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I’m reading The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray. Gray talks about a dining style called à la Russe in the Victorian age, and she says:

The upper middle classes were the first to really embrace service à la Russe, which was easy to manage, simple to understand, but could be rendered delightfully difficult in practice. A few judicious customs around the ‘correct’ way to handle your fruit fork could be invented which were unique to each family or group, and enabled people to make those all-important judgements about others which litter Victorian literature and filled the pages of magazines.

One thing I understand about this paragraph is that this dining style was a writing material for Victorian literature and magazines. But the rest of it seems confusing and contradictory to me. Firstly, if it is difficult in practice, how can it be easy to manage? What does she mean by “delightfully difficult”? And “judicious” seems to be a positive term, but the tone of the author doesn’t sound approving. Is this part saying that people (each family or group) all have different understandings about the customs of à la Russe, they all think they are doing it right and criticize other people for doing it wrong? Can anybody explain her ideas for me?

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The author is saying that this kind of service was easy to manage and simple to understand -- but Victorian snobbery being what it was, the dinner could be made much more complicated in order to distinguish those familiar with the custom (i.e. those who know how to properly "handle a fork") from any boorish and uncultured outsiders unfamiliar with the custom.

"Delightfully difficult" implies that those of the in-group took pleasure in this practice -- that any complicated dining rituals were deliberate and even encouraged.

"Judicious" is itself a positive term that simply means "having or showing reason and good judgment in making decisions". However in this case it means using selective and clever means to achieve the end, which again is to make those unfamiliar with the custom look foolish.

There is a scene in the movie Titanic that illustrates this (starting around 3:07). Jack (Leonardo Dicaprio) sits down to eat in the first class dining room and is intimidated by the elaborate place setting of forks, knives, and spoons. Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) tells him, "Start from the outside and work your way in."

However, clever Victorians would have recognized this trick, and deliberately rearranged the utensils, so that it would quickly become obvious who didn't know their fish fork from their salad fork.

Side note: It's not clear exactly who is meant by "upper middle classes". I expect these were wealthy people who made their money from trade and the like, but who did not own hereditary lands or titles and so were not considered upper class, which is to say nobility. One documented (and frequently mocked) characteristic of the upper middle class is their emulation of upper-class customs, so much so that they would often be far more stringent about "proper etiquette" than the upper class actually was, and (as the article suggests) would even invent new forms of etiquette as a way to make themselves feel more superior.

This kind of dinner service is a good example. What probably started as a simple way to enjoy dishes one at a time, so as to savor each, turned into a "culture war" over who could do outdo the other with carefully elaborate (but not garish or over-the-top) arrangements.

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    Trying to keep up with all this by the lower middle-classes also eventually led to the whole "holding a knife like a pencil" fiasco ;) – Tetsujin Jun 13 '18 at 6:44

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