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One of my favorite scenes in the movie Julie & Julia is where Julie Powell (Amy Adams) types into her infant blog a reference to Julia Child’s famous words from the beginning of Mastering the Art of French Cooking — “Nobody here but us servantless American cooks.” Julia Child believed that with a little bit of instruction and a lot of good directions, servantless American cooks could pull off the preparation of traditional French dishes in their homes.
The same applies to our servantless home tablescaping — if you know the basic ingredients of a tablescape, you can create your version of even the fanciest decor, using what you already own. Granted, for some of us, our “stash” is larger than for others. If you don’t have quite what you need, you can pick up beautiful pieces for very little money on sale or in resale shops. Just follow any blog written by a home tablescaper and you’ll see hundreds of pieces purchased for a song. It makes me sad to find dish sets and linens that were given away by family members who didn’t want their grandma’s treasured home items, but I digress…
Over the holidays, Cost Plus World Market was carrying quite a few Downton Abbey-labeled products. Knowing my love for the show, I received a bottle of Downton Abbey wine, Downton Abbey soaps, Downton Abbey mince pies, and I also bought an Edwardian-style table runner and matching napkins that the store sold with the other Downton Abbey products. On sale, of course.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, our group of friends planned to have a 1920s-themed murder mystery party. It was actually a Chicago gangster mystery, but our hostess decided to use the book, The World of Downton Abbey, as her period reference for both her tablesetting and her costume.
The table was set using several sets of china and chargers, mixing and matching as many of us do these days. She would have been at the height of fashion in the Edwardian days.
“What does it mean if the China is mismatched? It means that you are at the home of a very wealthy person indeed, and that you should be mightily impressed. At the time, a mix-and-match approach showed status, because it meant you had more than one China set to play with. If all your pieces matched, it meant you only had one set of good China, which would put you in a more modest class” (source).
When I decided to create a tribute to Downton Abbey, I also chose to create a modern twist on an Edwardian table setting, just as we servantless home decorators often do.
I started by doing some actual research.
In the French style of service, it was believed that the foods’ relationships to one another were an important element of the dining experience, and main courses and side dishes were served together at the table. Unfortunately, the food often got cold by the time it was carried upstairs and then left on the table for service to the guests. The English style of service was used in both England and the United States through the late 1800s, and is similar to what we use today in our homes. “[A]ll the food belonging to one course is placed in suitable dishes before the host/ess and is served from the table” (source).
Moving to the Russian style of service
During the formal meals at Downton Abbey, we see the servants laying the table precisely prior for dinner — Carson is very much in charge! Then, as the meal progresses, we see Mrs. Patmore leading the staff through the dinner presentation, with each course being carried up the stairs by the footmen.
This was called Service à la Russe and would have been normal for a great house such as Downton. You can read lots more here about how England got to the point of using the Russian style of service.
“In Service à la Russe each course is presented one at a time and in a set order. It was not uncommon for there to be 14 different courses, each one being cleared away before the next one presented. The cutlery is pre-set and the table laid with empty water, wine and champagne glasses. Each setting had a service plate on top of which was placed the napkin, arranged in a creative way and every guest had his/her own place-name card of a fancy design” (source).
In addition to the precise placement of the cutlery, salt and pepper sets were placed between diners. Seating women and men alternately as equal partners at the dining table was a Dutch practice brought to England in the early 1800s.
Although Julian Fellowes has moved beyond the Edwardian era in the show’s storyline, and even though it’s 1922, Lord Grantham appears to be a little stuck in his ways when it comes to managing his household. The Edwardian era or Edwardian period in the United Kingdom is the period covering the reign of King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910, and the Granthams are still eating and entertaining as if it’s a couple of decades earlier than the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. We’re having fun seeing the play of modern and old-fashioned as Daisy and Mrs. Patmore struggle with an electric mixer and Lord G does his best to keep Mary out of management of the estate. And then there’s Lady Edith’s shenanigans!
Since the surface of the table in the Russian style of service was not crowded with food containers, there was room for more stuff on the table, and the design elements included central decorations, flowers, color and mirrors.
Because of the number of courses in the Edwardian meal, desserts were often served plated, with the corresponding flatware to go with them. Today, a formal table usually includes the dessert silverware at the top of the plate.
Even in our servantless household, I often serve the dessert separately and deliver it to the table. I may also pass a plate of cookies or other sweets to go along with the main dessert.
I have included the tea and coffee service (in easy-to-care-for pewter rather than silver) that would have been on the sideboard and poured by the butlers. The English tea would always include a strainer for the loose tea as well as a creamer for both tea and coffee.
In researching this very fun-to-write post, I found several web sites that could prove useful if you decided to host your own Downton Abbey tribute meal. I plan to use the setting — with some informalities — for a Sunday brunch I am hosting.
- Edwardian Promenade — Setting the Table
- Burnsville (MN) Patch — “Do’s and Don’ts of a “Downton Abbey” Dinner (Or: The Right Way to Eat a Cherry Tomato)”
- Setting the Edwardian-Era Table
- Edwardian and Victorian Dinner Parties
- How to Throw Your Own Downton Abbey-Style Christmas Dinner
- The Culture Concept: Downton Abbey Season 3 Begins — Everyone Loves A Wedding
- Pop and Circumstance: A Downton Abbey Dinner Party
I hope you enjoyed this look at how to recreate your own Downton Abbey tablescape, even if you are living in a servantless household. 🙂
I’m linking up today with the creative bloggers at The Scoop at Confessions of a Plate Addict, We Call It Olde at We Call It Junkin’, Centerpiece Wednesday at The Style Sisters, Open House Party with No Minimalist Here, and Tablescape Thursday at Between Naps on the Porch. Be sure to stop by and say, “Hello!”
Got my bags, got my reservations,
Spent each dime I could afford.
Like a child in wild anticipation,
I long to hear that, “All aboard!”
Music and lyrics by Bud Green, Les Brown and Ben Homer (1944)