Which Fork When? Formal Dinners in Novels

We’ve all read, in historical novels, about the elaborate meals that were served. Additionally, we’ve seen those meals take place in historical movies and television programs like Downton Abbey.  In a time when we mostly set the table according to the few courses we’re having for dinner, the formal place setting is probably not known to many people who don’t live in castles.  As far as how one would know how to eat a particular dish and what to use,   I can only imagine that is why one went to finishing school.

Of course, young men didn’t go to finishing school so I wonder who taught them. 

It would be important to know what to do when at the table and how to eat each of the many courses.

A Regency dinner party was quite an affair encompassing several courses with a multitude of dishes at each. Guests who sat down to eat were faced with soup, meat, game, pickles, jellies, vegetables, custards, puddings- anywhere from five to twenty five dishes depending on the grandeur of the occasion.  https://www.janeausten.co.uk/regency-dinner-parties-and-etiquette/

If you get stuck in this situation (for example you go back in time or end up eating with royalty), watch what others do and failing that start at the outside and work your way in.

I found this place setting shown below for a formal meal on Wikimedia.  I was surprised by the way the meal  for the unfolds as shown on Wikipedia’s article on Place Setting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_setting.).  This article explains how customs differ in different countries.  This shows a “French” style service.  We can be sure that even the French have changed over time.

By Hopefulromntic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Hopefulromntic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The setting is described as follows:
Place setting with place card holder, individual salt cellar and pepper shaker, utensil setting for 8 courses (charger plate, dinner napkin in napkin ring, bread plate, individual butter dish with lid, butter spreader on crystal knife rest, cocktail fork, soup spoon, fish knife and fork and crescent shaped bone dish for fish bones, entrée knife and fork, ice cream fork (for sorbet during palate cleansing course), relevé (main) course knife and fork, salad knife and fork, dessert fork and dessert spoon. Also stemware for water goblet, sherry glass, white wine glass, red wine glass, and champagne flute. Salad course is served in European fashion at end of meal. Sherry is served during appetizer and soup courses, white wine is served during fish and entrée courses, red wine during the relevé (main) course, and champagne during the dessert course. Coffee/tea would be served after the dessert course.



The first course would be the appetizer course. A server would place an appetizer service, like a seafood cocktail serving coupe on a plate on your dish. The cocktail fork is shown to be used to consume this course.

That would be removed and a soup bowl would arrive and of course then the soup spoon would be used. In this service the soup is served with sherry.

Then the next utensil on either side would be used for the courses: the fish knife has that slanted edge across the top to assist in removing bones which are placed in the bone dish. The fork looks like the space between the middle times dips lower.

The next course to be placed on your dish would be the entree course, which we probably think of as the main dish. It is served with what I think of as a butter knife and the next fork in the line.

Now you might be served a palate cleanser and that gets the “spork” shaped fork at the top of the plate.  We were served palate cleansing sorbets a few weeks ago during a tasting menu. My palate was SO dirty.

The main or relevee course is served on a plate on the charger with the meat knife (we might call it a steak knife) and the longest fork.  

In Europe the next service would be the salad. This has a shorter fork and a shorter butter knife. They are the last pieces of cutlery next to the plate.

Someone may then bring you a finger bowl to daintily dip your fingers into and dry off with your napkin.  The bread plate, and the individual salt and pepper, as well as the butter, butter knife and its little crystal rest are removed, as are all the remaining glasses except for champagne.

The dessert course in this particular article has the finger bowl moved to the left and not taken from the table, probably to avoid spilling it on the guest.  A dessert is served and the dessert fork and spoon are moved to the left and right of the plate. The champagne flute remains.

Finally a coffee and tea service will be brought in with a cup and saucer, a spoon on the saucer.

If you were still hungry at this point well, you would have had bigger problems then which fork to use.

Other courses, involving more elaborate services are possible. If caviar were to be served a special bone spoon should be used.

In novels we generally only hear about cutlery and place settings when one of the characters is a social climber, by design or by accident.

We do see the table in movies or on television, for example, when the chauffeur, Tom married Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey, he had to learn a plethora of new skills including the table manners of the gentry instead of the downstairs staff.

We’re seeing the manners of the 18th century French court right now in Season two of Outlander.  It’s a little more courtly and formal than the table at Castle Leoch.

It’s something to think about!