The old “two countries divided by a common language” conundrum.
I grew up in North America where dessert was the sweet course that followed the main, from the simplest home meal to the grandest restaurant. A simple meal was usually just two courses, main course and dessert; for special occasions a starter course was added (often shrimp cocktail served in a small glass dish that sat within a larger bowl of crushed ice, or just a green salad). This was the 60’s and things were much simpler then. Of course, dessert might have actually been a pudding, such as bread and butter pudding or something we called Lemon Snow, but more often “pudding” referred to a soft custardy mixture that came as a powder in Shirriff or Jell-O boxes and was cooked with milk, until the instant variety came along that needed no cooking, just mix it up and refrigerate. This was a standard and simple dessert that mothers across the continent could rely on along with its counterpart, jelly, which was synonymous with the brand name Jell-O. Sadly, kids today think Jell-O has something to do with bar shots. So, your North American audience believes that dessert follows the main course and may include any variety of sweets. These are their long-held beliefs and as we all know, best not to try to mess with people’s beliefs.
Then I moved to England where I learned that the fork is only ever held in the left hand with the tines down and that pudding and dessert are two separate courses. Of course, I would eventually learn there are times when it is alright to hold the fork in the right hand, tines up, but the rules of engagement are not for the faint-hearted. And sometimes there is only a pudding course, and sometimes we just skip to dessert. But “pudding” refers to a prepared sweet dish (boiled, steamed or baked) while “dessert” refers to the fruit course. The main course is not always followed by a sweet course, sometimes we continue with a savoury such as mushrooms on toast before we reach pudding and eventually dessert. This really confuses North Americans.
I am old and beyond insisting to my audience that there is only, ever, a single right answer to any question. Customs differ, we all travel so much. I defer to perhaps the greatest personification of the word “gentleman” known in our time, the late John Morgan, who without ceding an inch would answer Mr. Remer’s argument with the kindest of words, “How interesting.”
John G. Robertson
Protocol and Etiquette Consultant since before it was a gimmick