The Art of Hospitality

One of the things I have been doing as part of the general Burra project is to read the things his friends & acquaintances wrote. Hence my latest discovery, frankly more entertaining than, say, Under the Volcano. Doris Langley Levy was a very charming Jewish bluestocking and great mate of Ed’s — her most significant achievement in life was as a costume historian, but she was a designer for films which needed an accurate eye for period, and wrote a great deal of one kind or another. I have just been reading a book on the art of hospitality (1933) called The Pleasure of Your Company. It strikes me that much in it is simply sensible, mutatis mutandis, and it would have been great fun going to stay with her (she married a jolly, rich businessman in the region of Harrogate) . Some details, however, have an ineffable flavour of the thirties. A cocktail called The Castalian Spring (invented on returning from Parnassus): a dash of grenadine and a few drops of absinthe in a glass of champagne … the cocktail is served in a champagne glass and garnished with a green bay leaf on which rests a violet. Crystallised violets may be used. (Incidentally, DLL was a real bluestocking, not just vaguely cultured; she published a translation of the Odes of Anacreon in her twenties). Here are the first two of her seasonable schemes for dinner-party tables —
January. An all-white d├ęcor. White tulle or chiffon puffed over satin. White chrysanthemums in glass bowls, the leaves scattered over with ‘frost’ (obtainable in threepenny packets). Cupids of the kinds that adorn wedding cakes — they can be hired — and white candles in glass or silver candlesticks.
February. Scarlet and purple anemones arranged in green baskets, with asparagus fern. Asparagus fern, knotted with green and scarlet ribbons, laid on the table-cloth. (etc.)
The most ghoulish aspect of the Thirties party was obviously the games — as in early novels by Agatha Christie — ‘Murder’, ‘Sardines’ and so forth, but DLL provides some refined alternatives: for example, a party at which guests were asked ‘(a) to wear, visibly but inconspicuously, one article from Woolworth’s, and (b) to commit one breach of etiquette in the arrangement of their dress.’ A sure recipe for the Party From Which Guests Departed & Proceeded Not To Speak To Each Other for Years & Years, one would have thought. Though personally I loathe organised games to the point of actual revolt and always have, she was obviously a jolly lady, and a good host, generous and imaginative. She even provides menus for vegetarians and slimmers, and that, in 1933, was imaginative indeed. Here is her suggestion for a guestroom bookshelf, which speaks volumes for its time: the Bible, the Works of Shakespeare in one volume, Gulliver’s Travels, Dicken’s Christmas Books in one volume, one book by Lewis Carroll, one volume of Burton’s Arabian Nights, one book of short stories by O. Henry, one book of short stories by E. M. Forster, Trevelyan’s History of England, three anthologies, one of poetry, one of essays, one of modern plays, one brand-new thriller, one short new novel, and one twopenny weeks of the type usually called Gertie’s or Flo’s paper. She adds, ‘there have been many guests who have run their eye along the little row until it fell with relief upon the thriller or the new novel, but none who turned blankly away. The only Oxford don whom we ever had the pleasure of receiving was found reading Flo’s Paper with his morning tea.’ I know what she means. We have found the most unlikely people poring avidly over the Beckham’s Wedding Number of Hello, which was in the guestroom for long enough.

7 Responses to “The Art of Hospitality”

  1. the tropical godfather Says:

    Wow! Now we all know what kind of decor to expect when we dine in the forthcoming Burnside Shell Temple come January/February 2007!!! As for the guestroom bookshelf, I HOTLY DENY poring avidly over the Beckham wedding issue. Honest gov! Well, not AVIDLY…

  2. site admin Says:

    Entertaining in the Shell Temple in January would involve elegant & poetical arrangements of snowdrops with real icicles, and, by the time dinner was over, frostbite all round. Let us not even consider it. Come in May, when we can have ‘mimosa and lilac on a table spread with green tulle caught up with mauve rosettes’. Very chic. Nor will I offer you a ‘Castalian Spring’; you can’t get the absinthe these days. Anyway, it sounds horrid. I shall stick to Martinis, you know where you are with them.

  3. Carol Says:

    You need absinthe? Just say the word….

  4. lampy Says:

    I’ve got some special banana liqueur from tenerife, would that help?

  5. canadian professor Says:

    My husband, accounted the world’s best Martini maker (note the absence of “mixer”) had an unfailing recipe. The gin is kept in the freezer, then poured into the chilled martini glasses. The sign of the cross is made over each one with the bottle of Vermouth.

  6. site admin Says:

    Lampy: I don’t know what social occasion Teneriffian banana liqueur would be the answer to, but I can tell you this, I don’t want to be there. And mixing banana liqueur with champagne would probably produce an instant thunderstorm as Dom Perignon (now doubtless exalted to the hosts of heaven) wept hot salt tears as the HORRIBLE THINGS PEOPLE DO.
    Talking of which, the martini as much else in this world suggests that more than the Atlantic divides the English speaking peoples. The American martini is a thing in itself, and fine for those that like neat spirit, which I do not; the key thing about the above recipe is that the stuff is so cold you can’t taste it, moreover. I like Signor Martini’s elegant product, and the way that the florality of the vermouth meets up with the spiciness of good gin. My ideal martini is two-thirds vermouth, one third gin, and in my opinion, that is as strong a drink as any rational being would require unless they had fallen down a crevasse. The thing with the Harvard or Classical martini is that after a couple you feel as if you have fallen down a crevasse even if you haven’t.

  7. The Canadian Professor Says:

    Think what the William Jennings Bryan martini might be.

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