Downstairs Dinner

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DINNER DOWNSTAIRS WAS, AS UPSTAIRS, THE main meal of the day, made up of the most substantial dishes and served with a degree of formality. At Downton we often see the servants’ dinner in progress, presided over by the most senior servant, Mr. Carson, the butler. Staff were expected to exhibit good table manners, and conversations were, as they often are at Downton, censored by the upper staff if they were deemed to be unsuitable topics for the dinner table.

Servants’ dinners consisted of only two courses, unlike the seven-course extravaganzas upstairs. At Downton, as with many houses, they are served in the old-fashioned manner, with many dishes put on the table at once. Service was not a free-for-all, however, not least because several of those present could be expected to serve at the upstairs table and would have learned some of their skills downstairs. This included both footmen and, on less formal occasions such as luncheons, housemaids.
The food was plain but plentiful. Large cuts of poached meat were a standard fixture in most servants’ halls, along with a range of stews and casseroles, which often made their appearance every week on a fixed day. Sundays generally involved a roasted meat, though very rarely was it chicken or game, as these were expensive and prestigious. Rabbit, considered a pest, was common, as was pork, which was cheap, and the less tender cuts of mutton and beef. Unlike upstairs, where serving out-of-season vegetables was deemed desirable to show off the skills of the gardeners, downstairs the vegetables were more seasonal and tended to be served simply boiled and then dressed with butter. Lots of bread, potatoes, and, especially by the 1920s, dishes such as macaroni, rice, or semolina that had once been considered somewhat exotic were served as well.

Dinner downstairs also involved a sweet. These were often starch-based dishes, such as rice pudding, tapioca pudding, macaroni pudding, and cornstarch blancmange, which were simple to make, forgiving in terms of timing, and easy to vary with a spoonful of jam or some puréed fruit. The rather indefinable and quintessentially British term pudding was almost universally applied to these working-class sweets, and while it often meant something boiled in a pudding dish, for the purposes of the servants’ hall, it could also be a baked dish. The servants’ hall ran on puddings, and though many of them are now forgotten or derided, they were often very good.

The usual drink in servants’ halls was water or tea, though in some houses beer was still considered a necessary part of the daily allowance. Wine was very rarely consumed, or at least not officially. One of the well-known perils for butlers was alcoholism, generally brought on by easy and constant access to his lordship’s port and wine. On special occasions, such as Christmas and New Year’s, we see the Downton servants indulge in punch, though it would have been of a somewhat lower grade than the version upstairs.

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