- Dining, Dinner, and Performance
In a famous scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), the elderly Miss Matty dines at the house of her erstwhile love, Mr. Holbrook. During the meal, duck is served with green peas, which Miss Matty slowly spears, one by one, with the old-fashioned two-pronged fork she has been given, while Mr. Holbrook happily conveys them wholesale into his mouth via his equally old-fashioned wide, blunt-ended knife (74). Miss Matty, as old as Mr. Holbrook, has nevertheless moved with the times and cannot bring herself to use the manners of a bygone age, even when the cutlery demands it.
Food has, in the past few decades, become a focus of much enlightening study: as a market commodity, as an expression of the arrival of industrialization or the creation of the nation-state, as psychosocial expression, and as an example of gender, social, political, or economic history. All of these perspectives are valid and important. Just as important, however, is the notion of mealtime as performance.
As early as the first century, Plutarch, in his Moralia, described the Roman banquet as “a procession and a show” (“On Love of Wealth”), while four centuries later, Macrobius went further, proposing that the food and drink served at banquets was more “for show than for nutritional purposes” (7.5.32). It remains easier to consider such long-ago events as performative than to give the same consideration to the meals that (possibly) our great-grandparents ate. Yet performances they surely were, at least those Victorian-era meals created by and for the leisured classes as markers of their status and wealth.
While Thorstein Veblen did not discuss food or mealtimes, both fit neatly into his analysis of consumption as a social process, as they do into Pierre Bourdieu’s narration of food as a social mechanism of distinction. Meals, particularly meals of the wealthy, therefore, can be analyzed in a number of ways. Most obvious is the physical display of prosperity—the presentation of expensive foodstuffs and wine, eaten off even more expensive china, with cutlery made of precious metals. Then come the service and its changing forms, the times of day for fashionable dining, and the proliferation of items of manufacture and their importance.
The timing of meals changed over the nineteenth century, in part as a status marker. In previous centuries, dinner had been eaten at midday, supper in the early evening, and tea before bed. By the middle of the nineteenth century, dinner had moved later in the day, to accommodate the increasing number of people who worked outside the home. The leisured classes, who did not have to rise early, in turn pushed the meal even later.
Yet, however leisured these hosts might have been, guests were expected to arrive as punctually as any factory worker clocking in. In 1860, The Hand-Book [End Page 173] of Etiquette reminded its readers, “If you are invited to dinner, make a point of being punctual, to the very minute, if possible. It is a great want of breeding to keep those who have invited you, and the other guests, waiting” (18).
Breeding, after all, was a consideration, even at dinner. At a formal dinner party in prosperous homes, guests were shown upstairs to the drawing room and introduced to the person they were to accompany to the table and then sit beside at the meal; they were paired off in descending order, categorized by social rank, age, and marital status. Guidebooks and magazine articles refined in ever greater detail the minutiae of precedence: Did an admiral take precedence over a canon of the church? What about two Regius professors whose chairs were founded in the same year?1
Starting in France in the seventeenth century, meals for the prosperous were served à la française, with the various dishes set out on the table in a lavish display before the diners arrived (hence, the British use of the word entrée, “entrance,” to refer to the first course).2 At the most elaborate dinners, soup tureens sat at either end of the table; at lesser ones, there was soup at one...