The buffet supper reaches The height of its superb Potential when it teaches That buffet is a verb.
Satirist Felicia Lamport in her poem "A Drink and A Bite."
How many times have you mournfully eyed a diminishing salmon mousse from the far the end of a crowded buffet line? Or are you the type who emerges with your plate running over?
The word buffet goes back to the Middle Ages. Near the door of medieval castles and monasteries stood a table laden with food where hungry pilgrims could stuff themselves. This was called in slang "the stuffing place"; thus today's word: buffet. Even today the French slang expression for "pig out" -- "bouffer" -- means to eat until the face puffs out.
Until the mid-1850s proper American hostesses served food in the traditional English style, placing the roast, vegetables, breads, wines and water carafes and relishes directly on the table.
By 1850, probably after Americans visited the court of Czar Nicholas I of Russia, it became chic to serve a la russe -- "from the side." In Russia, culinary events began with zakuski, a splendid array of hors d'oeuvres spread on a large table for guests to select buffet style.
American hostesses took a cue from the Russians. Instead of carving the roast flamboyantly at the table, they sliced it in the kitchen, then placed it on a sideboard with the potatoes, salads and aspics. Dining tables, set with crystal, fine porcelain and silver, were used for elaborate floral decorations, handwritten menus -- often snobbishly written in French -- and to carry out a particular theme for the dinner party.
Consider this Newport "white" buffet of July 1890, reported in The Illustrated American, as a starting point for your next buffet:
The dining room was hung with white muslin; gaslight from a crystal chandelier filtered down upon the table through "huge silk tissue moths." The white table was decorated with clusters of bridal roses, white carnations and white poppies; the meal, served on pure white porcelain, was white: "claims and cream of celery soup... fish dressed with white sauce... fair breasts of young chicken... cauliflowers smothered in creams, Roman punch introduced in the chalice of a lily, and salads in beds of crisp celery." The hostess, dressed "in white from top to toe," was, of course, blond. Felicia Lamport's Variation on Myra Waldo's Salmon Mousse 1 envelope unflavored gelatin 1/2 cup boiled water 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 15-ounce can good red salmon, drained, or 1 pound cooked salmon 2 tablespoons diced onion 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon brandy 1 tablespoon tomato paste or sauce (optional) 2 tablespoons fresh dill 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon 1 tablespoon fresh basil
Using a blender or food processor with metal blade, soften gelatin in water and lemon juice. Add salmon, onion, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, sour cream and brandy and blend. Blend in tomato paste if a pinker tone is desired. Then gently blend in herbs just to mix so that flecks of green streak the pink. Turn into an oiled 4-cup mold and refrigerate overnight. Unmold by placing a warm wet towel around the form, then run a sharp knife around the edges. Place a serving plate on top and quickly turn over. Decorate with seasonal leaves and flowers and sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serve with crackers on the sideboard of your next buffet.