A great afternoon at Williams Sonoma yesterday! My presentations had about 30 rapt attendees who asked great questions, laughed along with me, and were sometimes surprised by what I had to say.
I began each demonstration talking about tablecloths and I encouraged everyone to buy at least one white table cloth that drapes to the floor. This base cloth is the groundwork for the best table presentations. One top of this cloth you may drape shorter cloths of varying designs to set the tone of your luncheon or dinner. Normally cloths to the floor are not used for luncheons, but would always be used if you're setting a more formal dinner table. The main point I stressed about tablecloths is that they "announce an occasion", using a tablecloth says, "we're all here together for this meal, and let's enjoy our time."
In the photo below you see two different setting for two different meals. At the top of the photo is one possible place setting for a breakfast or casual lunch. I used a free-form wooden platter as a lay plate and suggested that you could serve a bowl of cereal or oatmeal on the platter or even use the platter for lox and bagels--it's easy and casual. The festive turkey design napkin is actually a kitchen towel--I love to re-purpose kitchen towels at the dining table. They should not ever be used for actual towels if you intend to use them as napkins. Everyone loved this idea, although it's very unconventional. An astute reader will note that I've placed the napkin on the service plate rather than atop the forks--this was done to illustrate the notion that 'house rules trump etiquette'--I don't like to be too severe or right and mighty about such things.
Looking at the same photo above, the lower place setting is from a table displayed in the store. I used this display to demonstrate the difference between merchandising in a retail environment and how to apply that at home. Of particular interest to me was the wicker charger with the big handles--those handles just get in the way, so I suggested turning the charger on a slight diagonal for a better fit. Also, with all the plates and the one soup bowl there--what do you do with all that? We discussed how to actually lay the setting with the wicker platter in place and then serve the soup bowl with an underplate onto the platter without the dinner plate. An underplate is required for a soup bowl, particularly of this design, or else you have no where to rest the spoon while eating or when you've finished the course.
Below is a close up of the turkey printed kitchen towel. My former lady-of-the-house in Newport, RI, used to use towels at a luncheon or breakfast table, and I loved that idea. Here I have not used the classic book fold (which I generally use and recommend) because I wanted the napkin to show the turkey's face, and that required a square fold. Improvise when you must.
The photo below illustrates a casual luncheon or dinner place setting. We did not have proper water goblets in the store to use for demonstration, so we improvised with an oversized wine glasses. We discussed how water goblets have a shorter stem than a wine glass and a deeper bowl for water. And yes, there were questions about how to hold, pick up and place a wine glass. The general rule for using a wine glass is to hold the glass by the stem, not to cradle the bowl of the glass in your hand.
You also see in the photo below an early iteration of the quickly-made centerpiece I used that afternoon.
The photo below was the more formal of the four place settings we used in the demonstration. It is set on a white tablecloth using the finest Bernardaud china they sold in the store. The crystal is by William Yoeward. This place setting also gave us the opportunity to talk about American ways of using flatware and the Continental ways of using flatware. In America generally, one cuts food with the knife in the right hand, the fork in the left. After the food is cut, the knife is placed on the side of the plate to rest, the fork is switched to the right and then used to lift the food to the mouth. The Continental method of eating does not have the fork switch hands, nor the knife rest on the edge of the plate--the food is brought to the mouth with the left hand, and the fork tines inserted into the food bite, tines turned downward.
Again, I have placed the napkin in the center of the place setting rather than to the left side. I moved the napkin to the left to show how the beauty of the salad plate is revealed when the napkin is placed on the side. Tucked above the plates are the spoon and fork to be used for dessert although they are not proper dessert spoon and fork. I suggested that people search local antique stores and start a collection of dessert pieces and also suggested to the couples getting married to start registering for a 7-piece flatware/silverware setting rather than the traditional five-piece. There was quite a bit of discussion about how to properly set the dessert spoon and fork, particularly inspired by looking at Martha's book.
The above setting also opened up for discussion how and when to serve coffee at the table. I may have surprised most people there when I said that coffee is not part of the dinner service, rather it is after the dinner service, and being such it is served after dessert has been cleared. Coffee service is never pre-set in a home--yes, you'll see it pre-set in a convention hall but one's home is not a convention hall. I suggested that coffee be served away from the table if possible, by moving to another room. Yes, if a guest requests coffee you may have to accommodate the request but in general coffee comes to the table at the very end of the meal. And yes, breakfast is the exception.
Below is a close-up of the spur-of-the-moment centerpiece I used that day. Of course one can order beautiful flowers from your favorite florist, but sometimes it's fun to use what you have around the home to make your centerpieces, and that's what I have done here. A simple cakeplate is the base on which I place an acorn squash which I will be cooking later this week; two butternut squash (same), some white ceramic fruit sold at William Sonoma and some mums from a small bunch of flowers I picked up that morning--the flowers are just cut and are not even in water, just tucked into the open spaces. Oh, and there's one of my pomanders (click to learn how to make your own).
Each demonstration was ended at the buffet sideboard, pictured below. At the buffet I wanted to emphasize four points:
1. Always have one extra plate in the stack of plates because no one should feel like they're taking the last plate (it's a gracious hospitality notion). When I offered that it was like no one wanted the last slice of cake or glass of wine--some in the crowd suggested otherwise about those two.
2. Always leave a space at the buffet where you may lay your plate in order to use both hands to serve the food.
3. Use two utensils at each platter, bowl or plate of food to facilitate easier serving. With meat you would place a meat knife and fork, with a salad you would place a serving spoon and fork, with green bean casserole--a spoon and fork, etc.
4. And finally, when planning your menu, also plan your serving pieces and set them aside well in advance of starting to cook. Serving pieces should be immediately available when the food is ready to go to table.
Thank you to Megan at Williams Sonoma for arranging the demonstrations and to Mary who worked in the Dinnerware section of the store for assisting me in finding items and replacing them--and to invade your space. Thank you to my friends who came to support this little effort and to the great attendees who seemed genuinely to enjoy the hour we were together. I had a wonderful time.
All the best, Joseph
Here is a link to an earlier post on table linens. (Click that sentence.)
Update: I've had many requests for information on where to find quality table linens, especially custom table linens. I always recommend Mia Tavola here in Chicago. Of course they ship worldwide! I plan on doing a feature about them soon.