During these long winter months, a lot of folks enjoy getting together for meals and entertainment. So let’s take a look at the subject of:
And this isn’t just your ordinary survey of tips and recipes, oh no. Today we have two mavens of fine dining, together in a way only possible through the wonders of the internet.
The first is Mrs. Isabella Beeton, famous 19th century domestic expert and author of The Book of Household Management (1868). According to Mrs. B:
“Man, it has been said, is a dining animal. Creatures of the inferior races eat and drink: only man dines.”
We’re also lucky to have none other than the ultimate domestic diva of our day and age, Martha Stewart. What does Martha have to say about dining?
“It appears on that mental list from childhood of ‘things grown-ups do’: Throw a dinner party.”
Since we all want to be both civilized (Mrs. Beeton) and grown-ups (Martha Stewart), we’ll benefit from consulting both ladies.
That means…it’s mashup time! Isabella vs. Martha. I’ve volunteered to moderate. (Wish me luck.)
KBO: So, ladies, thanks for joining me today, to help our readers understand the important elements of fine dining.
IB: I’ve been here already, dear. Remember last year? My advice about the nursery?
MS: *sniffs* Your readers should skip this malarkey and just read my blog. It’s far superior.
IB: What’s a blog?
KBO: But you’ve never had Mrs. Beeton on your blog, have you, Martha? You weren’t even a gleam in your daddy’s eye when she was giving her household tips. Have you given pointers on how to truss a fowl or make butter?
MS: Yes, I have.
KBO: Oh, right, I forgot. *blush* Well, you don’t know how to slaughter an ox, do you? Tell her, Mrs. B.
MS: …stop right there, lady. I’m having filet mignon tonight. You’ve made your point.
KBO: Now, on to those dining tips. Which do you think is more important, the menu or the setting/decor?
IB: We have sighed over many a dinner where the offerings were irreproachable, and might have been enjoyable, but turned out to be quite the contrary. One must have all of the elements in place, including congenial company.
MS: I so agree with you, Isabella. Decor, food, music, timing, the conduct of the hostess – all my “good things.”
KBO: Glad to see we have a consensus. Let’s start with table decorations. What sort of table setting would you recommend?
IB: We can imagine no household duty more attractive to the ladies of the house than that of making their tables beautiful with the exquisite floral produce of the different seasons. Here’s an illustration from my book:
KBO: Hmm…looks like a ceremonial ring in a tiki village. Not sure that works for me. What do you think, Martha?
MS: Guests should be able to see each other, Isabella. Now, my recent creation doesn’t have that problem: this ring of blossoms seems to float in the air, with globes of tea lights dangling in airy whimsicality. It’s sure to impart a cheerful radiance to any party.
Image by Kristen Ausk, via Flickr (in other words, not Martha).
KBO: Martha, how do you get that thing to stay up? It certainly looks pretty, though swaying tea lights at my house are sure to cause trouble…as in lighting people’s hair on fire.
MS: The instructions are on my website. Of course, you’ll need a blow torch and welder’s face mask, but what serious crafter doesn’t already possess these basic tools?
KBO: And what is that shadow I see in the background? Looks like a mushroom cloud.
MS: Merely an unfortunate photographic angle. I have taken the camera person in question under my wing.
KBO: Mrs. Beeton, you’ve been rather quiet.
IB: *pouts* You didn’t say we could use colour.
KBO: Not to worry, yours is lovely, even in black and white.
IB: Thank you, dear.
KBO: Okay, it’s time for round two: the food. But first, some ground rules: no descriptions of how to slaughter an ox, and no complaints about black-and-white vs. color.
IB: But that’s not fair – she’s wearing a fetching onyx-and-gold blouse, and you can’t even tell what colour I have on.
KBO: Find me a color picture, and I’ll put it up.
MS: Was there even color in the 19th century?
IB: What an absurd question! And it’s colour, dear, not color.
MS: Sounds the same to me. You British don’t know how to spell anything properly. Like gaol, for instance.
KBO: I think we’re getting a bit off-topic here. Readers have better things to do than to listen to you two sniping at each other. Like getting a tooth drilled. Let’s get back to the menu. Mrs. Beeton?
IB: It’s all in my book:
KBO: Hmm. If we’re going by that rule in my house, that leaves out everything but Easy Mac and Cheerios. Martha, you’re both the cook and hostess for your dinner parties. What would you recommend?
MS and IB: What’s Easy Mac ?
KBO: Well, it’s sort of like pasta…
MS: Never mind; I don’t want to know. You can do better. With all of our modern conveniences, we 21st century women can do it all!
Image by Michael Bennett, via wikimedia. Not really Martha’s.
KBO: …but, Easy Mac is a modern convenience…
MS: You know what I mean. Now, here’s something you can cook:
KBO: Looks yummy.
MS: Roasting chicken atop a layer of shallots infuses the meat with their flavor; further, the shallots carmelize as they cook. Baby new potatoes and fresh broccoli from one’s summer garden are lightly steamed, and a demi-glace is drizzled on top for an artful presentation.
KBO: If I could serve it with a side of your verbs and adjectives, I just might be able to pull it off. I suspect, though, that my house would be “infused” with the smell of burnt onions instead.
MS: Well, we only have so much to work with, don’t we?
IB: Poultry is an excellent suggestion, Martha. Ooh, wait! I have a colour picture of my poultry dish and other meat suggestions:
KBO: Mrs. B, how could you? You killed Thumper. My guests would run screaming from that. We don’t serve meat dishes with head and feet still attached anymore, unless it’s a luau.
IB: Who’s Thumper?
KBO: *sigh* Well, ladies, that’s all we have time for today! Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. I know I’ve learned a lot today. Good luck with your future endeavors.
MS: Can I go back to my real life now?
IB: That’s a little hard for me to do, dear – remember? I’m dead.
KBO: Oh, yes, how silly of me.
So, as we part ways with Isabella and Martha, why not share your dinner party successes and failures? (I really did have a *small* fire at one – well, maybe two – of my celebrations). How elaborate do your centerpieces get when you host a party? How recognizable should our meat sources be when we serve them? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,
cover art by Melinda VanLone
P.S. – join me on my blog tour (starting next week) to launch my new mystery, Unseemly Pursuits! The book is the second in the Concordia Wells series.
Click here for the schedule, along with details on the giveaways!
Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen). Kathy is a
recovering former English professor with a PhD in 19th century British literature, and the author of the Concordia Wells mysteries. She is currently raising three boys and working on Books 3 and 4 in the series.
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