Serving of Food

views updated


SERVING OF FOOD. The step between cooking and eating is far from insignificant. With sophisticated production and preparation, the serving of food involves important role divisions, etiquette, and cultural forms.

Such are the intricate social and cultural pressures that being served at an unfamiliar table or even just the arrival of an unfamiliar food can make diners uncomfortable. Families can fight over sharesthe social struggle for resources in microcosm. But the serving of food is also a site of courtesy and generosity. Domestic hospitality depends on serving graciously, taking care of guests first, and offering second helpings. Professional waiters commit complicated orders to memory, return smoothly without mix-ups, perhaps conduct elaborate serving rituals, and note before anyone else any missing components.

Types of Service

One logistical variable is the proximity of the cooking. This can be immediately in front of the diners so that the cook, host, or diners serve, at an adjacent kitchen as in restaurant waiter service, or at a distant factory when packaged snack foods are trucked to coin-activated machines. Serving can be done from staging posts, whether the immediate table, sideboard, dumb-waiter, trolley (as in the Hong Kong yum cha ) or picnic basket. Diners sitting regally along only one side of a table enable service from the front; served from behind, dishes are conventionally offered from the left and taken from the right.

The number of diners changes the picture: from a handful of people around a campfire to thousands in dining halls, to vast street banquets, which have sometimes been served using bicycles.

Another key variable is the ratio of servers to diners. A ratio of one-to-one or even higher has enabled magnificent displays, vast tableaux, from which attendants could retrieve helpings on command. One waiter for ten diners or more can readily take orders and carry individual plates already made up in the kitchen. Even lower labor levels are needed for a cafeteria or hotel buffet, where diners help themselves and face the indignities of queuing.

The food itself is the most important variable. Dishes might require dressing, lifting, pouring, spooning, slicing or, most impressively, carving. In agrarian societies, eaters have helped themselves, or been served, from a common bowl or pot, but many meals involve two or more containers. The boxed Japanese meal called a bento- should display at least ten pretty items ready for the choosing. Sometimes diners have no choice, which is the case with table d'hôte (sharing the "host's table" typical of an inn), but a selection is often served. Chinese diners select food from the table and perhaps from a lazy Susan (central revolving stand). This can magnify into whole tables or "services" of food, which might even be changed through the meal as in the grand French style, service à la française.

The alternative, service à la russe, brings a series of dishes through the meal, perhaps carved in the dining room but often plated in the kitchen for each person, and is particularly associated with French-style restaurants. The food tends to be hotter and the meal to last longer. Individual choice is restored in restaurants with à la carte, that is, selections made previously from a menu or bill of fare.

The nineteenth-century debate about service à la française and service à la russe is not arcane, but reflects the broad historical trend from simultaneous serving to successive presentation, and from mass displays to individualized plates. The distinction is blurred, though, since many meals have been served sequentially, and the grand French spread (le grand couvert ) already had several courses. Each plate in the modern Western style will probably carry several items.

Server and Served

The sharing of food in meals gives serving its social significance. Meals also enable the sharing of roles, or division of labor, each person contributing what they can. Herein lies a paradox, for the very act of sharing food introduces a split between server and served.

Servers can take pride: Italian waiting can be highly skilled and as entertaining as any opera, French service so suave as to be hardly noticed, and the proverbially "resting" New York actors can demonstrate people skills. In a civilized society, people might take turns being served and serving. Jesus said he came "not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). The Greek diakonia could mean "service" in a general sense, but Jesus meant the specific serving at table, his mission centered on table-fellowship.

However, serving has generally retained low status. "Beulah, peel me a grape," ordered American actor-writer Mae West in her movie I'm No Angel (1933). The words "serve," "service," and "servant" derive from the Latin servus for 'slave'.

When people began keeping livestock and other stored wealth, they introduced the concept of private property. Given that men made themselves the owners of the new sources of foodstuffs, this phase marked the "world-historic defeat of the female sex,"continues German social philosopher Friedrich Engels in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (chapter 2, "The Family") in 1884. The "woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man's lust, a mere instrument for breeding children." She also cooked and served.

Women have often served men firstand larger shares than warranted by different body sizes and energy requirementseven at the expense of their own health. In Cooking, Cuisine, and Class (1982), British anthropologist Jack Goody notes that women of the Gonja of Ghana distributed larger portions of cooked meat to men's bowls. Even when the meat went into a common soup, he found that educated women held back, though the men "jokingly claim that if women do not help themselves beforehand, they are fools" (p. 68). The differential distribution of food between sexes shows up in modern societies, as Nickie Charles and Marion Kerr illustrate in Women, Food and Families (1988).

Friedrich Engels also argued (chapter 9, "Barbarism and Civilization") that the increase in production with agrarian civilizations increased the demand for labor, which was furnished by captives of war made into slaves. The Roman propertied classes numbered their household slaves in dozens, sometimes hundreds, and they ran the meals. A crowd, typically male and properly attired, carried in the meal's three to six courses. A contemporary observed that "all night long they have to stand around, hungry and dumb." Real prestige belonged to the wine waiterswho were expected to be "young, smoothshaven (but long-haired), and sexually attractive," writes John H. D'Arms in "Slaves at Roman convivia " (1991).

To believe the satire of a nouveau riche banquet at the height of Nero's Rome, described in the Satyricon of Petronius, the "boys" might make dozens of entrances, pouring out snow-cooled water, sprinkling the room with colored sawdust, carrying round bread, towels and hot water, anointing the diners' feet, singing, clapping, and dancing. Elaborate carving was already well established, and Petronius describes a man slashing at a great platter of plump fowls, sows' udders, a hare and fish, with his hands moving in time to the orchestra, "like a charioteer battling to the sound of organ music." At the same feast, a whole boiled calf is demolished by a carver playing the warrior Ajax in a scene from Homer, sharing the pieces on the point of his sword among the surprised guests.

Slaves routinely had access to leftovers, but any concessions to conviviality have to be set against the fundamental powerlessness. Suetonius, a biographer of the Caesars, relates how Emperor Tiberius once publicly reprimanded the lecherous old spendthrift Cestius Gallus, while privately accepting his dinner invitation as long as the waitresses were naked. Humiliation and punishment (including murder) contrasted with the convivial setting. Again according to Suetonius, a slave stole a strip of silver from a couch at a public dinner, so Emperor Caligula had the executioners lop off the slave's hands, hang them around his neck, and take him on a tour of the tables.

Being a house rather than field slave could bring privileges in the American South. As Eugene D. Genovese notes in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1975), "servants trained and polished for elegant performance as butlers, cooks, and dining-room attendants were hard to obtain and not easily spared" (p. 329). But the household staff could also have less free time, have to snatch meals when they found a moment, miss out on plantation singing and feasting, and were continually reminded of their deprivation.

Courtly Service

The recipes in the courtly English book dated around 1390, The Forme of Cury [Cookery], begin "Take . . ." and usually conclude "serve it forth" or "messe it forth." The word mess has referred to a portion of food, a liquid food, a made dish, and a course of foods, all of which had been "messed" forthfrom the Latin mittere, 'to send'. Those sitting together at a banquet and sharing from the same dish were called a mess.

The officers in grand medieval households, where regular diners numbered in the hundreds and even thousands, included the ewerer who carried washing water and towel, the cupbearer who fetched wine, the butler who supervised butts of wine and ale, and the surveyor who controlled the surveying board to which the cook directed the platters. The carver's was still an exalted domestic station, with intricate rules to "break" that deer, "display" that crane, alay that pheasant, tranche (slice) that sturgeon, and so forth. Madeleine Pelner Cosman writes in Fabulous Feasts (1976) that the titles, responsibilities, and implements of food service could be carried by noblemen and sons of gentlemen. Serving could prove a means for political and professional advancement; Cardinal Morton predicted that the young Sir Thomas More, who was waiting on him, would prove a marvelous man (p. 26).

The disappearance of public carving in stylish European culture was accompanied towards the end of the nineteenth century by the switch from service à la française (each course or "service" arrayed like a buffet) to service à la russe (one dish at a time). With the cook often "plating up" behind the kitchen door, the mealtime distribution of food was moving to the back room and from the hierarchical to the individualistic. This reflected the shift in power from the aristocracy to the business class, and their more private meals.

This rationalization of food serving was supported by Thomas Walker, the London essayist of "aristology" (the art of dining). Devoting much of his 1835 weekly newspaper, The Original, to what he calls "attendance," Walker protested against the "cumbrous" ceremony of service à la française. Servants would take each dish on a circuit, and the wines move "languidly round two or three times." He favored service à la russe. "I like the familiar and satisfactory style both of cooking and of eating, with the dish actually before me on mensa firma, the solid tablenot a kickshaw poked from behind, and dancing in the air between me and my lady neighbour's most inconvenient sleeve, without time to think whether I like what is offered." A small party of eight should assemble, and every dish be "served in succession, with its proper accompaniments, and between each dish there should be a short interval, to be filled up with conversation and wine, so as to prolong the repast as much as possible, . . . time would be given to the cook, and to the attendants."


If not enforced by marriage or slavery, household servants have been tied through affective, material and financial dependence. The smaller households late in the nineteenth century had just one or perhaps two live-in domestics, a cook and a maid. However, the employers confronted a "servant problem," because many young women preferred more public work as shopgirls. This helped stimulate the feminist dream of "kitchen-less" homes reliant on central facilities.

If the keynote of the nineteenth century was the reduction in servants, that of the twentieth was the effort to displace serving entirely. The "service industries" took over more roles of a servant with less labor. The factory took over more finished food preparation. Costs might also be reduced by "self-service." In the cafeteria, a line of customers might choose items, place them on a tray, and carry them to the cashier. Oddly, this was like a return to service à la française, without assistance.

McDonald's has become emblematic of casual, deskilled, and formulaic service. In 1948, at the drive-in restaurant of the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, at San Bernardino, about fifty miles east of Los Angeles, twenty young women waiters called "carhops" served up to 125 cars from the twenty-five item menu, featuring beef and ribs cooked in a barbecue pit fuelled with hickory chips. But the brothers faced increasing competition and labor and advertising costs, so they sacked their carhops, slashed the menu, halved the price of a hamburger to an unheard-of 15 cents, abandoned china and flatware in favor of paper bags, wrappers and cups, organized industrial kitchen equipment, and adopted rigid operating procedures to "eliminate the principal obstacle to fast-food servicethe human element," corporate historian John F. Love observes in McDonald's: Behind the Arches (1986, pp. 1118). The brothers put an "industry that prided itself on extremely personalized procedures" on the assembly line. Under subsequent owners, McDonald's introduced the world to the inane-sounding, "Have a nice day."

Having meals in company requires the serving of food, but this can become exploitative and inequitable. One answer is a "help yourself " culture of individualized service, but generosity is maintained when people take turns as server and served.

See also Class, Social ; Kitchens, Restaurant ; Places of Consumption ; Restaurants ; Waiters and Waitresses .


Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: Braziller, 1976.

Charles, Nickie and Marion Kerr. Women, Food, and Families. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

D'Arms, John H. "Slaves at Roman convivia." In Dining in a Classical Context, edited by William J. Slater, pp. 171183. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow: Progress, 1948. Originally published in 1884.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Hieatt, Constance, and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglysch.: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (including The Forme of Cury [e ] [Cookery ]). London: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Love, John F. McDonald's: Behind the Arches. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Petronius, The Satyricon, and Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis. Translated by J. P. Sullivan. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977.

Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979.

Symons, Michael. A History of Cooks and Cooking. Urbana and Chicago University of Illinois Press, 2000. Originally published as The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, 1998.

Symons, Michael, "Did Jesus Cook?" In Food, Power and Community: Essays in the History of Food and Drink, edited by Robert Dare, pp. 1628. Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield, 1999. Discusses the Greek diakonia for "service."

Walker, Thomas. The Original. London: Renshaw, 1838. Originally 1835. Selections have also been republished as The Art of Dining, London: Cayme Press, 1928.

Michael Symons

Styles of Serving

à la carte : 'by the card'. The diner orders the progression of dishes beforehand from a menu or bill of fare typically showing the price of each item.

service à la française : 'service in the French manner'. Each course magnificently arrayed like a buffet, from which the diner or servant selects.

service à la russe : 'service in the Russian manner'. One dish at a time, either served at the table or already plated in the kitchen.

table d'hôte : 'host's table'. A common meal served at a fixed price, typical of an inn.