You’ve reached the end of a wonderful dinner, and the table has been cleared for dessert. Slices of chocolate truffle cake are passed around, and exclamations of delight and cups of steaming coffee follow. A happy moment, to be sure, but for a certain neglected minority not a perfect one. And I don’t mean the diet-conscious, who would have preferred a fruit sorbet. No, I’m talking about that person sulking at the end of the table, picking desultorily at his piece of cake. I’m talking about me, and maybe—just maybe—you.
I’m simply not a dessert person. This doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally enjoy it, but outside of restaurants or the sort of social event where it would be churlish to spurn it (or fail to offer it), I eat dessert maybe half a dozen times a year. Otherwise, if we’re having wine with supper, I try to save a little of it to round off the meal. And that, I once thought, was that.
Then a friend gave me, for curiosity’s sake, a British cookbook by Agnes Jekyll, D.B.E., called Kitchen Essays, with Recipes and Their Occasions, published in 1922. In it, Lady Jekyll forthrightly addresses such burning issues as what to take along for lunch on a winter motoring excursion or what to serve friends who have come up to London for the day to do their Christmas shopping. It’s fun, but not the sort of book you would think could change your life. Yet there it was—the opening sentence of Chapter XXXI, “On Savouries”: “[B]y many, a dinner which does not include both sweet and savoury is thought, even in these days of shortened meals, to be a little disappointing.”
Exactly. Who knew that the whisper of melancholy that creeps in at dinner’s end, that sense of inchoate yearning, needed only a plate of anchovy toast, even a bowl of salted nuts, to set things straight? But it really requires a little more than that. Those of us with a savory tooth want to be recognized, catered to, made to feel as welcome at the end of the meal as we are during it. A simple request, you might assume. You would be wrong.
I end most of my evenings with a midnight snack. Depending on my appetite, energy level, and the contents of the refrigerator, this might be a few slices of headcheese, a bowl of onion sesame sticks, a small posse of Swedish meatballs. But whatever it is, it is always, always savory. So, I asked myself, what if I were to push this nightly nosh (or at least part of it) back to the end of dinner? Unexpectedly, the very idea made me uneasy. Not that it seemed unappetizing. Quite the contrary. It’s just that it also seemed pure and simply & dangerous.
There is, in fact, a powerful reason why dessert and coffee bring dinner to a close. They carry within them a subtle but nonetheless unmistakable message: The meal is over. Just when your guests start to think it might be fun to broach another bottle and chat late into the night, the sweetness of the dessert nixes the first part of the plan, and the clarity-inducing effect of the caffeine summons a bleak awareness of the lateness of the hour, the demands of the following day. And out into the cold we go.
The idea of the savory course is essentially a British one (“[I]n France…a savoury course…is looked on as something barbarous, indeed almost immoral”—our friend Lady Jekyll again), and it began to find a place in polite society during the early part of the 19th century, when the fashion shifted from putting everything onto the table at once—even at the fanciest of meals—to having the dishes brought round by the servants, who waited on each of the diners individually. This newer, more civilized arrangement meant that the order in which things were to be eaten could be orchestrated by the hostess. Courses became possible and, in their delicious novelty, effloresced.
The savory is a little bite of something rich, salty, and piquant—a marrow toast, perhaps, or a stuffed egg, a talmouse (a kind of cheese tartlet), or a potted lobster. It was placed here and there in a meal that could run to as many as 12 different courses, but it eventually found its place at the very end. Very simply put, this allowed the gentlemen, if they wished, to eschew the sweet and round off the meal with something that was less cloying and led the palate more directly to the glass of brandy and the after-dinner cigar. Conversely, it was generally felt that the ladies ought to skip the savory and take the sweet. This naturally led to coffee in the drawing room, away from the fumes of alcohol and tobacco, where—as wine authority Darrell Corti recently pointed out to me—they could have first crack at the bathroom.
Perfect dinners, like perfect marriages, are all about the art of compromise, and the existence of the savory course required that the ladies tolerate this idea of separation and of their husbands rejoining them at the end of the evening redolent of drink and weed. As high society came creeping into the 20th century, the ladies began to make it clear they did not like any of these things. More and more, the savory course was treated like the husband’s bachelor friends—to be invited for dinner only when the other guests were likely to find them amusing, which as far as most hostesses were concerned, was rarely.
However, the relatively brief appearance of the savory at fashionable tables (roughly from 1870 to 1930) is no indication of how deeply ingrained it already was in British life. When men dined solely with other men, whether at private clubs, military messes, college high tables, chophouses, taverns, or residential hotels, the savory had always held its own. Unfortunately, that world is, at best, scantily documented. Those who cooked at such places were unlikely to consult cookbooks and even less likely to write them; those who dined there, although many of them were memoirists, at least of the amateur sort, rarely dwelt on—except to complain about—what they were served.