I’ve pondered for some time whether to write this post. Some may find it snobby. Others will dismiss it as elitist or old-fashioned. But my hope is that many will sing its praises! Because today I’m writing from my heart with a basic lesson of gracious living and etiquette that I believe needs to be revived.
I grew up at a time and in a place where manners were important. Where children said “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Sir” and where men removed their hats indoors. Where gentlemen opened doors for women and were rewarded with a kindly spoken “thank you.” Where white gloves were always worn on Sunday mornings and “talking back” was simply not tolerated. Yes, manners were important and expected.
Good manners and proper etiquette were taught to me and my sisters from the time we were toddlers. My mother is an elegant woman, an elegant hostess, with impeccable manners. She has an innate sense of the “right way” to do things and the ability to put people at ease. Those abilities have served her well in some of the difficult social and political positions in which she has served.
Even though we grew up in a very small town in rural south Georgia, my mother made sure that we knew much about the world beyond. She made certain that we knew something of ballet, art, opera and theatre. And that knowledge has stood me and my sisters in good stead all our adult lives. One thing that was always present in my parents’ home was a properly set table. No matter how busy Mama was, no matter how many directions we were heading for our individual extracurriculur activities, there was always a family meal at a properly set table. Even now, should you enjoy a sandwich at my mother’s home, you will enjoy it at a table with a correctly laid place setting. As our mother often says, we were “groomed to sit at the King’s table.” And we would have been completely comfortable there. An elaborate table setting never caused us a moment’s anxiety because we knew with certainty how to navigate it.
I’m amazed at the number of adults I encounter who do not know how to set the table. But then I’m pretty obsessive about it. Early on it became a lifelong habit which I believe may now be actually imprinted in my DNA. I’ve even been known to rearrange the table settings at open houses and furniture showrooms. Maybe that’s not polite. Told you I was obsessive.
As food bloggers, cooks or hostesses we spend hours lovingly selecting and preparing beautiful food for our families, friends and guests. How then do we present our carefully crafted recipes? Do we plop it onto a plate and sit down in front of the television? I hope not. Properly setting a casual table takes very little time. Maybe five minutes in total. Surely everyone can find five minutes during the day to make meal time a pleasant experience? If setting the table is not a ritual at your house, I’d like to challenge you to try it just once this weekend.
A basic, casual table setting consists of a placemat to protect the table, a dinner plate set in the middle of the placemat, a dinner fork to the left, a knife and sp0on to the right. The cutting edge of the knife is always turned toward the plate. The napkin is folded and placed to the left of the fork. The glass is placed near the tip of the knife. Simple!
I have found that children do really enjoy setting the table. It becomes part of the mealtime ritual and helps them feel a part of the preparation. Even the smallest ones can help.
This place setting is a little more involved. You see that there is an additional fork and spoon. The fork to the far left is the salad fork and the spoon to the far right is a soup spoon. This tells you, of course, that the meal will include a salad and a soup of some kind. We were having a tossed green salad and chili with this meal, thus the need for the additional flatware.
Now, I am not a complete stickler for the table setting rules. I’ll play around a little with napkins and extra pieces. It can make the table much prettier to use a vibrant napkin tied as shown above and placed on the plate. I know it’s not exactly proper but it shows a little more personality!
And, finally, here’s a colorful casual table setting that I use quite often. You can see right away that we’re probably having steak with this meal because the dinner knife has been replaced by a serrated steak knife.
Now, about that table setting from the top of this post. This is still a casual setting, but admittedly there is more to “decode” here, so let’s take a look. Remember that the flatware is used from the outside to the inside. So, first, we can see that we will be having bread with our meal and that there will be something to spread on it. The bread plate and butter spreader at the top left of the place setting give that away immediately. Also, since there’s a salad fork present, we’ll be having a salad course as well. On the far right, there is a somewhat different spoon. It’s larger and has a rounded bowl – a cream soup spoon. We may not know what the soup is but we know it won’t be brothy, right? The cup and saucer along with the stemware tell us that both a cold drink and coffee will be offered. Admittedly, this table setting is one that you would rarely see these days, but I’d rather know what to do when confronted with it, hadn’t you?
Before I wrap up this post, let me touch on one more thing. Table manners or dining etiquette. Do you teach your children to use good table manners? I know, I know, you’re so busy you don’t know whether you’re coming or going some days and table manners may be the last thing you have on your list of to-do’s. But, young parents, please believe me – it makes a difference. Not only table manners, but manners in general.
As Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Bravo, Emily! I completely agree. Everyone needs to know that they should place the napkin in their lap, how to hold a fork and knife, not to place their elbows on the table and to chew the food with their mouths closed. These are just so basic and easy to teach and go a tremendous distance to make meal time a pleasure. I’ve heard lots of people say, “Oh we’re just casual at home, but when we go out we make sure the kids use table manners.” My thought on that is that if children practice their table manners at home then you don’t have to worry when you go out to eat. They already know what to do and you don’t have to spend the entire meal teaching and correcting.
Whew. This has been a really long, wordy post. And, honestly, I hope it didn’t come across as being stuffy, or boring, or terribly old fashioned. I just feel deeply about some things and this is one of them!
You know what? Instead of old-fashioned, I’m going to start calling table setting “Granny Chic.” Yeah. That’s it! Granny Chic! So, go on and practice a little Granny Chic today!
I’d really like to know – do you routinely “set the table” in your house or is that an idea that is hopelessly old fashioned for you?
Other posts on table setting and dining etiquette: