I’ve been giving this subject a great deal of thought. When Kiddo was a number of years younger, (and the task of setting the table fell squarely upon his shoulders) he once asked me why we went through all the trouble of setting a “fancy” table. Granted, a fancy table setting wasn’t something we did for every meal. Everyday dinners involve a plate, a fork, an occasional knife, and a napkin. Rarely is the table set beyond the basics anymore. Yet “fancy” settings still made an appearance in our home – reserved for “Sunday Best” or whenever we had company at the table for a meal that did not involve barbecue or center around a particular “theme”. I felt it was important that he knew how to set a proper table.
I explained that when we enjoy a meal, we do so with a multitude of senses. First, smell. Food must smell good – the aromas must come together in a pleasing manner to get the digestive juices flowing. Scent is the first thing that greets us at the door for a home-cooked meal. The second sense engaged is sight. Not only should the dishes be colorful, but the table on which it is served should also be inviting and draw the diner in. Long before the first course is presented, the way a table is set (or not set) establishes the tone and gives a hint to all that shall follow. Visual appearances, from the food, to the room and the table all contribute to the dining experience. The final sense is taste. Food is intended to be savored, to be enjoyed, to encourage the diner to linger and take in every morsel. To involve all the senses, we begin the dining experience long before that first sampling of food ever crosses our lips.
While all those things remain true, more and more we (Americans as a whole) have moved away from the traditional china, crystal and silver. We rarely serve multi course meals in our homes, opting for a more relaxed style of entertaining. Be it backyard barbecues or sit down dinners with friends, the meal itself is just as stimulating, without all the “fancy” trappings. Fancy table settings, if it makes an appearance at all, is confined to the Holiday table. Two or three times a year tops – Christmas, Easter and maybe New Year’s Eve. Even then, the elaborate multi-course meal with a big parade of porcelain platters and silver servers are a thing of the past. Just as a line of flatware on either side of the plates are gone. Still, I miss the fancy stuff.
A long time ago, I gave away my “good” china, first opting to use plates with a Southwest tone that were more in keeping with our home and life-style at the time. We had completely moved away from formal dinner parties, leading lives that were casual and relaxed. “Formal” was an indulgent away from home, reserved for Five-Star Restaurants or catered gala affairs. Eventually, life shifted yet again. Sunday Family Dinners and small gathers for special occasions returned to our home. However; the fine, delicate china and sterling silver utensils did not. Simple white plates and unadorned flatware worked best, creating a neutral canvas. The use of linens, center pieces and colorful touches set the theme, tone and mood of the evening. This is especially true during the holidays.
Still, I miss the fancy settings. I long for a table that is bursting at the seams – knives, forks and spoons streaming out in all directions from the charger. A multitude of stemware and stacks of plates with the promise of wonderful things to come. There was a certain degree of “skilled artistry” involved in the setting of a truly formal, proper table with everything just so. Once upon a time, not only was there an established set order as to the placement of each knife, fork, spoon, (from the outside in, in order of foods served) but strict guidelines regarding spacing, not only from one another (table space had more of an influence here) but just how far from the edge of the table a piece was to be placed. Flatware/silverware was placed in straight lines to the left and right of the plate, the ends of each piece place exactly one-inch from the table’s edge, aligned with the charger or service plate. Equally important was the way in which dinner was to be served, with strict rules for placing, clearing and pouring. Just read the excerpt from HOUSEHOLD COMPANION: BOOK OF ETIQUETTE (1909)
It is not easy to lay down any fixed rule for the character of the dinner. That must be governed by the season and the taste and resources of the host. However humble the pretensions of the dinner, it should never consist of less than three courses, namely, soup or fish, a joint (which, in a small dinner, may be accompanied by poultry or game) and pastry. Cheese with salad follows as a matter of course. Dessert succeeds.
The number of servants necessary will depend, of course, on the number of guests. Three will be enough for a party of ten or twelve persons. On their training and efficient service the success of the dinner will largely depend.
What is said about courses applies, of course, to a very simple meal. In those of more pretension the courses may vary considerably in number and character, though custom lays down certain fixed rules for the succession of viands. For an ordinary dinner, the following will suffice as an example.
In serving, one must, without exception, serve the meal from the left and remove the soiled china from the right. Equally important is the manner in which a glass is filled. One must approach the glass, removing it from table to pour and return it to its proper place all from the right. No glass should be filled more than two-thirds full as to avoid spillage. When removing glassware, do so from the left. If an additional serving of the same vintage be required, it must done so in a fresh glass, and placed before the guest from the right as before. No guest, regardless of position, should pour with the exception of the final glass of the evening, when ports are offered in the drawing-room.”
I did a little research into the history of multi-course dining. It seems once upon a time people believed that consuming foods cooked and served at varying degrees of temperature led to cross contamination, resulting in serious (sometimes fatal) food-related poisonings. This belief evolved during medieval Europe to the development of multi-course meals served on different plates, bowls and platters. The introduction of eating utensils rather than the use of fingers were not only a matter of convenience but also to prevent the feared cross contamination. Utensils themselves evolved into a status symbol, and a spoon forged from silver became the standard baptismal gift – born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth has roots in this practice. The spoon was followed by the fork, and eventually a multitude of serving pieces for each helping and so forth. The multi-course meal with an abundance of serving pieces and specialty plates evolved beyond the fear of cross contamination and into a symbol of wealth and power. The more wealth one had, the more elaborate the meal became. The more elaborate the meal, the more one was able to “show off” the family silver.
With an abundance of fast-food restaurants, food trucks, and drive-through windows, it’s hard to imagine devoting several hours at the end of our fast paced day to leisurely partake in a multi-course meal. Today we generally use just three utensils during a meal: a spoon, a fork, and a knife for everyday meals. Fine dining by today’s standards may require an additional fork (salad), knife (for butter) and some sort of culturally for dessert and coffee, if consumed. A far cry from those of the past, when fine dining required a multitude of specialized cutlery specifically designed for the consumption of particular foods. Each part of the meal was considered a matter of careful planning, thought and study on the part of the hostess. And the elaborately set table was a reflection of her efforts.
By the Victorian age, dinner parties in the home had evolved into carefully orchestrated pageant-like affairs. These productions provided the host and hostess an opportunity to display all of their fine china and silver at once. The more elaborate the meal, the greater the social standing. It was not uncommon for diners to be greeted by a display of a 24-piece place setting. Up to 8 different forks, knives, various spoons, and multiple drinking glasses were meticulously set out for individual guests. Formal attire (Black Tie and Gown) was not a matter of option but a requirement for evening meals served after 6 o’clock. One truly “dressed” for dinner. What one did with a particular dish, plate, knife or fork was an indication as to their social standing and proper breeding. Make no mistake about it, judgement was stern and one could easily find themselves a social outcast. In Europe, the fork remained constant in the left hand, while in America (especially among the less traveled and newly wealthy) one held the fork in the left hand while cutting their food, then switched to the right while eating – and even this was considered a sign of poor breeding by their aristocratic European counterparts. Despite all this, I still find myself yearning for the “fancy” stuff.
Today when entertaining, we are, for whatever reason, far less concerned about social cues of left, right, up and down, and more concerned with the genuine value of lively conversation and good company. Perhaps because our lives are so hectic, we don’t see the point of wasting precious “down time” stressed over things that don’t seem to have much bearing. I suppose in certain social circles far above mine, such seemingly trit concerns still matter. Today, the vast majority of us would rather break bread with those we care about, and nibble on simple yet well prepared foods with our fingers while sipping a good wine from a mason jar. And still, I miss the fancy stuff with their silly rules that no one seems to adhere to anymore. Although, I will admit when dining out, I do notice the whole serve from the left, clear from the right thing. Not so much in a judgmental, condescending way when it doesn’t happen but rather I am struck with a sense of awe when it does. I am amazed by a well-trained food server and wait staff who flawlessly execute the flow of a meal with such attention to every detail. It is like watching a dance.
I am truly fascinated by the whole prim and proper eras of social graces – especially those of the more recent Victorian and Edwardian periods. The architectural style and attention to ornate detail of the Victorian area is breathtaking. The fashion sense and big hats of the Edwardian period are forever etched in our mind’s eye by the character of Rose in the 1997 classic film, Titanic. While I would love to live in a beautifully restored Victorian home and walk about wearing an over-the-top big hat, I seriously doubt I ever will. (Well, maybe the hat – but that’s a stretch). Which leaves the final fascination – the dining experience of multi-course meals and specialty culturally.
That said, over the years I’ve set about the task of collecting some throwbacks of “fancy stuff” from a purely culinary perspective. And it doesn’t matter much these days that my pieces don’t match. Thank goodness eclectic is the new chic. Complete sets of anything truly Victorian or Edwardian fetch a price tag that would require me to win the lottery first. Besides, scouring through yard sales, antique fairs and flea markets seeking buried treasure is fun. Thus far I’ve been picked up some interesting pieces – like English Pastry Forks, demi spoons and cocktail forks with pretty roses on the handles. Most of my “finds” are tarnished, retrieved from big bin of stuff that I need to sort through in the hopes of finding something “special”. Someday I’d like to have an eclectic dinner party for a few friends with mismatched china, odd-looking silverware and all sorts of whimsical serving utensils.
The Casualization of America isn’t an abandonment of “civilized” behavior, but rather a reflection of realigned values. It isn’t so much an emphasis on how the meal is server but rather how it is enjoyed – in the company of those that matter.
Still, there are times when I miss pomp and circumstance. While the skills of setting and navigation a proper table might seem frivolous, it remains an important skill to posses.