The evolution of modern table service
The evolution of classic European table service was slow and complicated, especially in England. There, you have not only service a la Francaise but service l’Anglaise competing with Service a la Russe. Food historians generally place the beginning of the evolution in dawning decades of the 19th century. The switch is in serious motion by mid-century. By the 1880s-1890s, Service a la Russe reigned supreme.
“By the close of the eighteenth century the traditional service of meals in the French manner, as it had evolved from the baroque age, was already under strain. It had begun reasonably enough. A set of dishes was placed on the table from which people either helped themselves or were assisted by the servants. Everything was arranged in perfect symmetry, and when one course ended the dishes were cleared and replaced by the next, equally symmetrical course. The rule that dishes were multiplied in dozens according to the number of guests meant that a table could end up with as many as hundred dishes on it at a time…By 1800…the range of containers and other tableware had increased hugely…The consequence was that a vast amount of food went uneaten and…it was inevitably cold or, at best, lukewarm…in 1838…[in England we find]…a version of the French system known as service a l’anglaise …This sort of…[service] would have already been regarded as old-fashioned among the upper classes, who were eagerly adopting changes which had their origins in France…In June 1810…the Russian diplomat Prince Borisovitch Kourakine served his guests in an entirely novel manner [service a la Russe]…That new service, with the opportunities it presented for the ostentatious display, began to gain acceptance and can be seen from the fact sourtouts a la russe in 1810. Careme…did not favour service a la russe and the traditional method of a la francaise lingered on until the 1850s…In France it was to take until the last decade of the nineteenth century for service a la russe to become the norm. Even then for state dinners and great occasions service a la francaise was retained for its spectacular effect…Only when service a la russe was finally universal could Escoffier establish the sequence of courses that remains familiar to this day: hors d’oeuvre or soup, fish, meat with vegetables, sweet, savoury and dessert. In England the move to the new method of service was equally slow. Service a la francaise continued into the 1870s and 1880s, with the usual two great courses followed by dessert. The vast majority of Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Bills of fare’ are intended for this system, but she also takes note of the new one…The effect of a la russe, apart from the hot food, was to multiply the course, but the result was a welcome contraction of the time spent at table. Under the old system a meal could last for hours. A dinner a la russe lasted an hour and a half at the most…[Service a la Russe] triumph is…connected with the emergence of an extremely rich new middle class. The opportunity for lavish display and the need for a small army of servants effectively marked service a la russe as the choice only for those who could afford it…”
“Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, service a la francaise, or French-style service, remained de rigueur in elite American homes, and visitors’ accounts suggest that dining at Jefferson’s table was no exception. This mode of entertainment gained favor in France among medieval nobility and soon spread throughout much of Europe. Although dining etiquette developled over the centuries, the tenets of service a la francaise remained largely unaltered and were heralded in early America. Fashionable hosts strictly followed the style’s edicts, which reflected hierarchy, balande, and symmetry so admired in the period. French-style service commonly dictated two to four courses, each consisting a of an even number of dishes placed symmetrically around a centerpiece, such as a large roast or a decorative serving vessel. Dishes were divided into classes and hierarchally arranged, with those belonging to lesser classes surrounding those of greature stature. The number of diners determined the quantity of dishes served. A three-course dinner for eight, for example, could require as many as twenty-four separate dishes. As the number of guests increased, so did the variety of foods presented. Service a la francaise was more than simply a style of eating; it was a mode of entertainment–one that began the moment guests entered the diningroom. There to greet them stood a table fully set with silver, glass, and great platters and tureens filled and at the ready, encouraging the appetite and impressing the senses. Above all, service a la francaise emphasized an orderly and grand presentation of dishes that showcased a host’s resources and culinary savoir-faire. Evidence suggests that Jefferson regarded French-style service as at once the epitome of fashionable entertaining and a mere template. It guided his decisions and influenced his taste, but, in the end, he used the principles of this revered serve to create a dining style that was uniquely his own. Jefferson combined French-style elegance and cuisine with his own democratic sense of style, inspiring one guest to note, ‘In his entertainmnets, republican simplicity was united to Epicurean delicacy.'”
—Dining at Monticello, Damon Lee Fowler editor, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. [University of North Carolina Press:Chapel Hill NC] 2005 (p. 14)