How to Host a Downton Dinner

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The etiquette of dining at Downton Abbey is a mixture of experience, written guidance, and the needs of shooting a fast-paced drama. Every country house had slightly different habits, but the general outline was the same, and a solid knowledge of how to behave at dinner was drummed into children as soon as they were old enough to eat at a table. Aristocratic dining was invariably slightly at odds with the middle-class rules laid out in etiquette books, and was in a state of constant flux to keep it exclusive to those brought up to it. As one commentator put it, “a manual of etiquette in the possession of a diner is virtually a pièce de conviction.”

In a modern context, unless you happen to have a substantial waiting staff, preferably in livery, a sideboard with paraphernalia for keeping dishes hot, and guests who all know exactly how to behave, it’s wise to slim down the rules and make a nod to Downton without necessarily copying it in its entirety. Even within the scope of the series, etiquette changes subtly, in line with the changing times. However, with the Earl heading the household throughout, the style of dining does not differ as much as it would if, for example, Lady Mary suddenly took charge of the dining table. And the style would have been different again were it set up as the Dowager Countess dined in her heyday.
This section is, therefore, designed to help you tread a path between Edwardian excess and 1920s elegance in your own home and without any Carsons or Thomases to help you out.

SETTING THE TABLE Flowers, and as many as possible, down the middle of the table and on side tables and in empty fireplaces (unless the fire is burning) are key here. By the late Edwardian era, no food would have been present on the table at all, except perhaps a large and beautifully arranged fruit bowl. No jam jars or other late-twentieth-century containers are permitted—instead, vases all the way. Downton has electricity, and small, shaded lights were normal on the table, but many houses preferred candlelight, as it was seen as more flattering and theatrical.

A large, white tablecloth is obligatory, but color was well liked, so lampshades, napery, glasses, and tableware can all be as lavish as you fancy. When it comes to plates, cutlery, and the like, if you don’t have anything of the era, plain white is generally a good choice, for it fades nicely into the background. All the cutlery should be laid out before the meal starts, in the order in which it will be needed (that is, soupspoons on the outside, then fish cutlery, and so on), and it was still sometimes the fashion to lay forks and spoons facing down, to show off the family crests. Glasses for every type of wine that will be poured must be provided, plus a tumbler for water.
Written menus were generally provided at the side of each plate, along with a folded napkin (often very elaborately starched into the shape of a tulip, swan, or crown in the Edwardian era and less so in the 1920s), with a bread roll tucked within its folds.
Most advice books point out that too much attention can be spent on the decoration, including the story of a diner who, when asked what he thought, commented merely, “My dear fellow, sell your plate and get a cook.”

BEFORE DINNER It’s entirely up to you whether to serve predinner cocktails. They are, let’s face it, quite exciting. In theory, you should gather in a separate room and progress into dinner in status order, with the host taking the arm of the highest-status woman, the hostess taking the arm of the highest-status man, and everyone paired off neatly (naturally, you’d have equal numbers of men and women in the perfect Downton world). This method can be very fraught unless you all have clear titles, so it may be easier simply to go through to dinner in your own way.

THE MENU If you want to go all out and provide eight courses, do it. Otherwise, a more muted (and manageable) dinner might be soup or fish, entrée or roast, vegetable, and sweet entremets or dessert or savory. For large dinners at Downton, a choice would have been on offer, but at smaller dinners the menu was more often set, so pick your dishes as you desire. Assuming you don’t have footmen, you may wish to plate up in the kitchen and give people individual plates, or have one large platter that you put on a side table and either delegate one person to serve or have a slight free-for-all.

DRINK Generally, meals started with sherry with the soup and/or fish, then progressed to hock, with possibly Champagne after the entrée, and a digression into Burgundy or claret, plus port or whisky to end. You may wish to remain partially sober and judge how much drink to offer. One guide advised the aspiring man about town that as the sweet courses drew near, “if you have been drinking claret throughout the meal, either claret or port is excellent to continue on. But if you have been drinking champagne, claret is sour after it, and port and champagne is to some a deadly mixture. Yet another glass of champagne with dessert is often the course which can be pursued with the greatest safety and enjoyment.” The drinks were served by a footman, and the bottles or decanters kept on a sideboard.

EATING Reams of words were written on how to eat various foods, from tackling bananas with a knife and fork to maneuvering asparagus with your fingers to the terrifying perils of eating oranges. Attempting to follow Edwardian etiquette from books is not only fraught with issues but also requires vast quantities of cutlery, an iron will, and an amazing memory (or a book on your lap). Even then it would not necessarily be the way they did it at Downton. However, if you do fancy having a crack at it, for some recommendations of suitable books for turning your middle-class habits into aristocratic gold.

THE REMOVE Sometimes at Downton you’ll hear people talk about a dish called “the remove.” The remove was a feature of some versions of the old-fashioned à la française dining style, a way of dining that involved anything up to twenty dishes laid on the table at once for each of two courses (plus dessert). There was an order for eating the array—first the soup, next the fish, then the rest—and it wasn–t always practical, as the fish got cold while people ate their soup. In the late eighteenth century, the custom developed in which once the soup (at one end of the table) was consumed, it would be “removed” by fish, which might also be “removed” by another dish in its turn, before all of the dishes on the table would then be uncovered and eaten. Over time, the replacement dishes became known as “the remove,” and even after the service style changed to the sequential à la russe style we see at Downton, the name hung about, now divorced from its original meaning. You can largely ignore this tradition for your own Downton dinner, unless you are desperate to serve something outside your planned menu, in which case just confidently announce it as “the remove” and smile knowingly.

AFTER DINNER Men and women generally separated, the men remaining behind for fifteen minutes or so to drink port and put the world to rights. This habit was in decline by the 1920s, but you should serve coffee and tea. If you are feeling particularly daring and have a piano, then encouraging those who can to perform party pieces would be entirely in keeping.

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