ring-neck snipe, brown backs, gra.s.s-bird, and peeps."

Is not this a list to make "the rash gazer wipe his eye"?

And to show our riches and their poverty in the matter of game, let us give the game statistics of France for one September. There are thirty thousand communes in France, and in each commune there were killed on the average on September 1, ten hares,--total, three hundred thousand; seventeen partridges,--total, five hundred and ten thousand; fourteen quail,--total, four hundred and twenty thousand; one rail in each commune,--thirty thousand total as to rails. That was all France could do for the furnishing of the larder; of course she imports game from Savoy, Germany, Norway, and England. And oh, how she can cook them!

Woodc.o.c.k, it is said, should be cooked the day it is shot, or certainly when fresh. Birds that feed on or near the water should be eaten fresh; so should snipe and some kinds of duck. The canvasback alone bears keeping, the others get fishy.

Snipe should be picked by hand, on no account drawn; that is a practice worthy of an Esquimaux. Nor should any condiment be cooked with woodc.o.c.k, save b.u.t.ter or pork. A piece of toast under him, to catch his fragrant gravy, and the delicious trail should alone be eaten with the snipe; but a bottle of Chambertin may be drunk to wash him down.

The plover should be roasted quickly before a hot fire; nor should even a pork jacket be applied if one wishes the delicious juices of the bird alone. This bird should be served with water-cresses.

Red wine should be drunk with game,--Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, or a sound Lafitte or La Tour claret. Champagne is not the wine to serve with game; that belongs to the filet. With beef _braise_ a gla.s.s of good golden sherry is allowable, but not champagne. The deep purple, full-bodied, velvety wines of the Cote d'Or,--the generous vintages of Burgundy,--are in order. Indeed these wines always have been in high renown. They are pa.s.sed as presents from one royal personage to another, like a _cordon d'honneur_. Burgundy was the wine of n.o.bles and churchmen, who always have had enviable palates.

Chambertin is a lighter kind of Volnay and the _vin veloute par excellence_ of the Cote d'Or. It was a great favourite with Napoleon I. To considerable body it unites a fine flavour and a _suave bouquet_ of great _finesse_, and does not become thin with age like other Burgundies. As for the Clos de Vougeot, its characteristics are a rich ruby colour, velvety softness, a delicate bouquet, which has a slight suggestion of the raspberry. It is a strong wine, less refined in flavour than the Chambertin, and with a suggestion of bitterness. It was so much admired by a certain military commander that while marching his regiment to the Rhine he commanded his men to halt before the vineyard and salute it. They presented arms in its honour.

Chateau Lafitte, renowned for its magnificent colour, exquisite softness, delicate flavour, and fragrant bouquet, recalling almonds and violets, is one of the wines of the Gironde, and is supposed of late to have deteriorated in quality; but it is quite good enough to command a high price and the attention of _connoisseurs_.

Chateau La Tour, a grand Medoc claret, derives its name from an existing ancient, ma.s.sive, round tower, which the English a.s.sailed and defended by turns during the wars in Guienne. It has a p.r.o.nounced flavour, and a powerful bouquet, common to all wines of the Gironde.

It reminds one of the odour of almonds, and of Noyau cordials.

These vineyards were in great repute five centuries ago; and it would be delightful to pursue the history of the various _crus_, did time permit. The Cos d'Estoumet of the famous St. Estephe _crus_ is still made by the peasants treading out the grapes, _foule a pied_, to the accompaniment of pipes and fiddles as in the days of Louis XIV.

We will mention the two _premiers grands crus_ of the Gironde, the growth of the ancient vineyards of Leoville and the St. Julian wines, distinguished by their odour of violets.

Thackeray praises Chambertin in verse more than once:--

"'Oui, oui, Monsieur,' 's the waiter's answer; 'Quel vin Monsieur desire-t-il?'

'Tell me a good one.'--'That I can, sir: The Chambertin, with yellow seal.'"

Then again he speaks of dipping his gray beard in the Gascon wine 'ere Time catches him at it and Death knocks the crimson goblet from his lips.

In countries where wine is grown there is little or no drunkenness. It is to be feared that drunkenness is increased by impure wines. It is shocking to read of the adulterations which first-cla.s.s wines are subjected to, or rather the adulterations which are called first-cla.s.s wines.

Wilkie Collins has a hit at this in his "No Name," where he makes the famous Captain Wragge say, "We were engaged at the time in making, in a small back parlour in Brompton, a fine first-cla.s.s sherry, sound in the mouth, tonic in character, and a great favourite with the Court of Spain."

Our golden sherry, our Chambertin, our Chateau Lafitte is said often to come from the vineyards of Jersey City and the generous hillsides of Brooklyn; and we might perhaps quote from the famous song of "The Ca.n.a.l":--

"The tradesmen who in liquor deal, Of our Ca.n.a.l good use can make; And when they mean their casks to fill, They oft its water freely take.

By this device they render less The ills that spring from drunkenness; For harmless is the wine, you'll own, From vines that in is grown."

A large proportion of the so-called foreign wines sold in America are of American manufacture. The medium grade clarets and so-called Sauternes are made in California, in great quant.i.ties. Our Senator, Leland Stanford, makes excellent wines. On the islands of Lake Erie, the lake region of Central New York, and along the banks of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, are vineyards producing excellent wines. An honest American wine is an excellent thing to drink; and yet it disgusted Commodore McVicker, who was entertained in London as President of our Yacht Club, to be asked to drink American wines. Yet the Catawbas, "dulcet, delicious and creamy," are not to be despised; neither are the sweet and dry California growths.

The indigenous wines which come from Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Mississippi are likely to be musty and foxy, and are not pleasant to an American taste. The Catawbas are pleasant, and are of three colours,--rose colour, straw colour, and colourless, if that be a colour. In taste they are like sparkling Moselle, but fuller to the palate.

The wine produced from the Isabella grape is of a decided raspberry flavour. The finest American wines are those produced from the vines known as Norton's Virginia and the Cynthiana. The former produces a well-blended, full-bodied, deep-coloured, aromatic, and almost astringent wine; the second,--probably the finer of the two,--is a darker, less astringent, and more delicate product.

Among the American red wines may be mentioned the product of the Schuylkill Muscadel, which was the only esteemed growth in the country previous to the cultivation of the Catawba grape, being in fact ambitiously compared to the _crus_ of the Gironde. It was a bitter, acidulous wine, little suited to the American palate, and invariably requiring an addition of either sugar or alcohol.

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