IT'S OF NO use for Miss Manners to indulge herself by describing how to serve a dinner when there is a ratio of one footman to every two guests. The fact is that many people don't have any footmen at all these days, because, among other reasons, fine, strapping young men no longer seem to aspire to such a position.
And if one does have them, they probably come packaged with their own instructions, and have their own squadron leader, a.k.a. the butler, the last person in the world besides Miss Manners who takes a lively interest in arguing such questions as whether to remove finished plates gradually or when everyone has concluded a course.
If one does not have supporting troops, either in the household or rented for the evening, one is generally advised to pretend to be utterly crazy about informality, and give lots of picnics, pot luck suppers and children's birthday parties. You are not allowed to expect your guests to shower and change before arriving in return for a fine meal, served in comfort, at which they will have an opportunity to talk to their hosts without following them to the kitchen.
However, it is possible to serve such a dinner with what we can either call one servant, or admit is the cleaning woman coming in for an extra evening at time-and-a-half, or an indentured teen-age member of the family. This can be accomplished with a minimum of training, say one 15-minute rehearsal, plus kindly worded promptings from the table. It assumes that the host and hostess will perform the advance labor and graceful tasks that may be done among their guests, and that nobody is expecting perfect, silent and rapid service.
The host serves drinks from a tray in the drawing-room, discouraging smartalecky requests by saying something like "Will you have whiskey, gin or tomato juice?" instead of "What would you like?" The hostess uses the maneuver of passing a tray of canapes to regroup people according to her ideas of compatibility, or to prevent them from emptying their conversational reservoirs to their dinner partners.
While the guests are seating themselves in the dining room, the helper makes a first, furtive appearance -- in the drawing room, where he or she quickly removes all the dirty glasses, including the one under the sofa.
A four-course dinner is certainly possible if the food has been planned for easy service. The first course should be soup, oysters or fish in ramekins -- something that may be properly portioned in the kitchen and brought in individually. Next is the main course, a meat or fowl that has been carved and arranged on a platter with potatoes or rice and, if there is room, a vegetable. Otherwise, to avoid a special trip for serving the vegetable, it may be served in another course, as a broccoli soup, say, or a green bean salad.
The third course is the salad, and possibly also cheese. The fourth, dessert, is something that looks pretty on a serving dish and may be passed, such as a mousse.
All this has been prepared beforehand, and only courses one and two need to be kept hot. All the helper needs to know is how to arrange the food on platters and how to serve:
Food is always served to the left of each guest, unless the guest announces left-handedness and asks to be served from the right. The first person served is the woman at the host's right, and then the service may either go clockwise skipping the host and taking each person in turn, regardless of sex or place of residence (in other words, getting the hostess on the way around) with the host last, or counterclockwise, ending at the host. There are two schools of thought about the side from which plates are removed, both schools sparsely attended. Miss Manners prefers removing dishes from the right.
If the table has been set with place plates, which may be any large dish differing in material or pattern from the dinner plates, the helper has only to bring in the individually served first course dishes and put them on top. It may be done two dishes at a time, if Miss Manners isn't looking.
Upon hearing the signal of the hostess, a bell or a foot-buzzer on which she has been careful not to place the leg of her chair, the helper appears carrying one dinner plate, preferably a warm one. He or she removes the first course dish and the place plate of the first guest and substitutes the dinner plate. It takes a while to do this eight or 10 times, but the guests may chat among themselves to pass the time, and the conversation is likely to be friendlier than if two at a time had been attempted and guests were dipping their napkins in their water glasses to remove soup stains from their clothes.
The meat platter is then passed to each guest. Sauces that are served spearately may be passed from guest to guest. Wine may poured by the host who, according to this plan, isn't going to get any food for a while, anyway. It is expedient to observe the strict rule about not having butter plates on the dinner table. With four courses, you should be able to skip bread without anyone's starving.
As the individual dinner plates are removed, a fresh plate is substituted for the salad, and the salad platter (not bowl) then presented to each guest. However, the salad plates are removed before any dessert plates appear. This is the time for a general clearing up of salt and pepper, forks people forgot to use and the larger crumbs. As we are not attempting finely tuned service, "crumbing" with napkin or scoop is not necessary if the helper will remove any conspicuous bits of garbage, such as cubes of beef stroganoff.
Then we come to the tricky part, which is the dessert. And this is not even attempting finger bowls. The helper has carried in the filled soup bowls without disaster, but let us not push our luck.
A dessert fork and spoon are placed on each dessert plate, and the combination put in front of the guest. The helper then passes the dessert. If the guest is unfamiliar with the nicety of placing the dessert silver on the plate -- and if we had a finger bowl, that and the doily would be between them -- the helper will have to glare at the guest before the guest does the proper thing of putting his fork at his left and his spoon at his right.
At the conclusion of this meal, the hostess, who has not yet had to leave her guests, is given the coffee tray in the drawing room by the helper, who is now free to collapse.
It is, of course, a nice touch if the helper then washes all the dishes and silently puts them away, so that the hosts find an immaculate house as they close the door on the last guest and remove their shoes.
However, we are trying to deal in reality.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: I do not have a maid. When I cook dinner for my guests, is it proper to repeatedly leave the room while checking the food in the kitchen? I'm speaking of times when my husband is not here to entertain guests. I feel uncomfortable doing this, as well as serving at table, such as bring the soup in bowls, yet I don't see how else it could be done. Unless the answer is that all hosts should have partners. But there must be a way to conduct little parties if one is alone.
A: You are certainly correct that, as there are two essential functions for a hostess to perform, feeding and talking, it is easier to have two people to perform them. If you have a child in the house old enough to walk, grab that. The quality of their talk is unreliable, but they make adequate servants, and can often be persauded to work merely for the eavesdropping opportunity.
It is, however, possible to provide good meal and service alone. Presuming that you have already figured out that you cannot serve food that requires a great deal of last minute attention, "family style" service will keep your absences during dinner to a minimum. This means that the filling of plates is done by the hostess in full view and speaking distance of everyone, from the table itself or a nearby service table or tea cart.
This should be viewed cheerfully as the only opportunity one has to show off to one's friends one's soup tureen or one's carving ability (or lack of).
Q: Do I have to wear my glasses to my wedding? I can't see without them, and have never been able to tolerate contact lenses, but I think I would look prettier without them, and they seem inappropriate with the wedding veil and cap I am planning to wear. Is it all right to look different for that one day?
A: If your fiance does not recognize you without your glasses, and you cannot properly identify him without your glasses, it seems to Miss Manners that you are running a dangerour risk. However, if members of the bridal party promise to guide you properly through the ceremony, you might chance it. Miss Manners advises putting the glasses back on for the reception, however. It's one thing not to recognize one's new husband, but it would be rude not to be able to recognize one's old friends.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blueblack ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post