In Toronto, we’ve been invited for “drinks and a light supper” by a dear friend. We know who the other guests will be, a charming couple we’ve known casually and bumped in to at various occasions over the years, so there’s no minefield on the people side. But what will we be served? That’s the big question.
We don’t have dinner parties. They are too pretentious for words. But we do invite friends for dinner from time to time. I like to cook and it is just as easy to cook for four or six as it is for two. Perhaps even easier. Once we get to eight or 10, it becomes a bit more difficult, and occasionally I cater Diane’s book club at those numbers, when it is her turn to host.
The question is: are those really dinners, or just supper for a lot of people? I tend to think the latter, because there will be books and notes spread all over the table, while the dining goes on during the discussions. Dinner to me implies a certain formality, with a tablecloth, silverware settings laid out, candles and a flower arrangement in the middle (not too high, so guests can see each other). On the sideboard a couple of ice filled wine coolers will be ready with deliciously chilled bottles in anticipation of good things to come.
In the kitchen, I may have prepared for hours, but most of the cooking will have to be done at the last minute. Timing a three-course meal is just logistics and needn’t be terrifying, although I admit if I’m trying something new, it can be somewhat fraught. Certain people learn to stay out of the heat during these moments.
Looking back through my dinner book (Sad note: no entries for the past 15 months!) I see certain patterns emerging. Soup is an easy way to start and one can leave guests to get on with it as one returns to the kitchen for the main course. Diane keeps the conversation going beautifully. Something that is prepared in the oven, with vegetables steamed at the last minute and then beautifully plated, while a helpful guest clears the soup bowls, make the job easier. Dessert can be prepared in advance and stashed in bowls in the fridge. Sometimes the main fridge is too full and having a wine fridge becomes a godsend. The key to the guests’ enjoyment seems to be lots of wine.
Now that we’re thinking of returning to England to live, I’ve discovered that dinner has become a minefield. Apparently, dinner has morphed into something called supper and is considered ‘posh.’ Supper to me is a simple family meal, often enjoyed on a tray in front of the television, or even if eaten at the table, not pretentious. Certainly not the best cutlery, china plates or crystal. The line between a casual dinner and a posh supper sometimes get blurred.
Growing up in Wimbledon, we had supper at about seven o’clock. During the week it would be a simple meal. On Sundays, cook’s day off, we had high tea: cold meat carved from the left-overs from the luncheon roast, presented in what my Grandfather called a ‘cold collation’ and may have included various other meats found in the fridge, such as ham or cold bangers. Granny made a fabulous custard with nutmeg sprinkled on top, so we would usually have that with slices of cake and, of course, tea. If the meal was called dinner, it would involve guests, often just members of the larger family and some close friends. My grandparents had a cook and a housekeeper and the latter would serve at dinner, wearing a special black dress, but no frilly white apron. She said she didn’t want to look like a housemaid.
Tea was just that: tea and sandwiches and little cakes and usually served about four in the afternoon. On special occasions we might have scones, with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Tea with the vicar may have been earlier, as the great poet Rupert Brooke wrote: “Stands the church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?” Apart from the vicar, the men would be at work, of course, so sometimes ladies from the neighbourhood would drop by to keep my Grandmother company. Children had to be seen and not heard and were excused as soon as we had eaten our fill.
It was considered very middle class to eat lunch at the disgracefully early hour of noon. A proper lunch should be served no earlier than one o’clock, according to my Grandmother’s diktats. I remember one London job I had where there was a staff dining room and being junior, I had to eat with the early shift. Little snob that I must have been, I was horrified and appealed. At the Beeb, my friend and colleague Paul and I would stroll out for lunch well after one. The last time we had lunch together was at his farmhouse in Provence, when we sat down at three in the afternoon.
It wasn’t until I went to boarding school in Northamptonshire, about as far North as I had ventured in those days, that I learned that in the North, dinner was what we in the South called lunch. Tea was what we called supper. Fortunately, the school had been founded by a City Guild in 1556 and London rules applied.
Don’t get me started on the subject of eating in Spain, where la comida is eaten at two or later and la cena is never before 10 at night. America is the reverse. Breakfast might include a business meeting at the ungodly hour of half past six, lunch might be served at half past 11 and dinner at half past five. Supper doesn’t seem to exist.
In an amusing article in The Guardian recently, the whole subject was debated. That’s where I learned that supper had become posh and confusion still exists on the North-South divide about what tea is.
Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing artist, says: “Supper, as in ‘kitchen’ or ‘country,’ is upper class. It implies that this is just a casual family meal, maybe with close friends. It may involve a simple starter, wine, and cheese and fruit to follow, but would probably not involve a white tablecloth and starched napkins. Supper is elegant sufficiency.’
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage chef and food writer, refutes that idea: “There is no such thing as a ‘country supper’ in culinary or sociological terms. Or at least there wasn’t, until now. What there is, is ‘supper,’ the meal that posh(ish) people eat at home most days in the evening – when they are not going out to or hosting ‘dinner’ – a meal of some formality designed to entertain and impress your social peer group. You can invite someone to ‘supper’ and know they will not expect tablecloths or candles or more than perhaps half a dozen guests. They might expect to chat to you in your kitchen, though, while you prepare the meal in question.’
Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, adds: “Me and my kids call it tea. My wife calls it dinner. She went to uni, I didn’t. She’s middle class, I’m not. As for supper? What is that, exactly?”
Helen Fielding, the Bridget Jones Diary author, contributes: “In London, I find myself using the word ‘supper’ quite a lot, usually to suggest the sort of informal, just-a-bunch-of-incredibly-cool-friends-round-the-kitchen-table soirée I aspire to, with something I’ve knocked up from the Ottolenghi cookbook. In reality, I’m more likely to spend the evening eating spoonfuls of odd things out of the fridge while watching telly in pyjamas. But at least you don’t have to call that anything.”
So on the subject of not calling it anything, I admit that when the two of us are dining alone, we frequently eat from a tray in front of the television. We used to call it the TV room, but we’ve recently heard it called the evening room, which sounds much better. Perhaps we can even call it the supper room.
Just for fun and because we have a lot of silver trays, I occasionally serve supper on one, with a neatly pressed and starched napkin and good cutlery, even if it is only a simple dish like baked cod. I made a similar dish recently, called New England Baked Haddock, which was delicious, but the haddock was fearfully expensive, so this is much the same but more economical, and because cod is bland, more lemon flavoured.
- 28 oz / 800 g cod filets
- 1 cup plain breadcrumbs
- 6 TBSP melted butter
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ lemon, zested
- ½ lemon, juiced
- Sea salt and ground black pepper
- Lemon, cut into wedges
- Fresh parsley, chopped
Preparation and cooking
- Preheat oven to 350°F / 175°C.
- Melt the butter and pour 1 TBSP into a casserole dish, spreading to cover bottom.
- Zest half a lemon, then squeeze out the juice, grate Parmesan and add to breadcrumbs in a bowl. Mix in the rest of the melted butter to a sand-like consistency.
- Cut the fillets into bite size portions, season all over with salt and pepper and place them in the buttered dish. Spread the buttered breadcrumbs all over the fish.
- Bake for 15-20 mins, or until fish flakes easily.
- Garnish with chopped parsley and a wedge of lemon. Serve with buttered green peas and new potatoes (for example).
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Categories: Simply food
Hi Nigel I enjoy reading your columns. In your Baked Cod recipe, I think there might be an error in the amount of cod……200 grams is about 7 ounces, not 28 ounces. Regards Gord McFaull
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You are quite right and thanks for spotting this egregious error. It should be 800 grams. I suppose I meant 200 grams per person! Now corrected in the article. Nigel
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Well, you call me Jimmy, or you can call me Jamie, or you can call me James, but whatever you do, don’t call me late for dinner … or should that be supper??
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That joke apparently goes back to at least 1833, but all I can respond is that if you are late for dinner, or supper, you won’t get any sweet … or is that dessert … or pudding?
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