When it comes to appropriate dinner-party topics, Downton rules still hold: Avoid politics, sex, and religion, says the show’s etiquette expert, Alastair Bruce.
Don't Rush It
If an hour-long sprint of a meal is what you’re after, a Downton dinner won’t be your jam. “It’s very much a tasting menu,” says Lisa Heathcote, the home economist and food stylist on the Downton Abbey series and upcoming film, who notes that dinner can stretch for more than three hours. “You might have oysters as an hors d’oeuvres. You’d have soup, a fish course, a small roast bird, and a main dish with sauces and vegetables. Then you’d have dessert, then fruit and cheese, and then you could possibly have another savory.” Save room!
The serving style at any Downton shindig would be butler service, Heathcote explains: “The member of staff would stand with the food, and the diner would help themselves off the tray that is offered to them. The servant does not dictate to the diner how much or what they’re going to eat—it’s entirely up to the individual. And there’s no such thing as seconds.”
Dress To Impress
Not you—the food! While the post-Edwardian era in which Downton Abbey is set is slightly less decorated than its Victorian forebearer, Heathcote notes that the Abbey’s cook, Mrs. Patmore, would still be taken with over-the-top presentation because she’s in the countryside. “It was quite formal and structured,” she explains. To replicate it at your next dinner, Heathcote suggests presenting your food on platters, keeping color in mind—“red always pings out”—and serving “lots of watercress, always.”
Get Jiggly With It
“This is the world of aspic,” a savory gelatin made from a meat stock or consommé, says Heathcote. But if a dinner mold is too adventurous for your party, there are plenty of period-true dishes that appeal to modern palates. According to Heathcote, you can’t go wrong with a charlotte russe cake (layers of mousse, ladyfingers, and fruit), a boiled ham, or cucumber sandwiches. “I’ve made acres of cucumber sandwiches over the years,” she says.
Follow The Leader
“Every time you’d sit down at a dining room table in a proper house, you’d look to see which way the hostess turns to start talking,” explains Alastair Bruce, the historical adviser for the Downton Abbey series and film. “If she’s gone to the right, all the women turn to the right and all the men turn to the left. After the first course, they turn the other way. After the second course, they go back.”
Mind Your Posture (And Your Gloves!)
“What always surprised the actors is how upright they’d have to be,” says Bruce of the Downton cast. “They couldn’t lean back in their chairs. And if they weren’t holding their knives and forks, they’d have to leave them on the plates and place their hands in their laps.” And if you really want to have yourself an accurate party, wear gloves. “Women had to take them off to eat and put them back on afterward,” says Bruce. “If they wanted to play bridge, the gloves were off again.”