IN the sixties and early seventies of the last century, it was proper to set a dinner-table with wonderful forms in sugars and sweets, pyramids of nougat and candied oranges; little cakes surmounted by animals made of icing; fruits and jellies that were a feast to the eye. I miss those jellies even to this day, - "jellies soother than the creamy curd," charming in color, transparent in tone. The slightest jar to the table set them quivering. To-day we never see a jelly arranged on the dinner-table, and seldom a jelly at all, unless it be in occasional houses with traditions of a long ago; or, abomination of abominations, unless it be a lemon jelly without flavor - no touch of sherry or brandy - served in oranges scooped out and made ready to receive it. We have of course the currant and cranberry jelly, brought in with certain meats and poultry, but we get only a glimpse of these as they are handed about by the butler. They are not the jellies that I remember.
That other fashion, too, of removing the white cover and leaving the table bare for the nuts and the wines has long since become extinct - the fashion which gave its name to the silver coaster or holder in which the decanter of port or Madeira was set, and which was moved about among the guests at the table, "coasting" its edges, the thick green baize on its base preventing the scratching of the highly polished mahogany.
Not one of these old customs or fashions survives. Our dinner-tables are never dismantled until the last guest has departed and the doors of the drawing-room are closed. The dinner and luncheon tables of the day all follow a form of decoration more or less rigid, and removed as far as possible from the bounteous methods of our forefathers. No vegetables appear on them; no entrees, no made dessert. The jardiniere of growing ferns has in many houses given way to a silver pitcher resting on a silver tray provided with very low legs. Sometimes this pitcher, which must always be good in form and workmanship, is filled with flowers. Nobody makes any demur if it be empty. About it, on the table, are laid some spoons of interesting or unique design, the little dishes for the sweets, the candied nuts, and fruits. At dinner there are always the candlesticks. When a man likes the sentiment of carving for those about his board, he does it at the table. When he is disinclined to perform the service, the waitress or the butler carves at the side-table always at formal dinners.
These more or less rigid forms of lay-out, however, merely represent foundations upon which certain other forms of decoration can be built, decorations which must vary with place and circumstance and always with the season. Flowers and fruits appear. Blendings and effects of color are studied, compositions in which the flowers and the candle-shades are considered together, or the fruits and the vessels which contain the flowers. The idea is, whether the table be set for luncheon or dinner, to provide a central point of interest. Sometimes it is the silver pitcher to which reference has just been made; sometimes it is simply a glass vase or a bit of good pottery with flowers.
When a dinner for twenty people or more is to be elaborate in character, preparations of a more splendid order are made. The centre of the table will then be transformed into a pool of water, with a tiny fountain playing over aquatic plants, the pool being circled by banks of violets and lilies of the valley. Sometimes, too, the whole room will be embowered with flowers, arched like an arbor over the table itself, roses, blossoms down, hanging from the trellis, like bunches of grapes from the vine. Or the centre of the table may be filled with masses of pink roses, encircled with maidenhair ferns. The mirrors about the room will then be trimmed with curtains of smilax, parted in the middle and looped back over brass disks, while wreaths of pink orchids are made to fall from the centres of the rod and over the mirrors.
Fruits and flowers out of season - and to be valued by certain people they must always be out of season - will appear in town during the winter and in Newport during the summer. But these represent forms of entertaining and of decorating which the majority of us need never attempt to emulate. They lie beyond our reach.
Our concern is with the table to which a family has all its life accustomed itself, which it sets with greater elaboration for its guests, but without departing from certain established ways of placing knives and forks, providing finger-bowls, and cutting the bread. Such a table should be always immaculate and always pretty.
Respect for environment has always a fascinating element in it for me. I have a certain enthusiasm for a woman who can pay for all the roses she wants to import from a town, and yet who prefers to supply her country-house table with flowers from her own garden; who will use sweet-peas in their season, asters in the fall, or the common ground-pine when her garden has succumbed to autumn frosts. And I feel, too, that that other woman was possessed of a certain genius who discovered that the silvery mullein stalk, freshly covered with dew-drops, when placed in a silver bowl filled with cold water that covered it with frost, was the most exquisite of table decorations for an early breakfast in summer. Then the woman who first used the exquisite white blossom of the despised white carrot, surrounding it with a mass of maidenhair fern, - we all owe her a debt for her inspiration!
I like respect paid to the seasons, - the first jonquils brought into service for spring luncheons, the first hyacinths, the first fragrant white lilacs; above all, the first sweet-smelling pineapple. A pineapple can be filled with a fruit salad or strawberries. The top, with its stiff plumes of green leaves, may be lifted like a lid when the berries or the fruit salad buried inside are to be served. No aroma is so subtle, so pervasive, so exquisite. It suggests coolness and freshness, and when, during the late spring or early summer in town, the heat has begun to pall, it is the most delightful of fruits, for its perfume alone: I like to buy an over-ripe pineapple, cut it up, and place it on saucers in out-of-the-way places around the room, merely for the sake of the fragrance. To my mind, no decoration in a dining-room - none at least associated with a household feast or festivity - can leave out the element of perfume or aroma. The smell of the evergreens - that pungent, exquisite odor of hemlock half dried and unduly heated - belongs distinctively to the Christmas season. We all know what the perfume of roses does for a dining-room, or that of peaches, nectarines, and raspberries.