Serving the Table — Bellingrath Style 

The etiquette guide and formal entertaining profile of one of the Mobile area’s most prominent families.

Visitors to the Bellingrath Home are always amazed at the collection of china, silver and crystal on display. With three dining rooms and a staff which usually included two cooks and two butlers, the Bellingraths entertained often. Although no menus survive, family members over the years have recalled an abundance of seafood being served.

A grandniece recalled visiting one summer, and when she sat down to breakfast, beheld a half grapefruit atop crushed ice in a footed crystal bowl. The center of the fruit held a maraschino cherry and mint leaves. When that course had been finished, a butler replaced it with a bowl of oatmeal. Once the oatmeal was consumed, a clean plate was placed before her, and the butlers passed trays of eggs, grits, bacon, sausage and toast. The butter for that toast was in the shape of a flower which had been carefully created by the staff.

Relatives of both Bessie and Walter Bellingrath tell similar tales of the beautiful table settings and elegant service that made those meals so memorable. Whether in the formal dining room or more casual dining porch or winter dining room, the service was the same: impeccable.

A former butler recalled coming to work for the Bellingraths in the late 1930s and learning to carry silver trays around the tables. With a smile, he recalled that the meals usually included a finger bowl and that he and his co-workers often were amused when a guest was unsure of how to handle one. “I have seen people stare at it, even pick it up and look at it as if to say, ‘What am I to do with this?’”

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The staff, which kept the Bellingrath Home running, had to be trained by Mrs. Bellingrath, but where did the daughter of a riverboat carpenter learn so many details? The answer appears to have been books.

Bessie’s Rule Books

On display in the Bellingrath kitchen are several books with publication dates ranging from 1913 to 1938.

Do not place relations or argumentative persons side by side at the table.

Hot dishes should be placed on an asbestos mat fitted with a linen cover in front of the host or hostess.

As the habit of smoking has become so general, even at breakfast, it is wise to provide an ashtray at each place.

The earliest, entitled “The Cyclopedia of Social Usage and Customs of the Twentieth Century” and published in 1913, is an etiquette book with chapters detailing how to entertain properly. Among the advice given:

  • For four to eight persons, eight courses provide ample food. As the number of guests grows larger, so must the menu. A full-fledged grand dinner averages from 12 to 16 courses, starting with oysters on the half shell and ending with coffee, liqueurs and sparkling water.
  • Not until the last and slowest of guests has laid down his or her fork is a plate to be removed from the table.
  • Do not place relations or argumentative persons side by side at the table.
  • It is an indefensible mistake to take soup, tea or coffee from a spoon’s end or to drink the liquid with any noise whatsoever.
  • Paper doilies are permissible only when entertaining 100 or more guests.

Lucy G. Allen of the Boston School of Cookery published her volume “Table Service” in 1920. Ms. Allen offered advice on:

  • Duties of a Waitress.
  • Equipment of the Butler’s Pantry and Care of Pantry Sink.
  • Setting the Table and Serving a Home Dinner without a Maid.
  • Chafing Dish Suppers.
  • The Importance of a Frappe Table.

This book is well worn and underlined and checked in pencil throughout. One, which stands out, is this bit of advice:

“No sound of a voice or of running water or noise of any kind should come from the pantry while people are at the table.”

From interviews with former staff members, there were a lot of practical jokes going on beyond the swinging door, and the laughter could be heard. When one of Mrs. Bellingrath’s great-nephews came into the kitchen one day, the two butlers found that the boy, who was just learning to talk, would happily repeat whatever one of them said.

The phrases spoken got steadily saltier and the little boy repeated them word for word. Naturally, the men’s gleeful laughter simply made him want to say more. Eventually, the game was over and the men had work to do. A couple of days later at a full lunch table, there was a lull in the conversation and the toddler clearly said, “Would someone pass me the damn butter?”

According to a witness, the boy’s mother stuttered “Where did you learn that?” Her son grinned widely and said the butler’s name. Mr. Bellingrath went into the kitchen and made the statement that the boy would learn that language in ample time and did not need coaching. Meanwhile, Bessie Bellingrath was still laughing at the incident.

Mrs. Allen in her book offered this advice:

  • Wooden implements thoroughly chilled in ice water are used to shape butter into well rounded balls, shells, lilies or roses. In summer, the shapes should be placed on a plate atop crushed ice.
  • For a formal dinner, select a fish that is not difficult to eat, either without small bones or filleted and freed from both skin and bone.
  • When setting the table, place the water glass at the point of the place knife. Place salt and pepper sets between each two diners.
  • Hot dishes should be placed on an asbestos mat fitted with a linen cover in front of the host or hostess.

It is not known if the Bellingraths followed these directions:

“An hour after dinner the maid pours charged water into apollinaris glasses arranged on a tray which she passes to guests in the drawing room.” 

Meals usually included a finger bowl. The staff was often amused when a guest was unsure of how to handle one.

Apollinaris was a sparkling water very similar to Perrier and even warranted a special glass.  Since the nation was under new prohibition laws this apparently took the place of an after-dinner liqueur as specified in the earlier book.

In a publication some 20 years later, “Let’s Set the Table” photographs reflect a new Art Deco aesthetic in tableware and a less formal approach. Although the author, Elizabeth Lounsbery, tells readers “There should be a certain cheery informality about breakfast,” she advises the use of finger bowls following the fruit course. She also decreed, “The electric coffee pot and toaster are essentials.”

And to show how far America had come since the Edwardian age, the Ms. Lounsbery also suggested: 

“As the habit of smoking has become so general, even at breakfast, it is wise to provide an ashtray at each place.”

There is no mention of serving sparkling water in this volume. Prohibition is over and readers were advised, “It is preferable to have cocktails mixed in the pantry and served on trays to the guests.” For less formal occasions, she wrote that there was a wide variety of wheeled carts available which could be taken out of doors and filled with an array of liquors, mixers and glassware.

With Mrs. Bellingrath’s death in 1943, much of the formal entertaining in the grand dining room came to an end. However, the staff continued to follow her training afterward. As witnessed by the young grandniece in the early 1950s, every meal was still served in courses and the butter was skillfully molded into a flower by a butler.

Today, the tables in the three dining rooms in the Bellingrath Home are set as if guests are expected and are changed out depending on the season. The crystal, china and silver selected by Mrs. Bellingrath is in place, to be admired by a generation who would no more use a finger bowl than place ash trays beside their plates at breakfast.

Tom McGehee has served as the director of the Bellingrath Home since 1994. He oversees the 15-room Bellingrath Home and its collection of decorative arts and antiques as well as its archives. He also maintains the Delchamps Collection of Boehm Porcelain.

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