In Part One we touched upon the Master of Ceremonies and his duties. This job was so vital to the conduct of a ball that we would be remiss if we did not take a closer look at the position. Following that we will address how the Georgian era ball goers kept their energy up for a long night of dancing and offer a few “modern” versions of some Georgian era favorites
HE WHO MAKES THE RULES……….
As we mentioned earlier, the Master of Ceremonies controlled the ballroom. He was responsible for introductions, instructing the musicians, deciding which dances to do and in what sequence, maintaining order and settling any disputes.
In addition, other items kept the Master of Ceremonies busy throughout the evening. For instance, there were rules that no gentleman could enter the ballroom in half boots or boots, nor carrying a cane, nor could any military man enter carrying his sword; and that no two ladies could dance together without his express permission. (It is doubtful how often this was enforced outside of the major venues such as Bath and London. This was a period where England’s Army and Navy were busy reigning in Bonaparte’s activities on the continent and at sea so, there was a shortage of young, eligible men at many of the balls. It was apparently so prevalent, that Jane Austen remarks on it in her letters.)
In fact, the Master of Ceremonies was of such import to the entire “Ball culture” that, there were often balls designated to honor the Master of Ceremonies for a subscription series. (At the Upper Assembly Rooms at Bath, there were two balls set aside each season in his honor)
The first Master of Ceremonies to preside over the Assembly Rooms at Bath was Beau Nash who, in 1704 became Master of Ceremonies and retained that title until his death in 1761. He is widely credited in playing a leading role in making Bath the most fashionable resort in 18th century England. Nash would meet new arrivals to Bath and judge whether they were suitable to join the select “Company’ of 500 to 600 people who had pre-booked tables. He would match ladies with proper dancing partners at each ball, pay the musicians at such events, broker marriages, escort unaccompanied wives and regulate gambling (by restraining compulsive gamblers or warning players against risky games or card sharps). As time went on, he was notable for encouraging a new informality in manners, breaking down the rigid barriers that had previously divided the nobility and the middle-class patrons of Bath, and even from the gentry. (British Broadcasting Corporation, n.d.)
Upon his death, others rose to assume the title in Bath but the power and influence of the Master of Ceremonies did not diminish, as we can see from the following “charge” to the Master of Ceremonies for the Upper Assembly Rooms.
Be it unanimously resolved:
- “That from the earliest institution of these Rooms, the regulations relating to dancing, and all points of etiquette at the Balls, having been left to the M. C. for the time being, and that the rules and orders suggested by him as to these having been invariably acquiesced in, and acted upon by the company frequenting the balls.”
- “That the same authority, so exercised by all preceding Masters of the Ceremonies, belongs of right to every successor to this office; and that it is incumbent upon the subscribers (inasmuch as they must be desirous of promoting good order and decorum in these assemblies) to conform to the regulations of the M.C. and to support him in their execution.”
- “That the Master of the Ceremonies is not accountable to any individual whatever, who may dispute or object to the established regulations; but in case of any misunderstanding arising from these, or other matters connected with the balls, a reference must be made to the Committee of General Management, appointed annually by the subscribers at large, and all differences amicably submitted to them for their consideration and decision.”
- “That any alteration or differences respecting the regulations of the balls, either at the balls, or any subsequent period, (as they tend to disturb the harmony so requisite amongst the subscribers,) will be considered as a breach of the orders of the Committee and noticed accordingly.”(Eagan, 1819)
NOURISHMENT FOR BODY AND SOUL
Just as each type of ball had its own characteristics, the type of refreshments you encountered depended on the venue. The subscription balls, at the Assembly Room Balls at Bath and at Almack’s in London, served a light snack, or “tea” around ten o’clock for which the subscribers were each required to pay a small charge (usually around six-pence). This was set up in a side room with no tables provided and only a few chairs, presumably for the elderly or infirm. The tea consisted of an assortment of thinly sliced stale bread (which was a day old), dry cakes, lemonade, coffee, and tea. In order to discourage drunkenness among gentlemen, they did not serve alcohol.
Initially it would seem rather counter-intuitive that, at balls that catered primarily to the gentry and the peerage there would be such dismal fare. When one thinks about it however, these balls could easily have 200-400 participants and the cost and logistics of serving so many made anything better prohibitive.
The next type of ball, those held in the smaller towns and country inns were very much the same story as those at the larger venues. The biggest difference would seem to be that at some of these it appears that alcohol was available since there may have been less concern with maintaining the highest level of propriety at these events.
The final type of event, the private ball, provides us with some of the most interesting food and beverage options. Members of the peerage or the wealthier members of the gentry typically gave these balls, on an invitation-only basis, and therefore they tended to be more lavish. They were an opportunity for the hosts to display their wealth and good taste to the other members of their social set and to their neighbors. Food and its presentation became far more elaborate during this period. Georgian dinners were opportunities for extravagant displays, creatively presented.
DINNER VS. SUPPER – THE TERMINOLOGY
Another important topic is the difference between dinner and supper. The difference between dinner and supper lies in their respective definitions. Dinner, according to the dictionary, is “the main meal of the day,” whereas supper is “a light meal eaten in the evening.” When you ate which depended upon your place in life. Those who needed a heavy meal in the middle of the day (laborers and farmers) ate dinner around noon. However, private ball goers would not need a heavy meal during the middle of the day. They rose late, had a full breakfast, and ate a small luncheon if they desired a sit-down meal, and possibly a light, late-afternoon tea. For them, dinner usually meant a meal in the evening hours – sometime between 4 and 8, later hours were more fashionable. Hosts might, around midnight, have servants set out supper at the end of the evening before guests went home. If the ball also included a dinner, then it might be served around six or seven. The one thing to remember is that supper was NOT a replacement for dinner. As a result, they would have supper at the end of the evening – late, usually around midnight. Supper was often cold roast joints, cheeses, and biscuits, rolls, pastries, cakes, jellies, pickles – in short, finger foods on which to nibble.
Served as a “standing buffet” or “standing supper,” it was NOT the buffet of today, where a whole dinner is set out and the guests serve themselves. A host who did such a thing would find themselves laughed out of society – who would be cheap enough to forgo all the fanfare of a formal dinner, while still serving the same dishes? Was she too poor to afford enough servants for a proper dinner? A standing buffet would be supper fare, served on a sideboard or in a separate room from the other entertainments going on. The key word is standing – everyone would stand to eat. There would be no tables at which to sit, perhaps a few chairs set out for the elderly or infirm, but the expectation was to stand around, mingle, and make conversation, while nibbling on light fare.
If one were exceedingly lucky, one might receive an invitation to a private ball that included dinner. This sort of event would most likely be hosted by members of the peerage and include only members of their social set. Any hostess worth her weight in the Ton would try to make her dinner something special. This is the opportunity to cause some waves by serving something unique! Just as balls could be themed, dinners could be themed as well, by giving fancy names to dishes (perhaps a patriotic, military theme, with Waterloo Capers and Trafalgar Ham). The opportunity could be used to introduce brand new dishes from the imagination of one’s cook (often, it could just be a recipe with a small twist).
The first course always included soup and fish. Often, there would be more than one choice for each. The hostess served the soup, and the host served the fish. The host also carved all the meat joints, while remaining seated. There would be other dishes as well, and unlike modern pre-plated dinners, there was no one prescribed dish per course. One could find meat, poultry, vegetables, and starches all on the table at the same time, although the second course tended to be lighter than the first. The exception would be the last course – the dessert course. This was reserved for fruits, nuts, candies, biscuits (cookies) and little cakes. In the grandest houses, there would be elaborate spun or molded sugar statues and ornaments, and sometimes the centerpiece of the table was even edible, made from sugar or towers of candies.
THE DISHES SERVED
While it is impractical to try to describe all the various dishes and beverages that one could find at a Georgian period dinner, we thought we might share receipts (recipes) for several that would be familiar to ball goers of the Georgian era.
Colonel Francis Negus created this drink in the early eighteenth century. Jerry Thomas remarked in his book ‘How to Mix Drinks’, published in 1862, that it is ‘A most refreshing and elegant beverage, particularly for those who do not take punch or grog after supper.’
To every pint of port wine, allow 1 quart of boiling water, 1/4 lb. of loaf sugar, 1 lemon, grated nutmeg to taste.
Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage. (Thomas, 1862)
White soup originated in 17th century France. Then known as Pottage à la Reine (Queen’s Soup) it was a slightly different dish to that served to ball goers in the Georgian period. Here is a modern equivalent of the Georgian period soup from the book by Jane Grigson, Food with the Famous.
- 2 ½ pints of veal or chicken stock.
- 2 oz blanched almonds
- 10 oz white bread, weighed without crusts
- 1 egg yolk
- ¼ pint each double cream and soured cream or milk
- Lemon juice
- Cayenne pepper
- 2 oz. toasted or fried almonds to garnish.
- Serves 6
To make the soup, put the almonds and bread into a blender, add some of the stock, and puree to a smooth paste. Using a sieve, strain into the remaining stock, pushing through as much as you can. Beat the egg yolk with the creams or cream and milk and add to the soup. If possible leave for an hour or two; this will improve and mellow the flavor. Reheat the soup, keeping it well below the boiling point so as not to curdle the egg. Add salt, pepper, lemon juice, and Cayenne pepper to taste and to bring out the flavor. Serve garnished with almonds. (Grigson, 1991)
TOLEDO STYLE PARTRIDGE
Pigeons, partridges, and other small game birds were easy to hunt or raise in the yard and along with the traditional chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, formed a staple of the Georgian table. Substitute Cornish Game Hens or other small poultry for the birds, if partridges are not available. Because of their service in the Peninsular War, some officers had developed a taste for Spanish cooking and we begin to see those influences in the Regency portion of the Georgian era.
- 4 – Red Partridges
- 4 – Large Onions
- 1 – Bulb of Garlic
- 12 – Black Peppercorns
- 1 – Sprig of Thyme
- 10 oz. – Pancetta
- 10 fl. oz. – Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 cups – White Wine
- 4 cups – Water
- 4 – Bay Leaves
- 1 glass – Brandy
- 1 Tbsp. – Salt
- 1.5 lbs. – Peeled New Potatoes
- 1 Tbsp. – Fresh Thyme for garnishing
Wash and season the partridges with salt and pepper. Brown them and add the sliced onion, whole peeled garlic cloves, peppercorns, thyme, and chopped pancetta; cover and leave it to cook slowly. Firstly, add the white wine and allow it to reduce a little. Then add the water. Season and continue to cook until the partridges are tender. Add more water where necessary.
Cook the potatoes separately with a little partridge sauce.
To serve, we cover the partridge with the onion sauce and arrange the boiled potatoes around it. Garnished with a few sprigs of fresh thyme. (Paradores de Turismo de España, S.A., n.d.)
The Madeira cake, traditionally flavored with lemon, has a firm yet light texture, was eaten with tea or occasionally for breakfast. Dating back to an original recipe in the 18th or 19th century, it is like a simple pound cake or yellow cake. The Madeira Cake is sometimes thought to originate from the Madeira Islands; however, that is not the case as it was named after the Madeira wine, which was popular in England at the time and was often served with the cake.
- 6 oz butter, at room temperature
- 6 oz castor sugar
- 3 free-range eggs
- 9 oz self-rising flour
- 2-3 tbsp. milk
- 1 lemon, zest only
- 1-2 thin pieces of candied citron or lemon peel, to decorate
Pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 7 in. round cake pan, line the base with wax paper, and grease the paper.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture well between each one, and adding a tablespoon of the flour with the last egg to prevent the mixture curdling. Sift the flour and gently fold in, with enough milk to give a mixture that falls slowly from the spoon. Fold in the lemon zest. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and lightly level the top.
Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and then turn it out on to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.
To serve, decorate the cake with the candied peel. (British Broadcasting Corporation, n.d.)
I hope you enjoyed this overview series on Georgian era balls and the culture surrounding them. In the future, we will return to this subject to look at specific aspects of social dancing, and the venues where it took place. If you have any other information you would like to share, or you have a particular topic you would like to see a post on, please let us know through the comments.
British Broadcasting Corporation. (n.d.). Beau Nash’s Bath. Retrieved 11 25, 2014, from BBC – Legacies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/somerset/article_1.shtml
British Broadcasting Corporation. (n.d.). Madeira Cake. Retrieved from BBC – Food Recipes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/madeiracake_73878
Eagan, P. (1819). Walks Through Bath. Bath, England: Meyler and Son.
Grigson, J. (1991, July 5). Food with the Famous. London: Grub Street the Basement. Retrieved from Austenonly: http://austenonly.com/2010/07/05/the-interesting-history-of-white-soup/
Paradores de Turismo de España, S.A. (n.d.). Toledo-style Partridge. Retrieved from Paradores de Turismo | Parador de Toledo: http://www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-toledo/gastronomy/recipes/toledo-style-partridge
Thomas, J. (1862). How to Mix Drinks. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald.