In my undying quest for knowledge and entertainment, I came across an out of print book, “The Art of Entertaining” by Mary Elizabeth Wilson (M. E. W) Sherwood. This was a gem, indeed.
This book is a long read and is long on information, both practical and from a social standpoint. We find ways to greet people, host parties, choose the best wines, decorate the home, and get ideas for parlor games Who’s up for a game or two of The Horned Ambassador, I Love my Love with an A, or even The Deaf Man, or perhaps The Goose’s History? This book has so much information that to write an in-depth review of every point would be almost writing a full book. Therefore, I am only touching upon a few chapters and excerpts to give you the flavor of this work.
Sherwood begins by sharing opinion and judgement by, presumably, Europeans:
American dinners are pronounced by foreign critics as overdone. The great “too much” is urged against us. We are a wasteful people as to food; we should learn an elegant and a wise economy.
On wine and walking, and the American woman:
There is a vast deal of waste in offering so much wine at a ladies’ lunch. American women cannot drink much wine; the climate forbids it. We have not been brought up on beer, or on anything more stimulating than ice-water. Foreign physicians say that this is the cause of all our woes, our dyspepsia, our nervous exhaustion, our rheumatism and hysteria. I believe that climate and constitution decide these things for us. We are not prone to over-eat ourselves, to drink too much wine; and if the absence of these grosser tastes is visible in pale cheeks and thin arms, is not that better than the other extreme?
American women as a rule are not fond of walking. There must be something in the nature of an attraction or a duty to rouse our delicate girls to walk. They will not do it for their health alone.
My question is: What makes the “foreign physicans” and “foreign critics” so expert on the American way of eating and living, and why does Sherwood place so much importance on their inferred expertise? And the comment about American women not fond of walking makes me wonder if Sherwood thought they were all just sitting in the parlor eating bonbons.
She continues with commentary on the use of fish and its status in ancient society:
The Egyptians, while mummying the cats and dogs and beetles, and such small deer, made no gods of the good carp or other fish . . . They emblazoned the crocodile on their monuments, but never a fish. It is a singular foreshadowing of that great vice of the human race, ingratitude.
And she continues with a snippet of a recipe for fried eels:
Fried eels should be slightly salted before cooking. . . .
[D]redge them with just flour enough to absorb all moisture, then cover them with boiling lard.
But the pièce de résistance that delivers an eye-opening view into Turn of the Century thought is:
A devilled crab is considered good, but it should be cooked by a negro expert from Maryland.
I suppose that to the present mindset of some segments of society, this is a prejudicial statement. However, it can be – and maybe should be – understood that at the time, black cooks from Maryland may have had superb experience in preparing deviled crab, as the crab is plentiful in Maryland, which lends to that expertise. I believe that anyone from Maryland, not just blacks, can whip up a fabulous deviled crab.
In this same vein, Sherwood gives her view of the Irish nurse as someone who “is the best and most tender . . . Children love Irish servants . . . [though] they are not good cooks . . . and are wanting in head, management, and neatness.”
And what of the German person?
The Germans surpass [the Irish] very much in thrift and in concentration, but the Germans are stolid, and very far from being as gentle and willing as the Irish. If a housekeeper gets a number of German servants in training and thinks them perfect, she need not be astonished if some fine morning she rises and finds them gone off to parts unknown.
Sherwood has some strong opinions, indeed.
When it comes to weddings, her thoughts may as well be as valid then as today:
The custom of giving bridal presents has grown into an outrageous abuse of a good thing. There has grown up a rivalry between families; and the publicity of the whole thing, its notoriety and extravagance,
ought to be well rebuked.
In decorating and setting up a guest room, she advises that “[a]ll paint used in a model bedroom should be free from poison . . .” Good advice, indeed, since some very toxic poisons were used in paints and wallpaper, particularly copper arsenite, which produces an emerald green.
Up for a game of golf, Ol’ Chap?
“A fine day, a good match, and a clear green” is the paradise of the golfer, but it still can be played all the year and even, by the use of a red ball, when snow is on the ground. In Scotland and athletic England it is a game for players of all ages . . . it can be played by both sexes.
Some things endure.
One segment actually made me chuckle:
There are some difficulties in giving a Christmas dinner in a large city, as nearly all the waiters are sure to be drunk, and the cook has also, perhaps, been at the frumenty.
Well, there you go.
At the end of Sherwood’s book, she provides some advice:
We need not heed the criticism of the world, snobbishly; we are a great nation, and can afford to make our own laws. But we should ask of ourselves the question, whether or not we are too lavish, too fond
of display, too much given to overfeeding, too fond of dress, too much concerned with the outside of things; we should take the best ideas of all nations in regard to the progressive art, the art of entertaining.
I did find Sherwood’s tone snobby and some of her advice high-hatted throughout. There were passages that made me wonder about her high opinion of herself, some passages made me laugh aloud, and some passages were useful bits of information that one can apply today. This is a book that many would find interesting for the psychological viewpoints and the interpretations of society and traditions.
You can find it on Amazon Kindle.
“The Art of Entertaining”
Author: M. E. W. Sherwood
Publication date: 1892
Publisher: University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge
©Susan Marie Molloy, and all works within.