Etiquette, Entertaining and Electricity


Family Food Fare and Favourites

Join me as I dig through my memories, and recipes, to rediscover my family’s food “back in the day” and how those food habits have changed over the decades to today’s diverse and multi-cultural cuisines. This is my theme for the 2021 A to Z challenge.

THEN

Etiquette isn’t the first thing you might think of when considering food, but of course, how we learn to behave while eating is part of our knowledge base going into adulthood. Even if we’re more casual at times in our own homes, we need to understand the protocol when fine dining, or just out with company.

I’d guess many of us can think back to our childhood and remember being told not to eat and talk at the same time, not to put our elbows on the table and to wait for everyone to sit down, including the cook, before hooking in.

In my home, normal meals were always served at the kitchen table which was laid with properly set cutlery on a freshly ironed and starched tablecloth and with fabric napkins. Once everyone was seated, we said grace before meals[i], and when we had finished the meal, we said grace after meals[ii]. No one left the table until everyone was finished. Because we had a small family there was no requirement for me to be the silent child at the table.

I’m wracking my brain and trying to remember if we had special classes at high school in how to behave at a formal, fine-dining dinner. It seems likely given how many other classes we had to teach us to be young ladies. (it worked for a while!)

Entertaining

The only entertaining my family did was for birthdays or Christmas when my aunt’s family came to have a Christmas-time meal with us. There were probably a few reasons for this – entertaining as we know it today just wasn’t a “thing” in our working-class neighbourhood, dad’s shifts worked against it, dad didn’t do sociability, and the budget probably precluded splashing out. I suppose it’s for this reason that a couple of events stand out in mind across the years: a singalong and probably supper with church friends not far away, and a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s place down the back street, when I heard the Seekers for the first time.

Not quite crystal.

On the rare occasions when we had a special meal with visitors to the house, the dining table would be set with a white tablecloth, the crystal dishes and bowls brought out, and the best cutlery. We had a memorable moment when Mr Cassmob was invited to his first-time-ever special dinner in my teens. All the best items were on the table including the crystal salt and pepper shakers. Now, Mr Cassmob grew up in the tropics where salt gets damp easily. Without thinking, he just smacked the crystal salt shaker as he would the plastic Saxa salt container at home. Silence prevailed in the shock! Luckily for him, and our relationship, the crystal didn’t shatter.

Electricity, Gas or Slow Combustion Cooking?

In my childhood home we only had gas for cooking. In fact it wasn’t until mum moved into a retirement home that she had to use electricity but since the microwave was her favourite appliance by then, it didn’t pose a major problem.

Conversely, my aunt who lived at Brookfield, used a slow combustion stove and it was she who gave me instructions on how to use it when I was moving to PNG where that would be my introduction to cooking for new-minted husband (we only had power 16 hours a day). The only problem was, she told me to put the heat protectors on the stove plates while Mr Cassmob’s family’s house staff insisted on them being put up on the racks (or was it vice versa?). I only know that Jimmy and I had a standoff over how to do it – how young and naïve was I, not to just let him get on with how he’d been trained?! Mr Cassmob’s mother had grown up in rural Victoria so she knew all about wood stoves and how they worked, and he remembers his grandmother cooking a variety of things in her slow combustion stove fired by mallee roots, while his paternal grandmother used coal briquettes.

The Cass and Kunkel families at a formal dinner at the then-flash Tower Mill in Brisbane. Sadly, so many in this group are no longer with us.

NOW

I had been wondering if etiquette was the correct word for what I had in mind beyond table manners. Google searches confirmed that it was and shows that it remains an important skill set to learn, and to teach our families. Of course, different countries have different protocols but this link shows what’s optimal in an Aussie setting – just don’t focus on the gross photo at the top.

While I started out using tablecloths, that went by the board fairly quickly, and we mostly used placemats (as did my parents as the decades moved along). These days we’re pretty casual about our eating habits, being empty nesters, but we do have meals at a properly laid table when family or friends visit. Christmas, however, brings out the best tablecloth we bought in Provence, and the napkins plus our favourite serving dishes and some inherited silver dishes etc. Mostly though, I confess to avoiding them when I can, and substitute quickly ironed cloths instead. Call me lazy!

It looks better when there are people around the table, but, you know, privacy….Where are those napkins? Bon bons made by the grandchildren.

Entertaining was a ritual part of our time in Papua New Guinea, which is partly why Mr Cassmob’s mother was a proficient cook. Each weekend we’d have a full-scale dinner party either at our house, or at a friend’s. It was a great way to learn new menus and acquire new skills. After all, we rarely had the option of going out for meals until we moved to Port Moresby and then it was just easier, and often safer, to stay at home. This focus on formal entertaining dropped away significantly when we returned to Australia and as family life got busier. When we had people over, it was likely to be for afternoon tea (for neighbours) or more informal meals for friends.

After we left Milne Bay, our government houses all had electric stoves, as did our own houses once we returned to Australia. Cooking with gas would be a whole new learning experience for me.

New Food Fare: I hadn’t even seen or heard of eggplant until I worked at the Greek fruit & veg shop. Now one of our favourite meals is Thai Pork and Eggplant from a Spirit House cookbook, and eggplant and apple curry is another. The Spirit House has been one of our favourite special-event restaurants. You can get a few of their recipes here or here.

Did your family entertain a lot? Were there strict rules of etiquette when you were growing up? How was the cooking done in your family…on electric, gas or slow combustion stoves?

An example of a Slow Combustion oven, this one is a Rayburn and the famous Aga ovens are similar.

[i] “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” (Preceded and followed by the Sign of the Cross. Also used by some German Lutherans.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_(prayer)

[ii] We give Thee thanks, almighty God, for all Thy benefits, who livest and reignest for ever and ever.
Amen. V. May the Lord grant us His peace. R. And life everlasting. Amen. https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=2057


18 thoughts on “Etiquette, Entertaining and Electricity

  1. Pauleen I’m loving this series so much. So many memories are coming back to me as I read your words. We were very formal at our house. There was definitely no eating away from the table, no talking while eating and no elbows on the table. My mother cooked on a slow combustion stove. She didn’t teach me but I think I learnt from watching. I love my slow combustion stove that I cook on in winter. All summer I wait impatiently for the cooler weather so I can use the ‘real’ stove

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    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it Jennifer. Some things are coming back to me after I publish the letter so I’m just going back and adding them in. I’ll do my usual blog download at the end of the year. I can see the benefit of having slow combustion in the winter in cooler climates – cosy. Not so much fun in the Tropics except we needed it for hot water as well. And chopping the wood with an axe when pregnant was tedious…just as well I’d been a girl guide. One time we had an enormous ants’ nest in the cupboard backing the stove. They thought it was cosy too 😉

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  2. Not being a particularly religious family, we never said Grace, but we always ate at the table and used manners. My mother worked so I had chores after school – getting the washing in and preparing tea. We had a gas stove when I was growing up and gas heaters – connected to mains gas. Sometimes I’d cook dinner as well. We did talk at the table and I had to eat what was on my plate or go without. I chose to go without many a time – no wonder I was a stick but it did me no harm and I knew eventually something I liked would be offered at a future meal. My mother never did the dishes at night – I did them before school during the week. She had an aversion to doing dishes at night and that’s probably why i can’t stand getting up in the morning to dirty dishes. Maybe it was her mother’s insistence because Mum would never stack dishes in any order – it was always a great balancing act and she told me when I queried her that it was because her mother insisted they be stacked in an orderly fashion – apparently she was rebelling. 🙂 My great Aunt used a combustion stove and I loved visiting her with her homemade cakes and biscuits and the warmth at her kitchen table – both physical and emotional. She did not use a mixing spoon – she mixed with her bare hands – creamed butter and all with them! I have some of her recipes – one of her cakes calls for something like 6 eggs!

    Loving your blogs about this

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    1. It seems we all rebel in different ways against our mother’s habits 😉 I too hate to wake up to a mess in the kitchen especially after a big dinner party – it seems such a luxury to have a clean kitchen and a free schedule ahead. My mother was an absolute stickler about the order in which everything got washed, and then rinsed in the dish rack with boiling water from the kettle. My pet hate was drying the plastic bags – environmental awareness or, more likely, economy. Our kid had one thing they were allowed not to eat. The gourmet daughter would eat anything, Daughter #2 hates pumpkin to this day and that was her “free” refusal, DD#3 wouldn’t eat mushrooms but now will. Funny creatures aren’t we?! You certainly did a lot of work around school. Our kids took the washing off before we got home but no food prep.

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  3. What a fun topic for your challenge posts! Coming from a larger family with six children and having six children of my own, I must admit that our table manners may not have always been the best. My mother used oilcloth table covers on the wooden kitchen table that my parents inherited from my father’s grandparents and covered the oilcloth with terry cloth tablecloths for every day meals. For Sunday dinners and special occasions she pulled out the white damask tablecloth and napkins. When our children were small we had a glass table that someone gave to us, and I always kept it covered with plastic flannel backed cloths for protection purposes. Now we have my parent’s wonderful wooden table that has been refinished in our kitchen, and my Husband’s great Aunt’s table in our dinning room.

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    1. I think we all adapt to our circumstances especially with large families. Our dining table could do with being restored having been used for all sorts of purposes by kids and grandkids….and cats 😉 Thanks for visiting Marcile.

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  4. I remember the nuns at school saying that “Manners should be taught in the home” but if we transgressed in the school environment we had some remedial assistance.

    Having just entertained various combinations of 24 people for meals and accommodation over the last five days I can report that ironed tablecloths and pillowcases are still in but the fine china and crystal remained locked away.

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    1. Oh my, you are doing well. As for ironed pillowcases, I gave that away when I spent months with morning sickness. Somehow it hasn’t affected our lives 😉 The pillowcases not the child, of course.

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  5. Yes we always had grace before a meal, and sat at the kitchen table for it. We did have friends or family visit a lot, sometimes for morning or afternoon tea, and Mum always had cookies or a slice for those times. Visitors meant using the dining room, table cloth and good cutlery, often good dinner set as well, ditto for Christmas when extended family came. Lots of memories, so thanks for a lovely story Pauleen.

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  6. Lovely stories Pauleen. We had a gas cooker (with a gas cylinder) growing up, and real fires for heating, including in the bedrooms. When I was about 10 we got a stove and central heating, that we often cooked on too. When I moved out of home, I had an electric cooker. It took ages to get used to it – when gas is turned up or down, it’s instantaneous – electric not so much, with some burnt results.

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  7. Lots of entertaining in my family but I was an only child. I would be enticed into my bedroom for the night with the tv rolled into my bedroom and the promise of an after-dinner mint when the party was over. My parents were in a gourmet club. Four couples. One would do the entree. One the main meal (the host). One dessert and the fourth couple would bring wine and probably cheese for after. They’d all get dressed up (sometimes the women wore tiaras – well it was the 60s) and have a whale of a time. That’s when Dad learned to cook. He was really best at desserts but now he cooks all sorts of things and never fails to delight. Grace before AND after meals. Crikey. I would have failed on that score. Never had a slow combustion stove but would be very interested to see how it works.

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    1. Trust me, let the slow combustion pass you by 😉 How wonderful to have that gourmet background. I’ll bet a few tipples were had as well. Good on your dad for being a chef par excellence.

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