Mrs. Bennet had been strongly inclined to ask them to stay and dine there that day; but, though she always kept a very good table, she did not think anything less than two courses could be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the appetite and pride of one who had ten thousand a year. -Pride and Prejudice
Most period cookbooks offered suggested menu ideas for different gatherings and even different months of the year, based on what would be seasonable and fresh at the time. Some cookbooks even contained suggested table settings, like this one, giving hostesses and housekeepers an idea of how to fit so many dishes onto one table. A “remove” indicated just that—after being served, the dish was to be removed and replaced by another during the same course. A family dinner might consist of a single course with fewer dishes to choose from.
Naturally, it would be difficult to sample every dish on the table. In the event of a dinner party, a gentleman would help himself and his dining partner to whatever dishes were placed in front of him. If something was particularly desired from a different part of the table, a footman would be sent to retrieve the dish. Naturally, this had the potential to create a great deal of noise and confusion during dinner!
In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Rundell suggests that,
“Vegetables are put on the side table at large dinners, as likewise sauces, and servants bring them round: but some inconveniences attend this plan; and, when there are not many to wait, delay is occasioned, besides that by awkwardness the clothes of the company may be spoiled. If the table is of a due size, the articles alluded to will not fill it too much.”
It is certainly something to keep in mind when planning your dinners!
To take one aspect of noise and confusion away, there were rules of protocol to be followed when conversing at the table. During the first course, the conversation would flow to the hostesses’ left (the seat of honor). Once the second course was laid, the hostess would turn to the guest on her right, thus “turning the table” and allowing uninterrupted conversations without anyone feeling singled or left out. As might be expected, far more casual manners prevailed during private family functions.