“Dinner is served”, announced the butler to the guests.
Formal dinners of a time gone by were announced and overseen by the butler. While the role of this trusted home manager is scarce in todays’ society, one thing has made a resurgence in newly-built homes. It’s the butler’s pantry or servery.
The word, servery comes from public ale houses, or taverns in Britain back in the 1500’s. It describes a single counter or buffet area in a hallway, where staff would pick up food orders from the kitchen to deliver to the waiting patrons. In the grand manors of the day, it was a larger, more comprehensive space called a butler’s pantry, a full galley space from which meals were served, but their functions were essentially the same. Of course, this was from a time when food items and kitchen functions were separated. The word pantry comes from the old French word paneterie, the word for bread, pain. This was where bread was stored. The kitchen was for cooking, meat storage and prep work was performed in a larder and the scullery was for cleaning. When everything was made from scratch it required lots of space.
The butler’s pantry, or servery acted as a bridge between the public and private sides of the home’s dining room and kitchen. While scullery maids cleaned, butlers were the overseers of all formal entertaining. Primarily a job for a male, the butler performed many duties, some of which included; hiring and training household staff, taking care of and protecting the fine china, silver and crystal, greeting guests and anticipating their needs, understanding and executing proper etiquette and table setting and possessing vast knowledge of fine wines and liqueurs.
Estates and manors, owned by upper and middle classes in Britain and Colonial America dedicated these galley spaces to serving, staging and storing everything for formal dinners. Fine linens were carefully stacked in cupboards, the best china, crystal glassware and silverware were often kept under lock and key to prevent a robbery. The butler would ensure the maidservants had polished the silverware and wiped the crystal prior to setting the table. At the end of the meal it was also where they cleared the same dishes, glassware, etc.
As opposed to today’s kitchen pantry where items, such as canned and dry goods, cleaning supplies and extras are stored, today’s servery provides a similar function to the butler’s pantry. Many of today’s designs not only house linens, table settings and décor items for the dining room, they serve a larger function. Fitted with plumbing, a sink and dishwasher are standard in some serveries to aid in quick clean up, and filling water glasses. It may also act as a bar and beverage center with wine and bar fridges, liquor storage and room for a large selection of non-alcoholic beverages. Some also work as an extra coffee, tea and snack station with coffee makers, kettles and microwaves, resembling a satellite kitchen.
Families who entertain a lot appreciate the separate serving area when dinner preparation is underway. Instead of being served a cocktail off a tray by the butler, more casual entertaining allows guests to make their own drinks, refill a snack bowl or grab a plate for a buffet. Is it an extravagant extra? Maybe to some, but it was always meant as a practical space to help make serving dinner more seamless and enjoyable for guests. It wasn’t my idea, the butler did it.
Author: Jane Lockhart