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How to Set a Table for the Holidays or Any Day, Even When It's Just the In-Laws for Dinner!
How Proper Table Setting Got Started
Imagine Mrs. Cave Lady as she planned dinner for her mother-in-law and father-in-law. Not a pretty picture. She needs to have the proper table setting to make an impression. But this is her first dinner party and she wrings her hands in agitation. Unfortunately, she can't begin to remember how to execute the proper table setting. Oh, wait! That hasn't been invented, yet. No worries for Mrs. Cave Lady about the place setting for silverware, or dinner place settings.
But you're not Mrs. Cave Lady and Snap! You live in the 21st Century where table setting etiquette in some situations can mean a lot of enjoyment for you, if nothing else. On the other hand, it might be just the smooth move that helps you cinch that promotion on the job or give you access to the top project you've been angling for.
Table Setting In the Beginning
So, how did all this table etiquette get started? Well, back to Mrs. Cave Lady. All she really had to worry about were the few shells or slivers of wood used to scrape the roasted saber toothed rabbit off the stone slab, albeit neatly arranged in a circle. In a few thousand years, the shells and wooden slivers became much more elaborate knives and spoons and rules started to come into play. In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all found that it was just as important to have the table well presented as it was to wage a proper war. Initially, that presentation was more about the placement of the food. Because the distance from the kitchen to the dining table was usually quite far, the order in which the food was delivered was much more important than which eating utensils would be the best for the turtle soup, for example. In fact, the eating utensils were just knives and crude spoons.
The first table setting that looked anything like the table setting of today was probably introduced sometime during the the Medieval ages. Records indicate that it was about this time that the fork was introduced, gradually replacing the blunted knife as the preferred eating utensil.
The proper place setting that was even closer to what we see today was developed during the 19th Century. That same place setting was refined over time until we have the place setting that is standard for today's formal dinner gathering and the place setting that is generally used for the informal dinner parter.
Luxury lives in the finer details. It's a cloth napkin at a dinner table. It's a mint on your pillow before bed.— Izzy Azelea
Tips for Today's Proper Table Setting and a Great Holiday Dinner Party
- Plan your menu early. You don't want to make your menu in haste. The occasion should dictate your theme and, can often by default, point to what you should served. For example, the traditional 4th of July celebration brings to mind barbecue chicken and potato salad. This would also mean your place setting is much more relaxed, almost nonexistent. On the other hand Thanksgiving dinner is going to be turkey usually paired with a spectacular dressing and other traditional sides.
- Develop your invitation list. Avoid inviting individuals who don't get along unless you want to add referee to your resume.
- Determine the size of the guest list and the theme of the gathering.
- Make your guests feel special; send an invitation keeping with your theme. Include the menu in that invitation. When they arrive, have place cards for each of them.
- Be creative as you plan your table decorations. Have fun with this. Again, themes make it easy. Include a nice tablecloth or table runner as part of your decorations. Repurpose items to make the decorations stand out. For example, scatter and drape your fashion jewelry or the jewels used in jewelry-making across your table to add unexpected sparkle.
- Your table setting is going to depend on the size and type of guest list, as well as the food you are serving. Use your best dishes, silverware, tablecloth, etc. to set that impressive table for your mother-in-law. For an outdoor patio party, use a fabulous, fun pattern of disposable plates, place mats, etc., and then why not use your silverware to add interest. There is also plasticware that even looks like silverware. Trés chic picnic setting.
- The week of the party, purchase all but the most perishable items for the party. Prepare as much of the menu as possible ahead of time. Consider catering all or part of your menu. This is the time to keep to recipes you've tried and had success with. If you feel the urge to experiment, choose an item that you would have two of. For example, prepare two deserts and make one of them your experimental dish.
- Plan your libations carefully. If you are inviting someone who may have issues with alcohol, stick to nonalcoholic beverages. Again, follow your theme. Cider- or cranberry-based drinks are great for the winter Holidays.
- Most of all, have fun with every step. Planning your get together should be fun, not torture and stress. Whether you choose a formal place setting for dinner with the boss or dinner with close friends, with planning, it can be enjoyable.
Setting the Table
You should only place utensils on the table if they will be used for a specific purpose during the meal. No soup on the menu? No soup spoon or soup bowl on the table. And don't put out the cup and saucer if you have no intention of serving coffee or hot tea.
When in doubt about eating when you are at a table with the proper place setting, work your way inward to the plate, starting with the fork on the left of your plate.
Thanks to the evolution of the table setting from Medieval times to today, standard table setting etiquette has been established. Polished silverware is placed around the plate according to the order of the courses. This might vary between European order of service and American order. Observe the custom of the culture you grew up in.
Will the proper setting of today change in the future? Probably. However, for the early 21st Century, just remember, take the time to put out the proper table setting and have fun while you impress your guests, the in-laws, your family and everyone else.
© 2011 Cynthia B Turner