For the one or two formal dinners which the average city dweller feels obliged to give every season, nothing is easier than to hire professionals; it is also economical, since nothing is wasted in experiment. A cook equal to the Gildings chef can be had to come in and cook your dinner at about the price of two charwomen; skilled butlers or waitresses are to be had in all cities of any size at comparatively reasonable fees.
The real problem is in giving the innumerable casual and informal dinners for which professionals are not only expensive, but inappropriate. The problem of limited equipment would not present great difficulty if the tendency of the age were toward a slower pace, but the opposite is the case; no one wants to be kept waiting a second at table, and the world of fashion is growing more impatient and critical instead of less.
Nothing so delays the service of a dinner as dishes that must immediately be followed by necessary accessories. If there is no one to help the butler or waitress, no dish must be included on the menuunless you are only one or two at table, or unless your guests are neither critical nor modernthat is not complete in itself.
For instance, fish has nearly always an accompanying dish. Broiled fish, or fish meunière, has ice-cold cucumbers sliced as thin as Saratoga chips, with a very highly seasoned French dressing, or a mixture of cucumbers and tomatoes. Boiled fish always has mousseline, Hollandaise, mushroom or egg sauce, and round scooped boiled potatoes sprinkled with parsley. Fried fish must always be accompanied by tartar sauce and pieces of lemon, and a boiled fish even if covered with sauce when served, is usually followed by additional sauce.
Many meats have condiments. Roast beef is never served at a dinner partyit is a family dish and generally has Yorkshire pudding or roast potatoes on the platter with the roast itself, and is followed by pickles or spiced fruit.
Turkey likewise, with its chestnut stuffing and accompanying cranberry sauce, is not a company dish, though excellent for an informal dinner. Saddle of mutton is a typical company dishall mutton has currant jelly. Lamb has mint sauceor mint jelly.
One person can wait on eight people if dishes are chosen which need no supplements. The fewer the dishes to be passed, the fewer the hands needed to pass them. And yet many housekeepers thoughtlessly order dishes with in the list above, and then wonder why the dinner is so hopelessly slow, when their waitress is usually so good!
The following suggestions are merely offered in illustration; each housekeeper can easily devise further for herself. It is not necessary to pass anything whatever with melon or grapefruit, or a macédoine of fruit, or a canapé. Oysters, on the other hand, have to be followed by tabasco and buttered brown bread. Soup needs nothing with it (if you do not choose split pea which needs croutons, or petite marmite which needs grated cheese). Fish dishes which are made with sauce in the dish, such as sole au vin blanc, lobster Newburg, crab ravigote, fish mousse, especially if in a ring filled with plenty of sauce, do not need anything more. Tartar sauce for fried fish can be put in baskets made of hollowed-out lemon rinda basket for each personand used as a garnishing around the dish.
Filet mignon, or fillet of beef, both of them surrounded by little clumps of vegetables share with chicken casserole in being the life-savers of the hostess who has one waitress in her dining-room. Another dish, but more appropriate to lunch than to dinner, is of French chops banked against mashed potatoes, or purée of chestnuts, and surrounded by string beans or peas. None of these dishes requires any following dish whatever, not even a vegetable.
Fried chicken with corn fritters on the platter is almost as good as the two beef dishes, since the one green vegetable which should go with it, can be served leisurely, because fried chicken is not quickly eaten. And a ring of aspic with salad in the center does not require accompanying crackers as immediately as plain lettuce.
In giving informal or little dinners, you need never worry because you cannot set the dishes of a professional dinner-party cook before your friends or even strangers; so long as the food that you are offering is good of its kind.
It is by no means necessary that your cook should be able to make the clear soup that is one of the tests of the perfect cook (and practically never produced by any other); nor is it necessary that she be able to construct comestible mosaics and sculptures. The essential thing is to prevent her from attempting anything she cant do well. If she can make certain dishes that are pretty as well as good to taste, so much the better. But remember, the more pretentious a dish is, the more it challenges criticism.
If your cook can make neither clear nor cream soup, but can make a delicious clam chowder, better far to have a clam chowder! On no account let her attempt clear green turtle, which has about as good a chance to be perfect as a suprême of boned caponin other words, none whatsoever! And the same way throughout dinner. Whichever dishes your own particular Nora or Selma or Marie can do best, those are the ones you must have for your dinners. Another thing: it is not important to have variety. Because you gave the Normans chicken casserole the last time they dined with you is no reason why you should not give it to them againif that is the specialty of the house as the French say. A late, and greatly loved, hostess whose Sunday luncheons at a huge country house just outside of Washington were for years one of the outstanding features of Washingtons smartest society, had the same lunch exactly, week after week, year after year. Those who went to her house knew just as well what the dishes would be as they did where the dining-room was situated. At her few enormous and formal dinners in town, her cook was allowed to be magnificently architectural, but if you dined with her alone, the chances were ten to one that the Sunday chicken and pancakes would appear before you.
Typical dinner-party dishes are invariably the temptation no less than the downfall of ambitious ignorance. Never let an inexperienced cook attempt a new dish for company, no matter how attractive her description of it may sound. Try it yourself, or when you are having family or most intimate friends who will understand if it turns out all wrong that it is a trial dish. In fact, it is a very good idea to share the testing of it with some one who can help you in suggestions, if they are needed for its improvement. Or supposing you have a cook who is rather poor on all dinner dishes, but makes delicious bread and cake and waffles and oyster stew and creamed chicken, or even hash! You can make a specialty of asking people to supper. Suppers are necessarily informal, but there is no objection in that. Formal parties play a very small rôle anyway compared to informal ones. There are no end of people, and the smartest ones at that, who entertain only in the most informal possible way. Mrs. Oldname gives at most two formal dinners a year; her typical dinners and suppers are for eight.
Water must not be allowed to collect at the bottom of a dish (that is why a folded napkin is always put under boiled fish and sometimes under asparagus). And dishes must be hot; they cannot be too hot! Meat juice that has started to crust is nauseating. Far better have food too hot to eat and let people take their time eating it than that others should suffer the disgust of cold victuals! Sending in cold food is one of the worst faults (next to not knowing how to cook) that a cook can have.
Just as it is better to hire a professional dinner-party cook than to run the risk of attempting a formal dinner with your own Nora or Selma unless you are very sure she is adequate, in the same way it is better to have a professional waitress as captain over your own, or a professional butler over your own inexperienced one, than to have your meal served in spasms and long pauses. But if your waitress, assisted by the chambermaid, perfectly waits on six, you will find that they can very nicely manage ten, even with accompanied dishes.
If an inexperienced servant blunders, you should pretend, if you can, not to know it. Never attract anyones attention to anything by apologizing or explaining, unless the accident happens to a guest. Under ordinary circumstances least said, soonest mended is the best policy.
If a servant blunders, it makes the situation much worse to take her to task, the cause being usually that she is nervous or ignorant. Speak, if it is necessary to direct her, very gently and as kindly as possible; your object being to restore confidence, not to increase the disorder. Beckon her to you and tell her as you might tell a child you were teaching: Give Mrs. Smith a tablespoon, not a teaspoon. Or, You have forgotten the fork on that dish. Never let her feel that you think her stupid, but encourage her as much as possible and when she does anything especially well, tell her so.
Nearly all people are quick to censure but rather chary of praise. Admonish of course where you must, but censure only with justice, and dont forget that whether of high estate or humble, we all of us like praisesometimes. When a guest tells you your dinner is the best he has ever eaten, remember that the cook cooked it, and tell her it was praised. Or if the dining-room service was silent and quick and perfect, then tell those who served it how well it was done. If you are entertaining all the time, you need not commend your household after every dinner you give, but if any especial willingness, attentiveness, or tact is shown, dont forget that a little praise is not only merest justice but is beyond the purse of no one.