Service à la Russe
The table service that modern diners expect at events with any degree of formality consists of being given a plate with the food already arranged on it. This is the modern variation of a 19th-century style of banqueting known as service à la russe. The Russian Prince Kourakin was credited with having brought this practice to France in the 1830s (it soon caught on in England as well), and it offered a dramatic change in the ways people entertained.
The banqueting style in favor before the introduction of service à la russe was service à la française, which had its roots in the fabulous feasts of the Middle Ages, and which gave rise to many of the dining terms we use today. At a medieval banquet, each course was composed of a huge number of dishes spread out all at once on the banquet table. Between these courses, entertainments were staged, which in themselves often involved providing more food to the guests. The diners served themselves, eating from the platters within their reach or calling for a desired item to be passed to them. The ceremony of the occasion was in the simultaneous display of plenty, the wild abundance and extravagant presentation. Service à la française was simpler, but it still involved presenting the dishes all at once and allowing the diners to serve themselves, like a modern buffet.
Service à la russe, on the other hand, provided a different, sequential, way of expressing opulence. The dishes were presented one at a time, in a set order. An impressive item, such as a roasted joint, might be shown to the guests, but then it would either be served at a sideboard or taken back to the kitchen for carving. A servant would then return to the table with a tray, from which each guest was, in turn, expected to take a piece. Many fewer dishes were offered, but, as this method made sampling each one obligatory, guests were often forced to eat a great deal more than even the guests at Medieval feasts. The ceremony was expressed in the decorousness of the presentation, the display of the numbers of servants a host had in his employ.