Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An 1850s Festive Dessert Table at Riversdale House Museum and the Tradition of the Loving Cup

About Riversdale House Museum
Riversdale, an elegant Federal style manor house in Riverdale Park, Maryland, was constructed between 1801 and 1807 for Henri Stier, a Flemish aristocrat, and completed by his daughter, Rosalie, and her husband, George Calvert, grandson of the fifth Lord Baltimore. Today, this elegant architectural gem has been restored to reflect the lifestyle of the Calverts in Federal America. In addition, the journal of Adam Francis Plummer, an enslaved man owned by the Calverts, provides a rare first-person account of African American life in 19th century Maryland.

The Mistress of Riversdale, Rosalie Stier Calvert, died in 1821 and her husband, George Calvert, continued to live there until his death in 1838. Though the estate was divided between his sons George Henry and Charles Benedict Calvert, it was Charles Benedict who lived his whole life at Riversdale, until his death in 1864.

The house normally focuses on the time period when George and Rosalie Calvert were raising their children at Riversdale in the first two decades of the 19th century. However, the 2016 festive holiday table at Riversdale's dining room is being especially devoted this year to the era of the occupancy by their son, Charles Benedict Calvert, and his family in the 1850s. This is a great time period for interpreting Christmas because new dining styles and holiday traditions emerged.

Rationale for a c. 1850s Tabletop Christmas Tree:

American Christmas traditions draw from a variety of cultural influences. In the 19th century, German influences, both in America and via the British, brought about the love affair with the Christmas tree. 

In America, new waves of German immigrants came to America and brought with them the tradition of the Christmas tree. Maryland, in particular, received a great number of German immigrants and adopted many German traditions. This era of new German immigrants also reinforced Pennsylvania German traditions already in place in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Nineteenth century England also had its own series of German influences making a Christmas tree a common festive season tradition. It all started in year 1800 when King George III's wife, the German-born Queen Charlotte, started to include decorated Christmas trees for her parties for children at the Upper Lodge at Windsor Castle. This early British Christmas tree was a yew tree that was placed in a tub and decorated with sweets and candles.

The tradition of erecting a Christmas tree was taken up again in 1841 when German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, set up a tree in Windsor Castle. In 1848, this tradition was highlighted in an issue of  The Illustrated London News when it published an engraving of Windsor Castle’s annual tree (below).

An American periodical, Godey’s Lady’s Book, reprinted this engraving for the American public. This firmly raised Americans' awareness of this delightful tradition and helped set the standard of having Christmas trees in American homes from that point forward.

In keeping with period tradition, the 1850s Christmas tree sits atop a table on the sideboard in the dining room at Riversdale House Museum. Sugar paste baskets filled with fruits and nuts are placed around the front of the tree:

Evolution of Dessert
The English word "dessert" actually translates from the French word “desservir” which means “to clear the table.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "dessert" was in use in this sense in the English language by 1539 as evidenced from a quote from the 16th century printer and scholar, Estienne, when he wrote the following: ‘removal of the dishes, dessert'. Historically, the word dessert referred to the final course of a meal, not necessarily a dedicated sweet course.--that would evolve over time but not until well into the 20th century. 

The Georgian Dessert Course:  

By the time the German Hanover family took over the British throne in 1714 with King George I, the idea of dining in the service a la francaise style was firmly entrenched among the nobility. This dining style consisted of 2-3 broad courses of multiple dishes placed on the table family-style. The food was laid out on the dining table in beautiful symmetrical patterns and diners served themselves and their seat-mates by carving at table and passing dishes to one another. Savory and sweet dishes were served within the same course, usually the second course.

If a third course was offered, it would usually be the official dessert course. However, the modern idea of dessert would not necessarily apply. Offerings such as pies, cakes, or any other elaborate sweet concoctions were usually served in the second course as part of the main meal. The official dessert course actually included fresh fruit, flower or chocolate flavored drops/pastils/"cakes" /bonbons or "bomboons"as they were sometimes known then, nuts, ices, creams, fritters, jellies, conserves, and/or other such sweet delights.

Dessert in Mid 19th Century America
Upperclass Americans followed the dining styles set by the British gentry. Therefore, French service was just as popular in 18th century and early 19th century American households as it was in England. Furthermore, by the middle of the 19th century, British and fashionable American people could choose between two dining styles because, along with French service a new dining style, Russian Service, emerged in the 1850s. Importantly, while this service was known, it did not really become the favored style until closer to the end of the 19th century.

Service a la Russe (Russian Service)
In Russian service, the food is served temporally – each dish served in its own separate course, one after the other. This is the type of service that is still employed in restaurants and at special dining events such as weddings. The food is not laid out on the table family-style, rather it is served by a waiter already plated to each diner. 

This dining style builds up the course from light to heavy and then back down again to light. The dessert course would just be a final light course of fresh fruits, fruit compotes, nuts, biscuits, sponge cakes, jellies, and creams. Heavier pies, cakes, and complicated entremets would be in the penultimate sweet entremets course, not the final dessert course.

Dessert at Riversdale in the 1850s
The 1850s was a time-period where people could choose between the avant garde Russian service and the more traditional French service. However, there were also other variations of these services. For example, hot foods were plated in the Russian style but items that could remain at room temperature were displayed elegantly on the table in the French style. Some dishes, such as vegetables and sauces, were "butlered", or offered to each guest from a cart or dish by a butler or waiter, therefore evoking elements of Russian service in a traditional French style meal. Obviously, there were many dining options open to hosts/hostesses in the 1850s.

In keeping with the older traditional style, French service is being used to depict a c.1850s Christmas dessert scenario at Riversdale House Museum. The table features fresh fruit, apple compote (very popular in the 1850s), chocolate cream pots, almond cream pots, Savoy Sponge Cakes, Christmas Pudding, and a cheese plate. Here is a schematic showing the arrangement of the dishes:

Here is a photo of the table display:

Here are some close-ups of the dishes:

The Tradition of the Loving Cup
According to 19th c. cookbook author and domestic advice guru, Alexis Soyer, in his 1850 publication of The Modern Housewife (New York), a new Christmas tradition emerged in the city that "gentlemen seem very much to like". Soyer explains the tradition of the Loving Cup which begins "when the cheese is put on", meaning with the start of the final meal, dessert. According to Soyer, the host starts by pouring the contents of the Loving Cup into the glasses of each of the ladies sitting  on either side of him. Then, the host rises and drinks to their health and to health of all at table. He then passes the Loving Cup to the gentleman on the left who fills the glass of the lady to his left, drinks to her health and the the rest of the diners. The Loving Cup ritual passes to each gentleman at table.

Here is the recipe for the contents of Soyer's Loving Cup:
  • 1/2 teacup of capillaire (a syrup flavored with orange flower water)
  • Dissolved lump sugar with a few drops of orange-flower water
  • 1 Pint Brown Sherry
  • 1 bottle of Edinburgh Ale
  • 1 bottle of soda water

Here is the "Loving Cup" pitcher depicted in the Riversdale festive dessert table:

Come visit Riversdale House Museum on Friday, December 30, 2016 for a candlelit holiday open house. Click here for more details.