Denver’s Restaurant Week has come and gone for another year. Seeing all the fabulous menus and tasting all the flavors the local chefs are able to dream up is always fun to see, but it invariably inspires me to dream about what it would have been like to dine at the Hotel Boulderado back when ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen – in other words, during the Victorian era, when the Boulderado was being built. Did you know that it wasn’t fashionable for women to eat out in restaurants until about the 1860s? (I personally find it hard to imagine such a thing, but that’s how history works some time.) When it came time for the Victorians to eat, they made an event out of it! Dressing up was absolutely necessary, as they considered any outside dining event after 6pm a formal occasion.
In a Victorian house, each room had a specific purpose, and the dining room was one of the most important rooms in the entire home. Mealtime was an opportunity for prosperous people to show off their wealth, which they did with rich foods, the use of fine china and silverware, and servants. Extensive décor in the dining room could have included massive furniture, stuffed birds in cages, potted plants, huge mirrors, and ceramic and china figurines, among other items. George Matel explains:
“The goal of the hostess was to display every piece of fine china, stemware and silver she owned, so it wasn’t uncommon to find 24 piece place settings including up to eight different forks each with their own special purpose. Add to that an additional 8 knives, game shears, seven pieces of stemware for water, wine, sherry and more, a dinner plate, and a bread plate containing a single piece of bread.” George Matel, “Victorian Dining and Dining Etiquette”
Most formal Victorian dinners were similar to our modern all-you-can-eat buffet, but the food was brought to you in an exhaustive multi-course meal. Dinner parties could include up to seventy dishes!
Ironically, with all their formality and pomp and circumstance, the Victorians migrated towards simpler foods than their predecessors. They preferred simpler tastes and flavors as opposed to extravagant flavorings that would drown out the main ingredients. (However, elaborate dishes were another way to show off your cook’s skills, and by extension, your own wealth.) New advances in science and technology during the 19th century helped the Victorians eat better and more varied foods than was previously available. For example, fish could be eaten by people who were living inland because the combination of ice and railways meant the fish could be kept fresh and transported over long distances.
Food itself wasn’t the only thing improving thanks to technological advances; cooking and storing the food improved in the 19th century. Ovens and ranges developed to the point where temperature could be controlled, meaning a cook could prepare complicated meals that before had only been eaten by the wealthy. Ice chests became common, triggering the late Victorian fad for ice cream and sorbets. We have an ice box on display here at the Boulderado.
Tinned, or canned food, also grew by leaps and bounds in the Victorian era. Up until then, the process was so expensive and time-consuming that only the military used canned goods. While techniques were improving there was also an increased demand from the growing urban populations for large amounts of cheap, easy to store food while still offering a variety. A lot of companies got their start providing quality canned foods, including familiar names like Heinz and Nestle.
Leaving the dinner table had its own procedure, according to the Victorians. After the last course had been eaten, servants would bring a small water-filled bowl to each guest so the ladies and gentlemen could wash their fingers. (When the Boulderado first opened, this practice was in place in our dining room, but our waiters filled in for the servants’ role.) The hostess would signal to the ladies that it was time to leave by making strong eye contact with the woman seated to the host’s right before standing. A nearby gentleman (or servant, if one wasn’t available) opened the door to allow the women to retire to the drawing room. The men would remain at the dinner table for more conversation but were also free to withdraw to the library to enjoy a cigar or glass of port. How many of you who participated in Restaurant Week finished off your meal with such luxuries?