Sunday, April 20, 2014

Breakfast Parties - Then and Now

I’ve planned to have family come to my house for a brunch on Easter Sunday, and I’ve been looking through my old family cookbooks to find some interesting ideas and festive dishes to prepare. Luckily, I didn’t have to search far; Great-Grandma Nan’s book of household hints and recipes from the 1890’s, “Queen of the Household,” did not disappoint me.

Title Page, "Queen of the Household"
The chapter entitled, “Receptions and Entertainments” begins with a section on breakfast parties. In our day, we tend to call this “brunch,” a combination of breakfast and lunch, both linguistically and gastronomically. It is interesting to note the changes in style and custom between the Victorian Age to our own Electronic Age, and in spite of our hurried lifestyle, good taste never goes out of fashion. Below are some excerpts from the section on Breakfast Parties, with my 21st century commentary interspersed in Italics.

“Breakfast parties are a very convenient mode of social entertainment for those whose limited means will not admit of a more extensive display of hospitality. (In the 21st century, we may entertain more simply due to a lack of time as much as a lack of means.)

“Costly repasts are not necessarily the best; the dining-room may be so pleasant, the table so dainty and tasteful, the welcome so sincere, that a very unassuming meal may be rendered indescribably charming, and a breakfast given in very simple style, while much less expensive than a dinner, and even less formal than a luncheon, may be made quite as enjoyable as either, as guests usually partake of it before spoiling the appetite by an earlier home meal. (Sincerity, tastefulness, and charm have not gone out of style. I just hope my brunch will be “dainty” enough and that no one spoils their appetite before coming!)

“The breakfast hour in America is always earlier than in France or England, where a first breakfast is taken in a very light form, and is from 9 to 12 o’clock, the former being preferred by most people unless upon the occasion of very fashionable affairs. (Yes, “first breakfast,” or “petit déjeuner” in France is still a very light meal. The noon meal, “le déjeuner” is heavier fare. In the United States, these days many people take their morning coffee “on the run,” or have their breakfast at work.)

“Invitations to breakfast are written and sent several days beforehand; they may be an informal note or simply written on the lady’s visiting cards (I don’t have visiting cards!) under the name in this form: ‘Breakfast, Tuesday 10 o’clock, April 20.’

“Like all other invitations these require a prompt and courteous reply. Very formal breakfasts call for more ceremonious invitations, which like those to dinners or large parties should be engraved on handsome paper. (Such ceremony may have been necessary in the days before cell phones, or even landline telephones, but for any invitation other than a wedding, today we would not use an engraved invite “on handsome paper.” Most likely a quick phone call or email would suffice.)

Frontispiece, "Queen of the Household"
“The unceremoniousness of this early repast requires the appearance of extreme simplicity, but flowers are in good taste (Flowers are always in good taste, but there are none blooming in my garden just yet), and prettily arranged with fruits give the table a fresh and attractive look. The table-cloth and napkins should be of fine white damask or they may be bordered in colors to match the color of the dining-room. (I don’t have a damask table-cloth, but I promise to use my best lace one!)

“In serving breakfast, the bill of fare, unless for special occasions, should never be elaborate, but rather dainty and attractive, fewer courses of a more delicate variety should be served than at other meals. (Fewer courses sounds like a good idea to me. “Dainty” and “attractive” are two of the author’s favorite adjectives for the serving of meals!)

“The hostess dispenses the coffee, tea and chocolate from the head of the table; the substantials are set in front of the host, who may help the plates and hand them to the waiter to serve (There’s no waiter at my house!) ; the vegetables and other dishes may be handed from the side table. (No side table either, but we’ll make do somehow. Most likely I will serve my Easter brunch “buffet style.”)

“It is well bred to serve the breakfast with as little formality as possible, and with as few attendants; one servant, a maid or manservant is sufficient unless the party is unusually large. (There are no servants in my household, and I seriously doubt that there were any in my Great-Grandmother’s house either; however, she had help from her sister when my grandmother was a small child.)

“The following will be found an acceptable bill of fare for an ordinary breakfast party. It can of course be varied to suit the convenience and taste of housekeepers:

Melons, Grapes, Oranges
Fried Perch with Sauce Tartare
Young Chicken with Cream Gravy
Dutchess Potatoes
Poached Egg on Toast
Broiled Quails
Baked Mushrooms
Tomatoes or Celery
Bread and Butter
Hot Cakes
Coffee, Tea, Chocolate

“The simplest costume is in good taste for breakfast parties. Gentlemen wear walking suits, and ladies handsome but plain street costumes. Gloves are recommended before going to the table. (Oh, those little white gloves from years ago! I remember them from my Sunday School days.)

“Each gentleman is given the escort of a lady. The host conducts the lady who is the most distinguished guest to the table, and the hostess follows with the gentleman whom it is desired to honor particularly.

“Upon entering the dining-room the ladies are assisted to their seats, and the gentlemen then follow, and the meal is served.

“The signal for rising from the table is given by the hostess, with a smile and simple bow, and all proceed to the parlor, exchange a few pleasant remarks, and take their leave. (Such ceremony for a supposedly simple meal! This protocol was most probably followed by those hosts and hostesses who saw themselves as rather well-to-do. I doubt that the farming families in the Mohawk Valley, where my grandparents and great-grandparents lived, stood on such ceremony.)

“For informal breakfasts no after-call is expected, but for ceremonious entertainments of this kind the same observance of the rules of etiquette are required as for dinners and large parties.”

Getting the table ready for brunch
Update after my brunch: Yes, I certainly varied the above menu to suit my convenience and taste! I served store-bought quiches  -- spinach and broccoli; a vintage recipe for salmon loaf from Grandma Minnie’s Larkin Housewives Cook Book; an “Apple Betty” recipe from another vintage family cookbook (more about that next week); a loaf of fancy braided challah bread; and other family members brought a green salad and a fruit salad. We rounded out the meal with coffee, and a pleasant and dainty time was had by all.

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Larkin Housewives Cook Book
Baked Salmon Loaf Recipe, from 1915 Larkin Housewives Cook Book, contributed by a Mrs. E.A. Ross, Springfield, Massachusetts:

One can of Larkin Red Alaska Salmon, four tablespoons of bread-crumbs, four tablespoons butter, pepper and salt to taste. Add one egg slightly beaten. Mix thoroughly and bake in loaf with three slices of Larkin Bacon across the top. Serve with creamed onions.

Since the recipe did not tell at what temperature to bake the loaf, nor for how long, nor what size can of salmon to use, I did a quick search on the Internet to see if I could find similar modern recipes. The first recipe I found on was virtually identical to the Larkin recipe, but calling for half the butter, and using a half-cup of milk instead; it also omitted the bacon.The recipe indicated that you should bake the loaf for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 Centigrade).

A second recipe suggested adding minced green pepper and onion, and adding a half-teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce. Both called for a 14.75 ounce can of salmon, which is the size I had bought at my local supermarket. I did add a bit of finely chopped red pepper and onion, which added a bit more color and flavor to the loaf, and if I make it again, I might try halving the butter or margarine and substituting milk, to cut down on the fat calories.

But it is interesting to note that, although social customs have evolved greatly over the last century, there are still some perennial recipes that are guaranteed to please the daintiest appetites.


  1. This is a great post, Mom! I had no idea about breakfast parties! The Easter brunch you hosted was super-yummy. And dainty and pleasant! Thank you for hosting! :)

  2. Thank you Liz, it's fascinating to see how social customs have changed over the last century and a quarter; so much more informal!