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Dinner for One
Germany's most popular New Year's Eve dinner comes from England

Tradition on New Year's Eve in Germany: Dinner for One
Tradition on New Year's Eve in Germany: Dinner for One | Photo (detail): Siegfried Pilz © picture alliance/United Archives

At the turn of the year, everything on German television revolves around a very special dinner: a chic four-course menu in old-fashioned black and white format, "Dinner for One". Early on New Year's Eve you usually gather with friends and family in front of the TV to laugh about Butler James and accompany in chorus the running gag of the sketch together: “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?“ – “Same procedure as ‚every‘ year, James!“

By Katharina Löffel

Compared to sherry, white wine, champagne and port wine, which play an important supporting role in Dinner for One, the food on Miss Sophie's plate is somewhat vague. Even dyed-in-the-wool fans of the show will probably have difficulty listing all four courses of the birthday menu.

We took a closer look at Miss Sophie's birthday menu to find out what exactly James serves, clears away or flings into the corner when he stumbles over the tiger's head for the umpteenth time.

First course: Soup

For starters a Mulligatawny soup, which Miss Sophie says she particularly likes to eat. Mulligatawny comes from the Tamil language and means pepper water. English colonial rulers brought the fiery recipe with them from southern India at the end of the 18th century, where the soup was traditionally prepared vegetarian. Meanwhile, in the English-speaking world, the name Mulligatawny is used to describe any variant of hot curry-based soup enriched with chicken or lamb. The soup contains a variety of classic "European" ingredients such as leek, carrots, cream and shallots, but also some exotic ingredients such as mango, ginger, pineapple, coconut milk and curry spice mixtures. White wine as well as lemon juice can be used for seasoning to give the creamy soup a bit more zest. James can still walk upright, and the fine sherry with the soup is poured five times in perfect form and imbibed just as often.

Second course: fish

Course number two is haddock from the North Sea. In Great Britain, this popular fish is usually served fried as fish and chips, but can also be cooked in fish stock. The fish in Dinner for One is, according to British (dinner) traditions of the early 20th century, a kind of mild intermediate course, which after the fiery soup is a welcome change for the taste buds. Miss Sophie will probably want to enjoy her haddock with a light sauce that enhances the fine nuances of the fish fillet. A mixture of melted butter and lemon juice or mild mustard is the perfect complement to a sauce based on fish stock. Depending on one's taste, it’s topped with fresh parsley or dill. Miss Sophie orders white wine with the fish, which James transports without major incidents from the bottle into the glasses and then into his throat.

Third course: chicken

Now it's time for the main course of the evening. The chicken from the oven is not only cooked to perfection from breast to leg, but thanks to an ingenious procedure it is also covered with a fine coating of flour, which joins with the bird's skin to form a golden-brown, crispy crust. To achieve this appetizing result, it is necessary to remove the chicken from the oven after about two-thirds of the baking time, baste the breast and drumsticks with the roasting liquid and then dust with a fine layer of sieved flour. This process is repeated every ten minutes until the chicken has reached the desired degree of browning. Baked young potatoes are suitable as a side dish, together with a simple sauce from the broth. The fine bird is rounded off by one to four glasses of sparkling champagne, which butler James - noticeably listing to the left - now pours with verve en passant and empties just as unsteadily.

Fourth course: Fruit salad

By now, a certain degree of satiation is likely to have set in with the dinner guests. In order not to strain the palates and stomachs of the illustrious circle, a mixed fruit plate is served. Whether as whole fruits or as a fruit salad with a hint of honey for extra flavour and sweetness, you can include whatever suits you. Miss Sophie wishes for a glass of port wine to finish the evening, a request to which her butler responds eagerly but not very accurately. When selecting the port wine, it is therefore essential to attend to good quality and bottle maturity, so that the ruby red wine still tastes good even if it is accidentally transported from the glass to the tablecloth and back again. Soon afterwards the plates are cleared away, the bottles emptied and the hostess ends her grand birthday dinner politely but surely to withdraw into her rooms with the doughty James at her side.

And outside in front of the screen in the German living rooms? The champagne is now ready and we stare spellbound at bizarrely shaped lumps of lead to find out quickly before midnight what the new year holds for us. But at least the television programme for New Year's Eve is already set: same procedure as last year!

Dinner for One

The almost 18-minute-long television production from 1963 is a true perennial hit and one of the most frequently broadcast programmes worldwide. The Norddeutsche Rundfunk (NDR) took the show into its programme once again in 1972 and has been broadcasting it each year since then on New Year's Eve. Dinner for One is also an integral part of the New Year's Eve programme at other German public television stations.

Under the direction of Heinz Dunkhase, the English comedian Freddie Frinton plays the clumsy butler James and his partner May Warden, his prim employer Miss Sophie. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, the latter has the table set for her now-deceased friends. While the meals are only served to the elderly birthday girl, the drinks that accompany each course must also be served to the absent guests and drunk. James takes on this task and imitates the pronunciation and expression of her deceased companions round by round, much to the delight of his employer.

The comedy of the sketch, reminiscent of slapstick, is essentially based on the efforts of the butler, who is getting increasingly drunk, to reproduce the respective toasts correctly even at the fourth repetition, and on the fact that he stumbles again and again over the head of a tiger skin.

All dialogues in the sketch are in English, only the introduction spoken by Heinz Piper is in German. The programme is thus one of the few that are not broadcast synchronised on German television. Meanwhile, the sketch has become very popular internationally and is regularly broadcast on New Year's Eve in Scandinavia as well as in German-speaking countries, and even in Australia.