Dining Etiquette Series – The Main Course



“Go vegetable heavy. Reverse the psychology of your plate by making meat the side dish and vegetables the main course.” ~ Bobby Flay

Mr. Flay might have the right idea. Scientists say that by 2050 we’ll all be vegetarians due to an additional two billion people crowding the planet. With less land and water to accommodate livestock, we’ll be turning to vegetables instead. And, as this will be a gradual trend toward plant food, we should be thinking now about either practicing zero population growth, a concept that took root in the late 1960s, or coming up with creative and diverse ways to prepare vegetables for both family and formal dining.

Meanwhile, the current traditional main course at a formal luncheon or dinner remains the “meat course.” As such, it is the heartiest course, usually consisting of not only a meat dish but also a vegetable and a starch such as potatoes, pasta, rice, dumplings and/or puff pastry. As the main course is the focus of the multi-course meal, all other courses are planned to complement it. While wines are usually served to pair with each course, a robust wine is often selected for the meat course. The kind of wine is determined by the type of meat served. Usually red wine is served with beef, because it is full-bodied and robust like beef. Rosé wines are often served with pork and ham as well as with game birds and animals. White is usually reserved for seafood and domestic poultry dishes, although rosé is also a delightful and refreshing change for these dishes.

It should be noted that in the U.S., the main course is usually referred to as the entree. However, in most other countries, the main course is referred to as just that — the main course. Entrée, means “entrance,” in French. According to the book, The Art of the Table, by Suzanne von Drachenfels, the word originated as a “culinary expression” in the 17th Century, when it was served as the third appetizer course before the main course. But, to avoid misunderstandings in the U.S., it’s best to refer to the main course as the entree.

While many guests might skip one or more preliminary courses, they usually will partake of the main course. This is an important reason to ensure that the main course will appeal to the widest audience, and you will find that chicken will be served as the main course at many large black-tie or semi-formal affairs. It is considered a “safe” meat dish. After all, chicken soup is considered a healing comfort food. And whoever heard of “mad chicken” disease, or dolphins getting caught in chicken wire?

Yet, many hosts, caterers and chefs steadfastly avoid serving chicken as the main course at a formal dinner. The feeling is that chicken is not as classy as beef or game such as venison or pheasant. But, other hosts and chefs are happy to offer classic and delectable chicken dishes such as:

  • Coq au Vin
  • Cordon Bleu
  • Francese
  • Fricassee
  • Marsala
  • Tagine

Some adventurous hosts might serve lobster or other seafood, ham or pork. But, regardless of what the main course consists, it’s always polite to try it. If you are a vegetarian, vegan or eat only Kosher, or if you are allergic to some foods, you may alert the host or sponsor of the event in advance to allow time for them to arrange for appropriate substitutions. Most of the time there is no problem to provide a substitute dish to accommodate dining preferences or needs. However, it’s important not to draw too much attention to yourself, so handle such requests discreetly and smoothly.

Use your utensils correctly when cutting meat, scooping vegetables and so forth. Refer to my previous blog entry, Using Your Knife and Fork, to refresh your memory on the American and Continental styles of dining, and the way to arrange your utensils when you are resting and when you are finished to signal the wait staff. And, please remember that if you are using the Continental style but others are using the American style, try to pace your bites so you don’t finish eating way ahead of your dinner companion(s)!

Until next time,


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