Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 3 - The Greenwich Dinner

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WHEN YOU invite a friend to "dinner," before specifying the when and where, you leave him in a pleasant state of uncertainty as to your intentions and his chances of pleasure. You may mean the domestic dinner, than which, when well done, nothing can be better. By well done I mean not more than half-a-dozen people, all of them knowing and understanding each other; soup, fish, joint, a couple of entrées, a bird, a pudding, and some macaroni; a neat- handed Phyllis instead of a stupid waiter; sound wine, and a small cigar before going up to the ladies; where you have some really good music, and get away by eleven. This is doing it well : it can be badly done in many different ways. In the "pot-luck! style: a bit of hard loin-of-mutton swimming in coagulated grease, dank dabs of greens, mild beeswax of cheese, warm flat Romford ale, two glasses of fiery sherry, and a tumbler of diluted turpentine called whisky-and-water. In the grand style: where the host and hostess pass two wretched hours in telegraphing to stupid servants ; where the funny friend will tell the mal-à-propos anecdote which cuts the most-to-be-made-up-to member of the party to the quick; where the guests all hate you for being pretentious and endeavouring to excel them; where conversation is on the revolving-light principle - occasionally [-19-] bright, frequently hazy, generally dull; and where it is difficult to know which are most delighted when the entertainment is at an end-the people who were so pleased to see their friends, or those who have passed such a charming evening. There is the club-dinner: where you have a grand opportunity of airing your importance, and bringing your social status to bear heavily on your unoffending guest. And there is the tavern-dinner, to which you tell him you take him that "we may have a pleasant, free, jolly evening. old fellow, and be out of the way of all club formalities." And then there is the Greenwich dinner, which is of itself a thing apart, and at the mention of which the invited one beams with delight.
    For anyone who knows anything about a Greenwich dinner knows he cannot be asked to a bad one. The whitebait get large in July; the salmon-cutlets can have been sent up and sent down, and sent up again, too often-; the duck may be tough; the waiting - notably when there are three City companies, the staff of a daily newspaper, and a hundred people in the coffee-room, all clamouring and dining at once - somewhat tiresome; but, on the whole, you cannot dine badly at Greenwich.
    The mere fact of dining out of town is agreeable. It is a hot staring June day; the heat reflected from the pavement permeates everywhere; the air is still and sirocco-like; one side of the way - that on which the sun is shining - is deserted; while on the other, those men who are strong-minded enough are mopping their bald foreheads and carrying their hats boldly in their hands. Vagabond dogs with lolling tongues, unpleasantly suggestive of hydrophobia, loiter at the corners of the streets, and regard the legs of the passers-by with furtive and maniacal glances; boys forget the charms of toffee, buns, and pegtops, and devote their pocket-money to the purchase of clinging dabs of nastiness known as penny ices; butchers' shops, always [-20-] unpleasant to the eye, become offensive to the nose ; while from the gratings of the eating-houses issue a warm puthery steam, which turns me sick as I pass. No dinner in London to-day No hot joint, tongue-flaying cheese, lukewarm beer, fiery sherry. Across my brain come visions of myriads of fish-dishes, cool cup, ice-water, luxury - Greenwich! Thither we fly, I and thou, shadowy Cleophas, to my more shadowy Asmodeus. What matter whether steam-rattled over ragged-school-containing brick arches from London Bridge; floated down on board Waterman No. 3, "deal- built, dirty-bottomed, and carrying an inexperienced medical student" bound on the same errand as ourselves; or whirled down in the most reckless and dust-provoking of hansoms! Here we are at The Vessel; and now to look around us. Outside the door stand some thirty carriages of every description, horseless and closely packed together: sly little broughams, radiant in varnish, with pink window-blinds, and a tiny basket strapped opposite the seat to bold the bouquet and gloves of the fair owner; heavy drags, looking so like superior stage-coaches without the plate and the letters, and with much-besilvered splinter-bars attached to the rails of the hind-seat; stockbrokers' high-wheeled mail-phaetons, all brass and lacquer and fresh garish paint; roomy family clarences, dowagers' yellow-bodied chariots, dissipated-looking dog-carts, with the oilcloth on the suspended trap much torn and trampled by unsteady, not to say drunken, feet; rakish hansoms, and even one or two four-wheeled cabs.
    A constant stream has been pouring in ever since we have been here, and when we enter the coffee-room we find it nearly filled. Observe that the best tables (those nearest the window, with the good look-out on the river) are nearly all occupied by solitary diners-elderly big men with bald heads, huge stomachs, stolid expression, and succulent protruding under-lips. These be your City merchants, your [-21-] magnates of Lloyds' and the Exchange, your lunchers at Garraway's and the Jerusalem, your Gordon-Square dwellers, bank directors, vestry wranglers, charitable-parochial-rate supporters; these be your fathers of Mudie-subscribing daughters, and of club smoking-room-haunting sons; these be your autumnal-touring Britons, who give the notion of the Milor Anglais to the Parisian vaudevilliste and the Italian libretto-writer; these be your "regular John Bulls," who live but for their business and their stomach. Go to, ye who say that there is no pleasure in the mere consumption and mastication of food! Watch these old men note the bobbing of their pendulous red cheeks, like the gills of a turkey-cock; see the lighting-up of that dull fishy eye as the waiter advances bearing the duck and peas which follow so pleasantly after the course of fish; mark the eagerness with which that pulpy, shaky, mottled old hand clutches the champagne-glass destined to cool the throat now fired with the devilled bait; listen to the chuckling sound with which these old jaws wag o'er the melting marrowfats-and then say what is the summum bonum of human happiness. To this man you might read the sweetest poem of Tennyson, the most touching pathos of Dickens, and he would not experience an emotion; but let his potatoes be soddened or his gravy burnt, and you shall behold a rage worthy of Marino Faliero, and a grief compared to which that of Rachel weeping for her children was a delusion and a sham!
    And now let us glance at the internal economy of this house - The Vessel.
    From the 1st of April to the 30th of September, Pleasure's business is in full swing here, and never allows the smallest relaxation. With a view to such business, and nothing else, The Vessel was built. On the heading of its bills it calls itself an hotel ; but you might search in vain on The Vessel's basement for the commercial-room; you might pass the remainder of your life hunting without [-22-] success for the large family bedrooms, or the stuffy cupboards in which bachelors are made to pass the night. There are no baths and no billiard-room, no quaint assembly-room leading up three steps at the end of the first-floor passage, and smelling as if the ghosts of our gavotte- dancing grandmothers still inhabited it. You will never find rows of boots with number-chalked soles standing outside its chamber-doors, nor regiments of bed candlesticks on the hall-table; no "boots" lurks up its stairs at the chilly hours of the morning to call anyone who is going by the first train, nor has such a thing as a "breakfast order" ever been heard within its capacious walls. From its cellar to its attic The Vessel means dinner, and nothing but dinner. On its ground-floor are its hall, a lavatory, and the coffee-room with its numbered tables and its cheery look-out on the river. On the first-floor are the large rooms used for City companies, testimonial-dinners, and such-like, at which between two and three hundred guests often sit down simultaneously; above are the smaller rooms used for private parties. Each of these rooms is distinguished by a name-the Nelson, the Beaufort, the Wellington, etc.- and the party in each is accredited with the dinner, wine, etc. ordered and consumed, in the following fashion. In the bar sits the booking-clerk at a desk; behind him is a speaking-pipe; at his side are two flexible tubes, one descending to the cellar, the other to the kitchen. Down the speaking-pipe comes a roar : "Wellington-ice-pudding, bottle of decent hock." Book-keeper gives ice-pudding order, but is slightly confounded about wine, so calls up: "Wellington! sparkling hock, did you say?" Answer: "Decent hock, gentleman said." "All right." Then down cellarman's tube "Wellington-bottle hock No. 3." The principal cellarman has two assistants, who are despatched for wine while he books each order against the particular room named. The system of check is thus treble, and at [-23-] the end of the evening, when accounts are made up, three entries of every order are brought forward - that is to say, the waiter who gives it, the booking-clerk through whom it passes, and the cellarman who executes it. The cellars are perfect marvels of order and systematic detail; and so thorough is the supervision, and so accurate the check, that the superintendent, looking at the last stock-taking, can reckon the consumption to the moment of inquiry, and can at any time give you to a bottle the exact state of any bin in the vast cellarage. While on this subject, it is worth noticing that though the cellar contains numerous specimens of rare wines and curious vintages, it is very seldom indeed that they are called for. Punch, sherry, and champagne with the dinner - and nearly always champagne - it seems to be a fixed idea with Greenwich diners, more especially with those who but seldom indulge in such a luxury, that champagne is a positive necessity. After dinner, by men of the present generation, and at parties where ladies are present, claret is generally drunk; but at the great feeds of the City companies, at the testimonial-presentation dinners, at the annual gatherings of old gentlemen belonging to eccentrically-named clubs - institutions with a superstructure of indulgence springing from a substratum of charity - nothing but East India brown sherry and sound port ever "sparkle on the board" after the cloth has been removed from it.
    On the first-floor is a kitchen, which supplies that and the floor above, while the house is pierced with "lifts" for the speedy conveyance of hot dishes and removal of plates, glasses, etc. One of these lifts penetrates to the cellar, and brings up the wine fresh and cool from the deep dark bins; one fetches the fruit and dessert from that bower wherein a pretty girl passes her life engaged in the dispensation of such luxuries ; several are perpetually clattering down into the kitchens, and returning laden with different courses, all [-24-] set out in order for the particular room, the waiter attached to which is in attendance to receive them. The same order and regularity which pervades the rest of the establishment is brought to play upon the waiters: to each man the plate given out is counted and entered on a record; each has his own particular cutlery and glass; each is accountable for everything supplied to him; each has, as the first instalment of his day's labour, to cut up a huge brown loaf into that timber-yard arrangement of delicious slices, without which no Greenwich dinner would be complete. Added to this, on every floor, in the secret recesses unexplored by the general public, hangs a written code of laws and a table of fines applicable to waiters' irregularities. At the Greenwich houses the majority of the waiters will be found to be foreigners, and they are mostly sons of German innkeepers, many of them men of worldly position, who have come over here to acquire a knowledge of their business, and an insight into the ways of the world. The head-waiter at such a house as The Vessel is a superior man; at large dinners he draws a regular sketch of the table, which is generally in horseshoe form, and on an average holds thirty-five dishes, seventeen on either side, and a huge centre-piece before the chairman; he arranges them artistically, and can in an instant denote the exact place of any dish. The daily list of eatables is prepared each morning by the superintendent (one of the partners), and nearly every article is purchased in Greenwich. Some of the fish is purchased in Billingsgate, but most comes from two local fishmongers, who each morning supply a priced tariff of what they have to offer. The meat and nearly all the vegetables are purchased in the neighbourhood; and with such exactness are The Vessel's books kept, that the precise amount spent in lucifer-matches during the season is entered, and figures with other equally small items in the grand total of the partnership account. What these accounts must be for fish alone may be guessed, [-25-] when it is recorded here that between the 1st of April and the 30th of September there is an average consumption of thirty-five thousand flounders.
    Whitebait, without which there would be no Vessel, and in the minds of a great many people no Greenwich - whitebait, which Theodore Hook called "curl-papers fried in batter," which most people sneer at as nothing, and which everybody eats with delight - are caught where the water is a little brackish, generally between Barking and Greenhithe, with a net thirty feet long and twelve feet wide. This net is cast always in daylight, either at high or low water, and remains two feet below the surface until nearly the ebb or flood, as the case may be. At the commencement of the spring whitebait first appear, but not in large quantities, as these are old fish who escaped the last year's netting ; about the middle of April the young fry, perfectly transparent, arrive, and in the first week in May come to perfection. So it continues for a couple of months; then gradually whitebait get larger and larger, and about the close of September are lost sight of altogether. There is a speciality for dressing " bait;" and the fisherman who, assisted by his son, for upwards of a score of years has supplied The Vessel, not only catches the whitebait, but cooks them. On a glowing coke-fire is placed a large frying-pan full of boiling lard; the fish, first thoroughly rolled in flour, are placed in a cloth, which is plunged into the hissing fat. The cook, a perfect salamander, utterly impervious to the frightful heat which makes strangers wink and beat a hasty retreat, takes the handle of the frying-pan and turns it from right to left, peering in at the seething mass. In two minutes the cooking is accomplished, and the fish are emptied out of the cloth on to a dish. Ye who would taste your bait in perfection, get permission to eat it in the kitchen Salmon come from the banks of the Severn and Tweed, soles from Texel and Torbay, whiting and mackerel from the South Coast, [-26-] smelts from the Medway, turbots from Dover, eels and flounders from the Thames, perch and crayfish from Oxford, lobsters from the coast of Norway, trout principally from Loch Leven, red mullet from the Channel Islands.
    Here is an example of the manner in which the Business of Pleasure is carried on with the utmost regularity and precision; with every precaution of check and counter-check, book-keeping, and all the paraphernalia of ledger-demain which respectability prescribes (in no Manchester cottonbroker's or Liverpool ship-owner's offices could the accounts be more closely kept); with the liberal diffusion of a huge capital, and the employment of a large number of hardworking persons.