Saturday, January 16, 2010

Late night dining, 1880s ... or pass the Alka-Seltzer

I recently received an email from a reader of Leaden Skies, who asked:
I am interested in the late hour of the dinners and receptions. Was it normal to hold such events at 10 or 11 PM?
And indeed, Leaden Skies features a couple of late night gastronomic events. I pretty slavishly adhere to what's reported in the newspapers of the day, so can assure you that yes indeed, what appears in the book is accurate. One example is the banqueet held for Ulysses S. Grant during his five-day visit to Leadville in July 1880. The newspapers covered this event in great detail—from the decorations, to the menu, to the speeches afterward (which went on. and on.). The article even includes the hour at which the feasting began (emphasis below is mine):
The dining-room was gorgeously arrayed in evergreens,
flags and flowers. On the east and west walls hung paintings
of General Grant, surrounded with wreaths and evergreens.
Two long parallel tables ranged down each side of the hall,
a third forming at right angles at the head, near the
entrance of the dining-room, capable of seating two hundred
and fifty persons. As the doors of the large dining hall were
thrown open to the guests, sometime after 11 o’clock, the
tables were revealed in all their splendor of culinary decorations—
if this term may be applied—fairly groaning under
their load of delicacies and decorating devices, formed of the
rarest of confections and by the greatest skill, while
arranged in stately order about the tables, were eighteen
waiters in charge of Mr. William McClellan.
As the guests entered the hall, with General Grant in
charge, they were assigned seats at the banquet tables.
The band occupying a position at the head of the banquet,
played an appropriate selection. The banquet was then formally
So, a couple of hundred people had to file in, be seated, be served ... I'd guess the meal lasted into the wee hours of the morning (2 a.m., maybe?). And we know that the speeches went on for quite a while after that, given how this particular reporter concludes his story:
...By this time the hour had advanced close upon morning.
The feast was over and the speech-making ceased. The General
arising from his chair at the banquet was the signal for
all to retire; and soon the hall was cleared, and the merry
feasters were wending their way homeward just as the gray
light of dawn was lining the eastern sky.
(Of course, at this point, I wondered, "What time was sunrise?" After thrashing around on the internet a bit, I found a site where I could at least determine the sunrise time in Denver, Colorado, on July 24, 1901 (the year 1880 was outside the range of calculation)— 5:50 a.m. So, I'd guess the guests were staggering/straggling home in Leadville, July 24, 1880, sometime around 5 a.m., give or take.

The question remains: Is this late-night dining hour normal??

For more insight, I turned to the arbiter of all things cultural and mannerly for this timeframe (at least, for me):
Our Deportment or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society by John H. Young, A.M. In the "Receptions, Parties and Balls" chapter, he says this about supper for balls:
The supper-room at a ball is thrown open generally at twelve o-clock.
According to the book, the sort of repast you'd be facing as the clock struck midnight would probably include the following:
The hot dishes are oysters, stewed, fried, broiled and scalloped, chicken, game, etc., and the cold dishes are such as boned turkey, boeuf a la mode, chicken salad, lobster salad and raw oysters.
Ooof! The most I can handle past 11 p.m. is warm Ovaltine and toast.

In any case, thank you, dear reader, for your question, because I had a lot of fun delving into the answer! Now, I'm off to make my Ovaltine...


Bob Sanchez said...

Hey Ann,
What on earth is boeuf a la mode?

Looks like you've done some fine research.

Bob Sanchez

Ann Parker said...

Hello Bob,
If Wikipedia is correct, it means "beef in the style" ... more commonly known in these parts as pot roast! Pretty fancy term for comfort food, I'd say. :-)

Christina E. Rodriguez said...

Oh man that sounds like my kind of party! Pass the oysters, please!