However strange may appear the statement, yet we have no hesitation in saying that one of the greatest steps ever made in economy in giving dinner-parties was the introduction into this country of the dinner a la Russe. It will be our endeavour in the present article both to prove and illustrate this point by contrasting a small dinner-party of thirty or forty years ago with a modern one. As we have already remarked, our observations are intended to apply to those whose status in society may be best described as possessing neither poverty nor riches. We will suppose the number of persons at dinner to be about ten or a dozen.
My mind now goes back to some people I knew very well in my younger days, and who will make admirable representatives of a very large portion of the backbone of English society: exceedingly kind, generous, and hospitable, but whose ideas of cooking contained a strong element of contempt for what they called—recollect, I am speaking of thirty years ago— French messes.
The time is soon after Christmas, and the party a family one. The boys of the party, in their large white collars outside their jackets, look flushed and happy, and may be seen furtively looking from time to time at a bright yellow coin, which they keep in their waistcoat pockets—the coin in question being a recent " tip " in the shape of a Christmas-box from the stout and hospitable host.
But dinner is announced, and we soon find ourselves seated round a large table that may almost be said literally to groan with the weight of the good things placed on it.
First, some good mock-turtle soup — no doubt about it being a jelly when cold—a sort of soup that, in the present day of beards and moustachios, would require some care in taking.
Next the cover is taken off a huge cod-fish, big enough to have swallowed Jonah himself when he was a little boy, handed round with which was some oyster sauce as it should be, containing oysters in numbers. Ah ! the very memory of it makes us heave a deep sigh. Good oysters could then be obtained at four-pence a dozen, and now—three shillings a dozen.
The present Chancellor of the Exchequer might well bring in a poll-tax on the men who eat oysters.
Next the four entrees were uncovered, and the silver lids taken out of the room, for the handles to be unscrewed, the dishes wiped, rubbed with a leather for a minute, and then they made four new silver dishes for the sweets. The entre'es were as follows :— Oyster patties, curried rabbit, stewed kidneys, and what used to be called a beef olive—which consisted of a steak rolled with veal stuffing, and some very thick brown gravy poured over it.
After all these had been partially consumed, the covers were taken off what is termed the piece de resistance, which consisted of a huge sirloin of beef, looking somewhat like the host himself, fat and jolly, with scraped horse-radish instead of grey hair; or perhaps a fine haunch of mutton, with a paper frill round its wrist, something like a lady's cuff.
At the other end of the table were generally two large capons, with a boiled tongue between them; beside which, two side-dishes, the one a pigeon pie, and the other a small York ham.
We will not go on to describe the second course. As a rule, lady housekeepers have no difficulty in superintending this part of the dinner. There are hundreds and thousands of ladies who can make a splendid dish of trifle or a mould of jelly, who would not have the slightest idea of gravy. It was but yesterday I was dining out where the gravy was handed round, which looked and tasted like pale, weak beef-tea, which in truth it was.
At other places, too, cooks seem to think that when gravy is required, all they have to do is to put a little of the soup in the sauce-tureen, and send it up.
We would inform them that soup and gravy are two distinct things. Perhaps at some future period we may have a whole article on gravy, for gravy is a very weak point with inexperienced cooks.
But to return to the dinner above-mentioned. We do not for one moment wish it to be understood that we complain of it. It is a sort of dinner that makes people, when they come home late in the evening, at any rate feel they have dined, and do not, as is too often the case after some of those large dinners where fruit, flowers, and ice abound, on their arrival want a sandwich and glass of sherry or brandy and soda before going to bed. What we do maintain is that it is exceedingly expensive, and that a handsome little dinner a la Russe can be served up for less than half the money.
One strange thing in connection with the subject is that when the a la Russe style was first introduced into this country, nearly all those persons who may be described generally as homely people, who make a point of always keeping well in the wake of fashion rather than the van, we say those persons had an idea that the new style was very elegant, but that they could not afford it. We believe that there is still an impression abroad that a dinner a la Russe must necessarily be a very expensive affair ; we will therefore proceed to describe a cheap but nice-looking little dinner, and, if space permit, how to make the dishes.
In the first place, flowers, like Mrs. Scratchit's ribbons, make a great show for sixpence. Where there is a good garden, there ought to be no difficulty in making a dinner-table look nice. All that is required is a little taste. It is well to bear in mind, however, that in selecting flowers dark-green leaves and the colour blue or violet should not be forgotten. We will suppose, therefore, the table arranged : the dessert and plenty of flowers, and nothing else, for we do not believe in the modern compromise so often seen —i.e., some dishes placed on the table, as well as the dessert.
Now for the dinner. First—say the time of the year be the present—Julienne soup, bright as sherry, with just a taste of tarragon in it ; a turbot or brill,with lobster sauce ; a dish of chicken cutlets, white as snow, with little small green and red leaves in the centre of each, about half an inch long, and a little red lobster-claw representing the bone, served in a silver dish, with aspic jelly piled up in the centre. Another entrée ot eggs and spinach—always a pretty-looking dish—some lobster cutlets, and some rissoles. Next a haunch of mutton—i.e., a small roast leg of mutton cut outside the room haunch-fashion, parallel with the bone—and red-currant jelly handed with it.