Emily Post Post
Emily Post Was Kinda Nuts: Set Table For Elijah? For Over Fifty Years? (Still, There's Fun Reading for Foodies in her Etiquette)
By Meredith Brody
The new biography of Emily Post contains one fact that so impressed both Stacy Schiff, the noted biographer who reviewed it for the New York Times on Sunday, and Leslie Bennetts, who wrote "Bad News, Darling, We're Broke," about today's versions of Post's Mrs. Richanvulgar and Mrs. Toplofty losing their income on Tina Brown's The Daily Beast (pause ironically here, in homage to Tina Brown's most recent reinvention), that they both ended their pieces with it.
From Schiff: "After the divorce, Emily Post never pronounced her husband's name again. She also set an extra place at the table for the rest of her life. Fine manners, or something else? Mrs. Post is always cordial, never intimate. Over 450 pages, Claridge returns the favor."
From Bennetts: "After she and her scandalously unfaithful husband divorced in 1905, Emily Post never uttered his name again, but she set an extra place at the dinner table every night until she died more than half a century later. Denial may have an impeccable pedigree, but it doesn't work any better now than it did back then."
The coincidence reminded me that Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home was something of a guilty pleasure. As a child, I enjoyed reading Post's books for glimpses into a vanished, not to say kinda nutty, world.
In early Limited Perspective Playhouse style, I was especially interested in her writing about food, relishing such prescriptions as the following hints about putting together menus for a formal dinner party, entitled "The Balanced Menu":
"One should always try to choose well-balanced dishes; an especially rich dish balanced by a simple one. Timbale with a very rich sauce of cream and pâté de foie gras might perhaps be followed by French chops, broiled chicken or some other light, plain meat. An entrée of about four broiled mushrooms on a small round of toast should be followed by boned capon or saddle of mutton or spring lamb. It is equally bad to give your guests very peculiar food unless as an extra dish. Some people love highly flavored Spanish or Indian dishes, but they are not appropriate for a formal dinner. At an informal dinner an Indian curry or Spanish enchillada [sic] for one dish is delicious for those who like it, and if you have another substantial dish such as a plain roast which practically everyone is able to eat, those who don't like Indian food can make their dinner of the other course."
Timbale with a very rich sauce of cream and pâté de foie gras! Boned capon! Saddle of mutton! What home kitchen, nay, what restaurant offered such unheard-of delights?
And the following, "Dishes That Have Accompanying Condiments," contains many allusions to vanished dishes that I have never seen (well, maybe at Rules in London, once) and would love to try.
"Many meats have condiments. Roast beef is never served at a dinner party--it 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 dish--all mutton has currant jelly. Lamb has mint sauce--or mint jelly.
Partridge or guinea hen must have two sauce boats--presented on one tray--browned bread-crumbs in one, and cream sauce in the other.
(Image via: dangelobros.com)
Apple sauce goes with barnyard duck.
The best accompaniment to wild duck is the precisely timed 18 minutes in a quick oven! And celery salad, which goes with all game, need not be especially hurried.
Salad is always the accompaniment of "tame game," aspics, cold meat dishes of all sorts, and is itself "accompanied by" crackers and cheese or cheese soufflé or cheese straws."
And one final excerpt, made more poignant still by the knowledge that Emily's own husband had decamped to satisfy his appetite(s) elsewhere, despite her knowledge of a man's hungers:
"Another thing: although a dinner should not be long, neither should it consist of samples, especially if set before men who are hungry!
The following menu might seem at first glance a good dinner, but it is one from which the average man would go home and forage ravenously in the ice box:
A canapé (good, but merely an appetizer)
Clear soup (a dinner party helping, and no substance)
Smelts (one apiece)
Individual croutards of sweetbreads (holding about a dessert-spoonful)
Broiled squab, small potato croquette, and string beans
Lettuce salad, with about one small cracker apiece
The only thing that had any sustaining quality, barring the potato which was not more than a mouthful, was the last, and very few men care to make their dinner of ice cream. If instead of squab there had been filet of beef cut in generous slices, and the potato croquettes had been more numerous, it would have been adequate. Or if there had been a thick cream soup, and a fish with more substance--such as salmon or shad, or a baked thick fish of which he could have had a generous helping--the squab would have been adequate also. But many women order trimmings rather than food; men usually like food."
Men usually like food. Was that what Emily was thinking, when she laid the extra place at her dinner table every night for half-a-century?