“I have contended that the hostess should be served first,” writes a reader who asks for information on the correct serving of dinner. “But I am in doubt as to who next.” I agree with this reader that the hostess should be served first, but there is good authority for the other usage – that of first serving the woman at the host’s right – always the woman guest of honor, of course. The underlying reason for this older fashioned custom is the idea of unselfishness that is at the base of most courtesy. Even savages and barbarians honor their guests by serving them first; so it would seem that there was no question about the etiquette of following that rule in serving dinner.
There is a very practical reason, however, why we sometimes show greater courtesy nowadays by serving the hostess first. In a complicated dinner service, there may be some dishes unfamiliar to the guest of honor. Perhaps there are to be French artichokes and she has never happened to eat them before. Perhaps, too, there are many forks laid at each place and the guest of honor does not know with which one to eat her first course. It is to obviate such embarrassment that very many persons –and I claim myself among them – advocate the less old-fashioned service.
At a small family dinner, it is usual to serve the woman guest of honor immediately after the hostess. Many persons then serve the other women present, and this is a good enough plan. It is sometimes more convenient and just as courteous to serve straight down one side of the table. When a servant is passing anything, this, of course, is the only way to proceed. At a large dinner, where more than one servant is waiting, it is usual for the first course to serve the hostess and the woman at the host's right simultaneously, and from thence down the sides of the table, the two servants going in opposite directions. In serving the second course, the hostess and the woman at the host’s left are served at the same time, and from thence again down the sides of the table.
Then there is another reason why the custom of serving the hostess or host first has grown up, though as an actual motive it would surely have no part in the service of a present day dinner party. Sometimes, among the Kings and nobles of old, the guest might have reason to hesitate to eat the food or drink the wine his host has set before him. To tempt a guest to partake of a specially prepared dish, was one of the gentlest ways known of terminating the career of a political opponent. When a subject first tasted the viand he had prepared for the King, or first sipped the wine, that Monarch might feel reasonable security in following suit.
In a small family dinner, it is usual to serve the woman guest of honor immediately after the hostess, and the woman at the host’s right, simultaneously. Many then serve the rest of the women present, and from thence down opposite sides of the table, serving men and women as they come. In a simple home dinner where no servant assists, the most convenient way of proceeding is to pass the dishes from the one who serves to the end of the table. That is, if the host carves, he passes the first plate down one side of the table to the hostess. The next plate is passed down the other side to the person at the hostess’ right, the next plate to the person at the hostess’ left, and so on, until the persons at the host’s right and left hand are served. – Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, 1918
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia