‘Conspicuous Consumption’

Ayers House, now run as a museum by the National Trust, illustrates one of the early success stories in the history of South Australia. Situated on North Terrace, a tree-lined boulevard in the city of Adelaide, Ayers House is an elegant blue stone mansion. Yet, originally, it was merely a small settler’s cottage at the far end of town. Built in the first years of settlement, it became the property of Mr. William Paxton, chemist and philanthropist, who made his fortune in copper from the Monster Mine at Burra in the mid north of the state. Paxton enlarged the cottage to a nine-roomed house on 2 ¾ acres at the smart end of town, before returning to England a very wealthy man. He left his Adelaide property in the hands of his friend and business associate, Henry Ayers.

Sir Henry Ayers, one of the founding fathers of Adelaide and a self-made millionaire, created an opulent family home from these basic beginnings at 288 North Terrace. Among other substantial improvements, Ayers added a ballroom, a guest wing and a state dining room. Here, as sometime Premier and Chairman of the Board for various banks and businesses, he would entertain the political and social glitterati of South Australia for almost forty years, throwing lavish dinners and biannual balls, when the cedar floor of the ballroom would be polished with milk, and the chandeliers took a week to clean.

Today, the National Trust has recreated many rooms in the house as they would have been in the nineteenth century. The family dining room has been beautifully restored, and the dining table is set for a family dinner in the formal and fashionable dining method of service à la russe with an extravagant array of cutlery, crockery and crystal, and where even the walls and ceiling are decorated with elaborate friezes and paintings of food.

Dining among the aristocracy has long demanded opulence and eating to excess. Or, as it is described by food historian Hans Ottermeyer, ‘conspicuous consumption’. The wealthier the host, the more dishes would be squeezed onto the dinner table, to impress guests with the quantity and quality of food on offer.

In the eighteenth century, service à la française evolved from the mediaeval smorgasbord, with its random but abundant display of dishes – savory and sweet – weighing down the table. Now, while there was still an embarrassment of riches, the food was arranged into specific courses, and each course became a theatrical presentation; a ‘self-consciously elegant display with its rule-bound choreography of dishes’ – as described by another food historian, Cathy K. Kaufman – to which the diners were invited to help themselves.

An ostentatious surtout or centrepiece, made from silver or porcelain, would grace the middle of the table, with a dozen dishes in a formal, geometric arranged around it; a ‘cornucopia of delicacies’ that might include as many as seven courses. The host would carve the meat, and guests often shared plates. Dining was a thoroughly communal, interactive affair. The downside, however, was that the food was often tepid, if not downright cold by the time it reached one’s plate; a sad reflection of the monumental effort the kitchen staff had put into producing such a plethora of dishes.

In the early nineteenth century, a Russian diplomat introduced a radical new method of banquet dining to the Parisian elite. With a sophistication that quickly upstaged the previous trend for service à la française, service à la russe relied on an army of waiters to silver-serve the meal in sequential order, even requiring them to add the finishing touches to the cooking at the table. Complicated though it sounds for the staff, service à la russe was much simpler for the diners than the profusion of dishes and table decorations that had cluttered dining tables and bedazzled diners for centuries. No longer did the guests help themselves to whatever they fancied, but the chef de cuisine – no more a mere ‘cook’ – dictated what the guests would eat and in which order, a menu was provided and there was now only one dish per course, although I fear it didn’t lessen the quantity of food served! However, the emphasis was now specifically on the food itself, rather than the conviviality of dining together, with the chef as the star performer and the diners as his captive audience. And so began the era of the celebrity chef…

But this new method of dining still provided ample opportunity for the host to show off: the number of staff one could employ; the quality and quantity of food served; the finest crystal, and the best family china. In the centre of the table, while the surtout remained, it had been much simplified, which made it far more affordable for the rising middle classes. And now, for a change, the food was served hot. Or at least warm!

As the food came to the table sliced and plated at timely intervals, there was also far less waste – and potentially far less indigestion – and it quickly proved a more economical way to dine in luxury. Post dating the French Revolution, many may have felt there was a certain democracy in serving everyone the same amount of food.

Now that the table was no longer collapsing under hugely laden food platters, there was also more room for the table to be laid with all the cutlery needed for the meal, rather than having to rinse one set between courses. And considering the number of courses, there could now be quite a selection of cutlery.

A full meal would consist of potage (soup), hors d’oeuvre froid (cold starters), more soup, hors d’oeuvre chaud (hot starters), poisson (fish), the pièce de résistance, entrée chaud, entrée froid, sorbet, rotis (roast or baked meats), salade, entremets de legumes (side dishes of vegetable), entremets chaud and entremets froid, entremets de fromage (cheese), and of course at least one dessert. Well, perhaps indigestion remained an issue!

Serving wine became more elaborate, too. No longer was just one wine served from trays in a shot glass and handed back immediately to be refilled. Now each course was accompanied by a different wine, which meant each guest also required a selection of glassware.

By the second half of the 19th century, service à la russe has been cut back to four or five courses. Old fashions blended with new, and dining became far less formal, and more like restaurant dining today. Nevertheless, as can be seen in the dining room at Ayers House, it was still much fancier than our 21st century approach to dining. Even in the colonies, middle class Victorian eating habits made no allowance for such casual, inconspicuous consumption as takeaway meals or TV dinners…

*With thanks to Google for the image above.

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