In which the objects and objectives surrounding the serving of food are put forth incompletely and with ambivalence.
When you serve food at a table or on some such flat thing, you may very well want to pay some attention to the surface and its surroundings or ask someone else to. Of course you do not need to have a table at all. Laps work very nicely—bare skin and fine garments protected from warm plates and sticky sauces by a tray or a second large napkin. And if you do set a table, it need not be a dining table. It might be a coffee table or a picnic bench or the floor. I heard tell of one romantic meal served on the corner of a bed.1 For everyone else who is not playing such powerful and direct games of courtship, tables should be large enough for comfort and sturdy enough for peace of mind, well-placed and compassionately lit, set somehow with ceramic and metal and glass and wood and wax and cloth.2 Flowers, if you like, and if the view across the table will not be obstructed.
There are many ways to set any table on any occasion. De rigeur are plates or bowls or both, forks and knives and spoons, vessels for drinking and napkins. Even if you are planning to eat on the front stoop, these things still must be pulled from cupboards and drawers or wherever they live and placed on a counter near where the food is to be served up, which might very well be by the stove, but could be on a buffet in the living room or on the picnic table outside or on the front stoop. It hardly matters. You have only to get the dishes and utensils out to the place where they will be needed. Their charm will reside in themselves and not their placement so much, although it is always possible to make your casual jumble of stuff more rather than less attractive to the eye and spirit. Go ahead and try.
But perhaps you have a table and you want to set it for a meal. You want to make it appealing. When your guests are asked to sit down to the meal and their attention turns from whatever was holding it and they focus on the table, you want them to sigh softly in joy and relief that for the next few hours they have nothing to do but to eat and drink and enjoy themselves and the company around them. A set for dining, light bouncing on and off glass and metal and glaze and fabric (even if it is only the corner of a counter set with china and silver on placemats fashioned from napkins or towels), they will know that the evening is theirs. Conversation continues, stronger now in the secure knowledge that they were expected for dinner. If the table is a jumble and does not promise anything, they will continue as before, although probably with a pall of confusion, wondering whether they were really invited for dinner, or if they misunderstood, have arrived inconveniently, and you are just being polite.3
A very small amount of concrete information on setting a table is offered here because you have to decide for yourself how you want to set a table. Some people set a table with fine linen and silver and china and chargers4 and candelabra and crystal vases full of roses. Those would be people who have large weddings or long lineage. Others throw a curtain from the thrift store over a work table and go about setting places with flea market silverplate, Salvation Army china, napkins ripped from muslin, estate sale candles held in empty bottles, and a little vase filled with dandelions. Couldn’t say that one approach is any better than the other. Both might be wonderful, either might fail miserably. The only requirement is that you care about your guests. That you do not insult them with ugliness or cleverness or inconvenient extravagance. Tables and dishes and silverware and napkins are all discussed later in this chapter. Putting them together is a task of creativity and kindness.
Setting a table
Having said all that, here is how to set a table. First, choose your table. Make sure it is large enough for all your guests and that you have enough chairs. If you need to make the table larger, do that, or decide to allow people to eat anywhere they like. If you need more chairs, buy or borrow them. Check lighting to make sure you have something besides an overhead lamp.5 Clean off the table and the chairs if needed. Put down a table cloth or placemats of some sort. Find your napkins. Make sure they are clean. Get out all the silverware you will need. Place the napkins and the silverware in some configuration around the table so as to suggest seating places. Chairs will also help to suggest places. Whereas napkins and silver can be placed almost anywhere within the place setting, glasses for water and wine want to be in the top right corner of the place setting. You can put them anywhere you want, but that is where people will look for them and you will have discussion of whose glass is whose if you get very far from tradition. Which is fine. Do have a water and a wine glass for each person if your store of glassware will allow.6 Place the plates on the table if the food is to be served at the table. Leave them in the kitchen if plates are to be served up there. Place candles. Put flowers on the table only if they do not block views between guests. If someone brings you tall flowers, place them somewhere honorable but not on the table. Small sculpture or other interesting things can be an alternative to flowers and other purely decorative centerpieces. Mind you, they need not be in the center. You might want to set your guests around one end of the table, or only along the sides, freeing up both ends for flowers and candles and other things of visual interest or for platters and bowls of food. Unless you are serving a formal, course by course meal, you might place a salad in a bowl on the table at the beginning of the meal and thereby allow people who prefer to start with salad, those who prefer to end with it, and those who like to have salad with their meal to all do as they please. What difference can it make to you? And it might make a great difference to them. Fill a pitcher or carafe with water for the table. If you don’t have one, use an empty, clear-glass wine bottle with the label removed, or buy some water in glass bottles for the occasion. Salt and pepper, because someone will want them. The corkscrew and whatever serving utensils you will need might all be placed in the center of the table, or on some nearby surface. Light candles or small lamps. Turn off any overhead fixture and leave it off. Lighting should entice your guests to the table, now a stage for what will certainly be a most excellent meal filled with shimmering conversation.
If you are serving the meal as a buffet, which is to say you are setting a surface from which people will take plates of food and utensils and go elsewhere to sit down, you can still arrange the buffet so it attracts your guests and sets the mood for the meal. Whatever that might be. You may also set a table where they will take their plates, be seated and dine.
the table and accompanying chairs
The table is a foundation for the meal. It will support everything from flowers and candles to plates and glasses and elbows and the attached heads and thoughts, let alone whatever books and other clutter which may be brought in to test or illustrate points in discussion. It will separate one body from another. Or connect them. A surface to rest held hands, or something to hide them below. Chairs hold whole bodies, for hours sometimes, each minute deliciously and without fanfare following upon the last. Backsides are at once forgiving and finicky. Yet there is not much to say about chairs since at the end of the day, if what is on and around the table captivates, almost anything will suffice for seating. Take care, as people will fashion chairs out of almost anything, judgment obscured by any number of things.7
If there is to be a table it is good for it to be nice in at least one or two ways. Perhaps it is a lovely table of fine wood or metal or concrete. Perhaps it is large and well-placed under an ancient tree. Perhaps it is in a warm sunny corner or there is a little lamp on it capable of making any old Tuesday dinner seem like Saturday night in Berlin. The table and its surroundings should not be unpleasant in any noticeable way. Legs and edges should not wack and stab at shins and knees and thighs. Forearms should not gather splinters. Light should not glare angrily from above or from any other direction. The table should not rock about threatening to capsize glasses and temperaments. Certainly it should be clean of all remnants of previous meals. Perhaps it is laid with a tablecloth or placemats. It should be large enough for the number of people who plan to crowd around it, sturdy enough to allow for passions, wide enough to encourage generosity of spirit, and it should be flat.
Both tables and chairs can be many things, many of which are, technically speaking, neither tables nor chairs. A beautiful table is a beautiful thing. Comfortable chairs that can be used around a table are to some a sort of holy grail. Spending lots of money is often a good way to acquire table and chairs, but it is hardly a fool-proof strategy.8 If you are to have a table and chairs, acquire them wisely and ruthlessly. Get rid of things that don’t work or are uncomfortable. If your table and chairs do not make you happy, find out why and fix it. Put a piece of plywood on a wrong table and cover it with a large piece of cloth if you must. Get some comfortable folding chairs to tide you over. They can be later used as extras for suddenly larger parties. However you do it, get content.
Not that it is so easy to get content. It is not easy to know what is wrong and still more difficult perhaps to know what should be done. To understand why the table you have might be undermining your best efforts to feed others in your home, to discover what is wrong with it and determine what can be done to improve things, is an architectural, sculptural, decorative, functional and troublesome problem. And yet, so many things work just fine. You must find it, but there is a good chance that an excruciatingly simple solution will make it all right. So good a possibility, you might well be suspicious of any arduous, expensive, or otherwise complicated solutions offered by others.
Test your table. Sit down with something to read and something to drink. Are you happy, comfortable? If you got up to answer the door, would you bring your visitor back to the table with you, or would you lead them to some other seating place? You might even try this when you are expecting someone. See how they respond to sitting at the table when they don’t have to. Notice whether guests in your home ever spontaneously sit down at your dining table. Notice whether you ever sit down at the table. This is only a first step. If you are comfortable and happy and others seem to be as well, you have only to press the test an inch further, asking close friends whose homes you admire and know to be comfortable what they think of your set-up, the furniture, the space, the lighting, the art or decorations. Ask if there is anything they particularly like or don’t like and if there are any changes they would make if it were up to them. If they decline to offer suggestions and assure you that it is fine, you might have polite friends rather than a perfect room. Ask about particular things. Pester them until they are so annoyed with you, they will be delighted to tell you all the negative things about your dining area that have been irritating them for years. Or alternatively, ask them to consider what might be improved and to let you know if they think of anything.9
Your table might be of poor proportions, the height or the position of the legs inconvenient, its sturdiness erratic, the chairs unwelcoming.10 Lighting might be poor or cruel, the position of the table in the room awkward, you might have neglected to clean up after some long forgotten meal, or there could be some lingering thing you no longer notice but which is vile. An old arrangement of flowers or a dead plant, piles of books or papers, a tablecloth, the cat’s food dish. All sorts of things might take up residence on an unused table and make something perfectly fine horrid. Clean off your table if it is cluttered, then wash it thoroughly and the chairs and the floor around it.11 Perhaps now it is a terrific table and very comfortable to sit at. Perhaps you discover you have a glorious piece of furniture you have forgotten to enjoy. Perhaps that is not the case at all and the table itself follows the dead flora out to the garbage pile. All the better to have a good go at cleaning the floor and rethinking what you should have in that part of your home.
But perhaps your truth lies somewhere in between. It is not a wonderful table, but neither is it crying for disposal. Make it work for you. Paint it, strip it, find some good tablecloths. Make it bigger with plywood and fabric when you need to. But don’t worry too much about it. When it is time for a meal, you clean and set with care and imagination, and it will be ten thousand times greater a table than that of most kings.
If you must acquire a table, by all means get one that is large and strong (or small and strong if your space is limited) and which feels good under your hands and head. You will almost certainly have it forever so you might as well get something in some way excellent. It needn’t be anything in particular. A solid surface at about table height. Don’t concern yourself so much about what it looks like. Until you commit yourself to an elegant home, well furnished and filled with art, there is almost no table so ugly that it is not fine when clean and well set with linen and dishes and all the other paraphernalia. Better really to have an ugly table that is sturdy and comfortable than a beautiful table that is rickety and careless of knees.
Now, if you can buy or cleverly acquire a table that is large, sturdy and beautiful all at once, that would be the way to go. Wherever you go, wherever you put it, it will make the room magnificent and functional as nothing else can. In the dining room, the kitchen, in a library or an office, wherever. You can always use a good table.12
dishes and other accessories
Dishes you address once and then live with for a very long time. Not so strange, really. Many things are this way. If you do it well, you will never think of them again except occasionally to tell yourself, “I am so glad I bought these dishes.” Your peace will not be disturbed by reminders of ancient bouts with bad taste. Only the infrequent, very observant guest will ever remark upon your dishes, and then only to say how very nice they are. Everyone else will be caught in your invisible web of excellent taste. If you do it badly, you will find no pleasure in setting your own table for guests and will find yourself frequently browsing porcelain displays and wondering if you are extravagant enough to throw out perfectly good dishes and start anew. Meanwhile your guests will silently wonder why you have such awful dishes.
Important considerations for dishes are 1) How food will look on them, 2) How likely they are to break (or, How easy they are to replace), and 3) What they will be like in all the possible contexts, of which there are probably only two or three. If you have any more interest in thinking about them, try to imagine how you might feel about them ten years from now.
Unfortunately, we as a nation are starting out on the wrong foot. No small thanks to a certain Japanese plate manufacturer which managed during the late seventies and throughout the eighties to make full sets of dishes so cheap and so seemingly practical (from freezer to nuclear reactor), nearly every house in the country seems to have been poisoned by silly floral and even sillier earth-toned plates and bowls.13 An especially lamentable situation since most people find it extremely difficult to replace sets of dishes until they are mostly broken. Which these particular dishes never are. Further lamentable because it is almost impossible to set a visually and sensually satisfying table with these dishes as raw material.
Dining tables then are yet another casualty of our cultural infatuation with the economics of the mass-produced and apparently practical. Like the Victorians before us, the romantics before them, and who knows who before that, the ability of machines to cheaply reproduce what might have once looked like something artful and which could be profitably sold as something useful or decorative proved too seductive to resist. Overly decorated or self-consciously spare and designed to appeal to the most sentimental veins and modern conceits of the impulse shopper, plates and bowls and cups and saucers and their kin have lost contact with principles of substance and aesthetic.14
Regardless of what you think, people are aware of the weight and texture of a plate, or of anything at all for that matter. They might not be able to articulate in every case what bothers them about a particular thing, what is wrong with a room or a suit of clothes or a table setting, but it will be unambiguously if indefinably wrong. And too bad for you who selected for the swift and fleeting appeal of surface rather than for the slower force of substance. Their eyes will have been drawn, but attention will not be held.
Think of them as t-shirts. In the largest number of cases, plates should be white, and occasionally, if you have a great deal of style, gravitate toward the modern or primitive and tend to serve pale food, black. In the realm of color, you should probably choose only those pigments which have been in use for hundreds of years. Anything made up to appeal by its newness alone will be overshadowed by next season’s contender which will by definition be more new and therefore more appealing. Maybe, if you must, a bit of decoration, something conventional or unlikely that doesn’t come anywhere near the food. Maybe a traditional, or utterly not traditional trim. Though there are glorious plates cluttered with odd and many-colored flowers, and many sweet plates in strange colors and designs from other times and other places. There is no good advice beyond Choose wisely, where wise means with your whole self intact, free, creative, and with awareness of a greater world. Don’t spend money or even devote shelf space to dishes that do not delight and support you.15
So you find yourself hunting for dishes. How does one think about how food will look on a plate? Not an easy a task when you are in the dish store admiring the colors and patterns as though you might be hanging the plate on the wall. For example, beige food on a beige plate is unappetizing. Unless it is a magnificent red, few will appreciate it and the rest will wonder what you were thinking. Blue does little for any food, except maybe vanilla ice cream, and then again only if it is a very nice blue. Claude Monet might be the last person who used yellow to good effect at the table. Try to recall the last time you were served food on anything besides a white plate in a good restaurant. Dishes are not art. For the most part they will be covered up, and then they will be dirty. That is why one might recommend to the reluctant chef, especially one who has no aesthetic point to make or ax to grind, a plain white plate of Italian, French, English, Japanese, Czechoslovakian, Icelandic or American design.16 Aplico if you can, anything “made in Italy” if you can’t,17 Buffalo China if you can find it. Sasaki if you are that sort of person. Avoid fashionable or flashy things here as everywhere.18 On the other hand, if you see a dish design you truly love—and you must look deep into your heart to be sure you do indeed love the design—buy it all. Ignore my or anyone’s opinions about what you should look for in a plate. Who cares? They’re just dishes. Just make very sure you love the design for all the right reasons, or that you have the budget to replace the whole lot in about three years. Or the humility to apologize for the dishes every time you serve dinner.19 Indulge freely your desires for bright or fantastic expressions in ceramic or porcelain with the odd serving platter or teapot, vase or mugs. If your dishes are well-chosen and neutral,20 almost anything you put on the table will complement and be complemented by them.
Now think honestly about how upset you will be if a particular plate gets broken and must be replaced. Lighter weight dishes generally break more easily than heavier ones, but that is not a rule. Cheaper ceramics chip easily. Do you care? A greater investment in the first place can mean fewer broken dishes in the long run but not necessarily. Spending a great deal of money on a very delicate and beautiful set of dishes will cause nothing but heartbreak and bankruptcy if you keep trying to replace them as one by one they shatter. You need to know deep in your heart that dishes and glasses break, and factor that, along with your own frugality and sentimentality, into your decision about what to acquire.21
The last thing not to forget when you are opening yourself up to the seduction of a thousand dish designs created solely to entice you is this: They will be present in a variety of places. Perhaps you have already settled on the home you plan to stay in until you are very old or dead, but it is more likely you will change homes a few times, that the plates will appear on an assortment of tables, and that the fabric elements, the napkins and tablecloths, not to mention the upholstery, the curtains, and your own clothing will wear out and be replaced with refreshing and perhaps newly fashionable things, or at least things in a different color. It would be a shame if a change in table linens rendered your dishes hideous.
Consider as well that you might be using the same dishes in both very formal and very informal environments, and that you might even want to use them in an outdoor space. This is not a restrictive consideration, as anything can be used anywhere. But it is something to ponder briefly in case you are personally opposed for aesthetic or practical reasons to the use of fragile, hand-painted porcelain in combination with redwood decking or stone patio. You don’t want to be restricted from eating food from real plates just because your guest wanted to dine by moonlight. Choose your dishes so that you will be happy using them anywhere in your home, or get a second set of dishes which can go places the first set can’t.
Be true to yourself.22 Do not succumb to the pulls on your sentimentality orchestrated by the armies of marketing wizards and dish designers who want you to spend money on dishes this year and next year as well. Even if you serve dinner all the time and not with lamentable rarity, you are still more likely to tire of a design than you are to wear out the plates. Deny yourself the fleet-footed pleasure of buying the first thing that catches your eye and your fickle heart.
And now, in the specific...
It is possible that the dishes you choose will only have one size plate which will work for meals. But in some cases there will be both a dinner plate and a luncheon plate. Mainly this occurs in the higher quality and more expensive sorts of dishes. You can get some of both, or think for a moment about how you eat and how you like to feed others and decide if the big plate is what you need, or if the smaller plate, still larger than a salad plate, is appropriate. I have lived with only one and only the other, and both work just fine. Guests are encouraged to take their courses one at a time and tend to take seconds when they are using the smaller plates. If you like to serve a number of different things on a plate at one time, e.g. an entree, a vegetable, a side dish, etc., then you might prefer a bigger plate so that everything doesn’t get crowded together.23
Another thing to notice is how deep the bowl, or indentation, of the plate is. Some are quite deep, and you can easily imagine quite a bit of sauce or syrup gathering on the plate. Other designs have barely any depth to them at all, and if you carry them any distance with any sauce on them, you are likely to find yourself mopping up the floor before you sit down to eat. It is entirely up to you. Think about the kinds of things you like to eat and might consider cooking, and then think about what that would be like on the plate you are admiring.
Feel the heaviness of the plate, the texture of the design and the finish, the sharpness of its edges, and decide if it pleases you. Try to clear your mind of any theories or ideas you might have about what is right. Release yourself from any rules which may have accumulated in your head. Decide as you hold the plate in your hands whether it is the plate you want to hold and offer and wash and dry a thousand times.
Choose a good plate. You are going to have it for a long time.
Bowls are more difficult than plates. You might even want to rethink your plate decision if the bowl you choose does not work, either practically or aesthetically, with the plates you like. Obviously they do not have to match or anything like that. Although they may.
Look at bowls to see if there are any shapes that draw your eye. They are all different. Deep bowls, flat bowls, bowls on little pedestals, rice bowls. Hold them with both hands because you might want to use them for cafe au lait in the morning. Look at them carefully, imagining soup, cereal, sauces, berries inside. Keep in mind, if money or space is tight, it is possible to choose your coffee cups in such a way that you do not need bowls at all. A large, bowl-shaped cup and saucer will get you through almost anything, from soup to coffee and including ice cream.
Unfortunately there is nothing I can say to help you decide what sort of bowl is right for you. It is as individual a choice as mugs. The same things that were important for plates are important for bowls. Color, weight, texture, sharpness of edges, depth. Plus, a bowl is more sculpturally present on your table than a plate. Look at the bowl as you would a three dimensional work of art and decide whether it is the sort of thing you want to look at for ever.24 Look at bowls on other tables and notice what you like and don’t like about particular examples. Try not to develop involved theories. Then buy what is good for you and what you think will be good for your guests, and don’t think about bowls ever again.25
Oh dear. I know you. You are thinking, “I am too busy to worry about bowls. I don’t care what kind of bowl I serve stuff in. I’m not a cook. If the bowls turn out to be no good, I’ll just ask someone who knows more than I do to go shopping with me and let them pick out bowls. I don’t have time to learn about bowls.”
And you are right. That can be an excellent technique for disarming someone, to defer to their taste, to ask assistance. And you are also right that in the end it doesn’t matter what bowls you use as long as you are you and filled with good humor.
Or cups or whatever it is you plan to serve coffee, tea, and hot chocolate in. I suppose it is because they are tied in with the drug ritual of coffee and tea, but it does seem people are particular about their mugs. They are not so particular about your mugs perhaps, but they are still affected. It’s one more place where you do not so much need to please as to not annoy, although there is no reason to abstain from an opportunity to please.
There are so many things about mugs that can grate. Their shape, their color, their texture, and whatever design or distracting lettering or illustration some imbecile printed upon them. You can hardly spend a day in America without acquiring yet another mug with a corporate message scrawled across it. Leave them at the office, as you should all work-related things. Keeping in mind almost no joke survives being told to the same person more than once, ban cartoon joke mugs from your house as well. And refrain from buying them for others. You just encourage the industry. Mugs are easy to manufacture and cheap and have become the favorite arena in our culture for marketing mavens to convince you to buy yet another thing you don’t need and won’t or shouldn’t use. How many times, after all, have you broken a mug? It’s a constant struggle against a relentless ocean of mugs which you will only take from the shelf, and reluctantly at that, when every other vessel in the house is in use or in the sink. Better to wash some dishes.
Find cups you like for coffee and tea and other warm things and acquire a number of them. Generous or discreet, they needn’t even match. Four is perhaps the smallest number you should have. Twelve of any one sort is probably as many as you want. Even then, you might want to divide their number between two or three colors or versions of your favored design. You don’t want people to suspect you entertain so many people regularly. It destroys your credibility as a novice. Another approach is to collect two or three or four each of designs you particularly like, eventually having quite a nice supply that does not appear impressive nor intimidating.
In mug buying, notice and consider the many qualities of a ceramic vessel. For example, the proportion of height to diameter. I favor mugs which are just slightly taller than they are wide. Something more and less than four and a half inches for each dimension. Popular these days are mugs which are dramatically tall or dramatically wide. Some people prefer small, neat cups appropriate for strong coffee. Consider how much the bowl will hold and what is right for you and the most important others who will be using them. You may need several kinds of mugs and cups. An eclectic selection. You may not.
Notice whether you can hold the cup in one hand without using the handle. Notice the shape, the texture and thickness of the material and how it feels in your hand, the handle and whether it works. See if it feels right or if it is uncomfortable or seems unbalanced.26 The color or colors. Remember, it will be in your kitchen and all over your house and it will have brown stuff in it. Which is not to say your mugs should match your furniture nor that they should be brown. No more than art should match the walls. Try to transcend the dictates of interior design magazines and home decorating catalogues. Try to find colors and patterns, if any, which appeal to you and which you can imagine still looking at ten years from now. Not that you will still be looking at them ten years from now, but you might be. In any case it is a very good touchstone for determining whether you will be able to enjoy your new mugs past next week.27 Consider them and return to the store at a later date, or buy impulsively the mugs which capture your heart on a day when it is healthy. Your choice will be the first thing that you, or whoever is drinking their morning brew from it, will be able to focus upon. It will be the first sensual experience of the day, that cup, and perhaps the last thing they touch in the evening before they reach for you. No sense at all in choosing a mug because it looks good with your other dishes. It will hardly ever be anywhere near your other dishes. Of course, if you are pure at heart and clean of eye, things you choose because they appeal to you will almost invariably complement each other. In a serene or eclectic way, but nonetheless. You only risk a jarring and unpleasant effect if you allow ugly things you don’t like to litter your home.
Will anyone object if we throw all glassware into this one category? After all, one is hardly going to have a different glass for every possible beverage and still be able to honestly lay claim to the advantages and allowances tendered reluctant and courtship-oriented cooks.
Officially, of course, there are a myriad of types of glasses: Stemware for the fermented drinks (red wine white wine and bubbly wine), water glasses, beer glasses, highballs and lowballs, teeny tiny cordial and aperitif glasses, giant cognac snifters, juice glasses, tumblers... For heaven’s sake. Someone must be making quite a bit of money off all this glassware. Feel free to thwart them.
On the other hand, you do need to serve people drinks at your home whether you are planning to cook for them or not. Mugs won’t do for merlot, unless you are trying to impress upon someone how utterly unable you are to manage your own life, which is a very different sort of courtship technique. And while no one is going to condemn you for serving wine in cafe glasses, they may be distressed by it being poured into a tall tumbler. In which case it is not propriety that is being forsaken but rather discretion, which is perilous.
Perhaps the best way to choose glassware is by selecting the least expensive glasses which appeal you. Glasses break. You do not want to spend much money on any one glass nor be too attached to it. Perhaps you can arrange for your tastes to be so proletariat that your favorite wine glass is the very glass used to hold Chianti in every second-rate Italian restaurant in the greater Americas. Purchase them in boxes of four at hardware stores or for change at almost any thrift store or garage sale.
Water glasses might be small or large, short or tall, as long as they are comfortable in the hand and easy to drink from. You might be surprised how many glasses go into production with the very serious flaw of dribbling all over the drinker no matter how carefully one tries to sip neatly. Try a few glasses before you buy a whole bunch of them, or take them right back to the store if they prove mischievous.
As it happens, you don’t need to think too much about it. Water can be served politely in anything except mugs or empty jars. And even empty jars are sometimes perfect. Depends on the circumstances, and how much style you have. I’ve seen beakers work on occasion. A low, sturdy glass of at least six ounce capacity is good. It is enough water, but it won’t tip over easily in the carnival of arms and sleeves and hands and flying porcelain which is how an excellent meal looks to the glassware.
Wine glasses might be any shape at all. You might choose some kind of stemware, in which case you need to add the quality “stable” to the other important quality, “easy to hold in one hand.” There is a great deal of romance attached to the image of a tall, shapely and graceful wine glass, but you will have to weigh that benefit against the gracefulness of your friends. Wine can always be served in those little French cafe glasses produced by the billions by Duralex. Very continental and very hard to knock over. Harder still to break, for while you should always be prepared to buy new glasses, you may not want to make it a habit.
Be sure to have enough glasses that can be placed on the table without apology to serve your largest likely number of guests both water and wine with dinner. Plus, if there is even the barest possibility champagne will be drunk in your home, two or four or eight glass champagne flutes, tall and uncomplicated, should live on the shelf. Add a tall, fat glass or two which might not even be glass but which you enjoy filling with water and drinking to the dregs for all the water you and your darling should be drinking all day when you are nowhere near the table. Healthy and hydrated are excellent qualities in a lover.
If the dishes are good and the napkins clean and big it really doesn’t matter what utensils you have as long as they are heavy enough and easy to use. Seldom is silverware so hideous to be worth remarking upon. And even when it is, it is usually in good humor and does not affect anyone’s enjoyment of the meal.28 Early pawn shop flatware, as long as it has weight to it, can be quite nice when paired with good porcelain or ceramic dishes and linen napkins, folded but not necessarily ironed. The pieces needn’t even match. No one is going to be shocked by eclectic silverware on your table. Go for heaviness without going to extremes. There is something sensual and slowly provocative about eating with heavy utensils. God knows what, but there you are.29
Meanwhile, if your dishes are unfortunate to ugly and your napkins are in a duck design from Acme Paper Products, no silverware you choose is going to help.
Of course you might want to own real silverware. There is, in certain circles, an age you can reach where regardless of your marital status you will be perceived as disheveled and incompetent and very bad mate material if you haven’t yet figured out your silverware and dishes sufficiently to set a table without apology. Only the potential partner who is hoping to leverage your incompetence into a position of power for themselves will respond warmly to this sort of thing.
Which is still not to say you must have conventional silverware. You might be the sort of person who has a drawer full of antique silver nestled in fine-grain crimson felt which you use as casually as you do linen napkins. Or perhaps you discovered your flatware while travelling in Romania. Unconventional, surprising even, but fine as long as they hold to the rules of utensils: Others must be able to eat with them comfortably and they must not be toxic.
Or you can go to the store and buy flatware. It is not difficult and not that enormous of an investment.30
Some suggestions. Go to the fine silverware section of a good store and ask to see the casual designs in stainless steel or silver plate from the big, old, sterling silverware manufacturers. Or pick up the habit of visiting estate sales, antique stores and auctions till you find something you like. Or get on your mom’s good side and inherit her set of silver early. Or only ever cook things that can be eaten with one’s hands.
Napkins are very important. You only need a few of them, they are not expensive, and you can throw them in the laundry with everything else. Again, being a rare chef means you are not required to have ironed napkins. More than that. You are not even required to have real napkins. Clean dish towels if they are not burdened with some embarrassing or cute pattern work very well as both napkins and as placemats. Actually, any kind of napkin works fine as a placemat in a pinch.
Here as everywhere, err on the clean and patternless side if you are unsure of your own aesthetic. No one ever notices a boring table setting, whereas napkins which clash dramatically with your plates can impede many a visually oriented guest from fully occupying themselves with the color of your eyes. Stick to the dull, and then kick in at the last moment with flowers and food which are beautiful and delicious and conversation which is compelling and full of laughter and warmth. Also, you won’t feel as though everyone knows what year you bought your napkins because of the colors.31 Of course, if your dishes are suitably plain, go wild.
For the occasional cook, especially if that cook is very young or in a non-profit job, there are better approaches to acquiring excellent napkins besides dropping dollars by the dozen at the nearest boutique of French home imports. If you know how to sew or would like to learn, making napkins out of cotton or linen fabric can be a wonderful exercise in executing straight seams.32 Or haunt garage sales. Napkins made out of India cotton or madras that you can pick up for a dollar or two at the other sort of import stores are just fine and will be appreciated by your guests.33
In a very tight pinch where you must use paper napkins, make them be the large dinner sort. You may be forgiven for using lunch box napkins or paper towels, but your campaign will not be advanced.34 Meanwhile, don’t fuss over the napkins, making your guests feel as though they are putting you out by utterly needless extravagance. Use the most exquisite napkins as though they were merely rags. Behave as though the merest rags were most beautiful cloth. Have a darkly-dyed napkin option if you tend to cook things in tomatoes or curries. Otherwise, lighten up and don’t fret if the white napkins get a little stained.
No need for truly wonderful napkins. Still, remember that whatever you give your guests as a napkin, it will lay there on their lap throughout the meal, now and again being caressed by an adorable hand and occasionally touching lovely lips. You give them what you think will be right.
1 I don’t imagine it would work more than once or twice, and should certainly be attempted only in the absence of a table and exclusively in the confines of a studio apartment, but if the story is true it can be very effective in that moment.
2 This is going to be a problem for some of you. What about plastic, you cry, or whatever other material you have chosen and I have not listed. Look. I don’t really care what you use as replacement for the traditional materials, and I am not going to attempt to prophesize materials to come. I feel rather generous not mentioning linen, cotton and hemp specifically, trusting that you will discover for yourself that those are the only fibers you should use. I don’t care if your plates are bronze, your cups ceramic, and your forks made of glass. I don’t care if every last thing on the table is made of plastic. As long as everything performs its function well and does not insult your guests with distracting ugliness of shape, color, texture or taste, no one cares. Most people, however, will use ceramic for plates, as it holds rather than transfers heat, metal for flatware because it can be sharp and rarely breaks and glass for vessels because they can see what is in them. People also use these materials because they are traditional and therefore readily available. Be clever and creative if you like, but please stop short of making the meal and the conversation of others difficult to enjoy.
Unless, come to think of it, you are not cooking as courtship but rather as statement. Serving food that cannot actually be eaten with the tools at hand. Plates that discolor or spill whatever is placed on them. Forks that crumble into shards. Vessels that dissolve in liquid. It could be a very provocative event. Thought provoking, anyway. I leave you to it.
3 Barely, I might add. Mind you, even when such misunderstandings do happen, if you are happy about the error set the table as though you had planned the whole thing and looked forward to it all week. If they come to comprehend the situation, they will be thrilled and amazed that you so fabulously and effortlessly fed and entertained them. But all you had to do was set the table or ask someone else to do it while you threw more pasta in a pot. You see, it is not so hard to make others happy and to sponsor an evening of conversation and laughter. Which is exactly what courtship is made of. You can even order out and lose no effect if the table is set.
4 Those are the large plates that are at your place when you arrive in a very fine restaurant and which are summarily removed when plates of food arrive. I am not sure of their purpose, and know nothing of their history, but that is what they are.
5 A chandelier is different because its light comes from many small sources and typically it can be dimmed. See Technical Production for more discussion of lighting. The importance of light cannot be overemphasized.
6 Although it is contrary to the American tradition of large glasses of ice water at the table, it is preferable in many cases to use small water glasses and to refill them from a carafe of cool or room temperature water. It is not very healthy to drink ice water in the first place, and it is very hard to drink, as your throat must warm it to a decent temperature before allowing it to pass to the rest of you, which it can only do in very small amounts. In the USA people believe they need ice water, but it is a habit, and rarely rarely will it get drunk with the meal. If someone asks for ice water, give it to them. Otherwise they are no worse off than if they were dining at a three star restaurant in Paris.
The large glass of ice water is more about what was once the extraordinary luxury of ice, and for that reason if you are trying to impress a very traditional American crowd you might want to serve those tremendous goblets of ice water that condense over by the end of the meal so if you did try to pick it up it would slip out of your hand just before you suffered frostbite. An excellent design, when you look at it like that. Toddlers also love to play with ice, so you might want to serve it for that reason.
7 My task has now and again been the rescue of sacred or deceptively fragile, chair-like items from a heavy fate. You can avoid asking for such trouble by habitually collecting orphaned chairs and leaving them handily about.
8 I’ve noticed it often attracts fools and makes them still more foolish.
9 More likely though, they will have a few things to say. And then it is for you to listen and not defend yourself, and to later consider their thoughts and decide for yourself if you want to take any to heart. When you ask someone’s opinion you are not required to execute their ideas, but you are required to listen respectfully to what they have to say. Even and especially if you don’t like it.
10 Mind you, all this consideration does not take place in a vacuum and you must accept that your penniless artist cousin will be forgiven all kinds of crimes that someone who vacations in the Seychelles will be condemned for. Too bad for you. If your guests know that you take extravagant care of yourself but are content to let them eat from chipped ceramic on a folding table, it will never occur to them that you are interested in their well-being and that you are hoping they will choose to spend more time with you. Of course, if you are the penniless artist, you must still make your best effort and not take excessive advantage of your guests’ understanding natures. Care for others at least as well as you care for yourself, and remember to care for yourself.
11 Why not clean the whole room while you’re at it?
12 I am not being very helpful on styles or where to find a table, am I? Me, I would go to garage sales and junk stores, perhaps to an auction or estate sale if I had a pocket half-full of money. Or I would build a table from steel or wood and concrete or granite. Or I would commission one of the crafts people or artists I know to make me a wonderful table. But I know people who have found lovely tables in retail stores. Still other friends with pockets full of money have bought tables from antique dealers and from design studios. Keep your eyes open and your heart. My sister waited for nine years to find her dining table. One night, tipped off by the empty front room, the police stopped by her house to enquire as to whether there had been a robbery and if everyone was OK. Undaunted, if slightly embarrassed, she held her ground and eventually came to own a most beautiful square table that seats two on each side and opens out to seat five thousand, or something like that.
13 Earth tone and floral are not silly in and of themselves. It’s just that you must have an aesthetic which you trust as you trust your own dentist in order to select a plausible plate in either of these themes. A good rule of thumb, if you are not a world-famous art-collector, is to choose only designs that have been popular in the country of their manufacture for over 100 years.
14 Not that everyone should have the same aesthetic. I mean to draw your attention to the clear if inexpressible difference between the person you would be delighted to spend the evening with and the person you want to spend your life with, even if the occasional evening ends up being a little dull. Likewise with your place setting. Try fresh cut flowers, or perhaps something in fabric, tablecloth or napkins, or garb on yourself or your other to re-inspire.
15 As though I had not already said enough... While the proud owner of some of the most magnificent white plates ever made, I admit I also possess a veritable zoo of plates and bowls found at garage sales and white sales and strange stores that carry old things. I especially like to serve black bean quesadillas on some slightly smallish, pale pink or blue or yellow plates for a sort of mild mariachi effect. Then there are those shallow bowls I got for dimes at a garage sale in Wichita that seem to be creamy white, but when you finish your soup or pudding, you find a silly flower and two leaves painted on the bottom. (Blue leaf, yellow leaf and pink flower, come to think of it, so they may want to hang with the mariachi plates sometime.) I just love them, and love that they are also oven proof. These are all fun, and like light friends, delightful to spend the odd evening or morning with. My white plates of substance and weight like the best spouse or dearest friend; perhaps not thrilling or amusing, but solid and strong, something to be proud of and happy to be with in all circumstances, never inappropriate, always supportive, at once unobtrusive and richly present, not needing to call attention to the self. I paid for them dearly with that stuff, money, as I pay for profound love and deep friendship with that stuff ego, both of which seem so valuable but aren’t; pay not thoughtlessly, not without trepidation, and never regretting it. Good thing about plates, though: if you don’t break them, you only pay once.
16 Don’t grimace at me like I’m dictating some kind of rigid minimalist aesthetic in every kitchen. White plates can be many things; traditional, modernist, romantic. For that matter, white can be many things. And if you would just keep reading, you would see that I am perfectly supportive of any forays you might want to take into more creative dish management. And consider that if it is boredom you fear (as if your dishes could save you), it is a lot cheaper to buy new table linens now and again and easier to store a variety of them. Once again we are stuck with plain dishes to go with the largest number of colors and prints. Blah blah blah. As if anyone cares. Get by without offense.
17 Keep in mind that most of the Italian ceramics chip easily. Fortunately they are very affordable and painlessly replaced. And who really cares if plates are chipped?
18 Which is to say, for the most part. Fashionable and flashy certainly have their place.
19 Shameless disregard for aesthetics will work, but it is always a gamble that shameless disregard in one arena will wander into another, and you will be on your way to divorce court before dessert.
20 Neutral. By which I mean any color that does not insult other colors. Any color if it is deeply and richly itself can be a neutral. Fashion colors, on the other hand, are never neutral. They are created specifically to exclude combination with other colors so that you are required to replace everything next year with the new colors which clash horribly with last year’s colors. If you choose higher quality and non-fashion colors, usually made directly from pigments found in the earth, they always go together just fine and maybe extremely well, just like they do when they are part of the actual earth. Of course, many whites and the actual color of clay and metal and wood are also neutral.
21 You might also factor in the general level of physical coordination amongst your friends, but it won’t help when someone’s clumsy cousin tags along and drops a stack of plates on the flagstone patio.
22 A self-righteous platitude, perhaps. But think how much easier it will be to be true to yourself in the process of buying dishes than it is in almost any other context. Perhaps being ruthlessly true here, you will learn secrets of how to be true in other, far more important arenas. Surely the exercise can’t hurt. And at the end of the day, when you return from the wrong career to an ill-fitting home, at least your dishes will not taunt you. Turn down the lights and pretend for the moment your life is otherwise. Then begin plotting how to make it so.
23 But if you are so brave as to be cooking many things at once and so dexterous as to have them all ready at the same time, what are you doing looking at this book? Why would you be browsing my advice at all? You should be over here, giving me tips on how to do more than one thing at a time. How to cook excellently for the people I adore, mirroring my complex and varied affection for them in the variety of foods I offer them. All at once. How do you do that?
24 Or can stand to look at for a long time. Again, you are not buying art.
25 Now that is not entirely true. You very well might, at some point in the future, decide to buy a different sort of bowl. Something might speak to your soul. And you should do it. Different bowls are good. Vessels in the abstract are powerful things. Need, or rather the lack of it, is no reason to refuse beauty.
26 What you are unused to almost always feels wrong to start with. Prisoners whose chains have been removed feel as though something were out of place. Try to get beyond your habits and prejudices when you are deciding about mugs, or mates, or anything at all. You’ll be happier and we’ll be happier.
27 As a rule you shouldn’t let anything into your house for more than a week that you wouldn’t be happy to have stay there forever. Which does imply that you should choose your dishes more carefully than you choose your weekend house guests.
28 Except, I suppose, in the event that they were carved into some fabulously grotesque or cruelly offensive shape which cannot be digested kindly. I think I have actually seen such things, but I seem to be in denial about it. Can’t for the life of me remember what they were.
29 You can argue with me all day, but in the end, if you insist on light flatware, especially the kind that is difficult to hold because of some silly, possibly cylindrical, modern design that you thought was clever in the store, your dining companion is more likely to be aggravated and nervous than pliable and open-hearted at the end of the meal. You do the math.
30 Unless you want something really nice. Silverware manufacturers, like plate and mug manufacturers, have in recent years chosen to design their products with the impulse buyer in mind. They have been very busy creating cheap, light, and fashionable designs in multitude styles, and have rather left off making the sort of stuff you can use and enjoy and pretty much not notice for the rest of your life. That sort of thing doesn’t appeal to the modern consumer. Not interesting or romantic or creative or modern or something enough. Again, if this is not a realm in which you are naturally expressive, don’t be. Reveal instead great affection for those who will use your utensils.
31 Did you know that fabric manufacturers get together every year and decide which colors are going to be fashionable two years down the road? This is why it is so easy to identify when something was bought by noting its color. A sort of carbon dating. Avoid the whole thing by sticking to white, natural, or perennially unfashionable colors that you happen to like. Good quality, uninteresting napkins should last forever. In fact, I picked up mine at a garage sale after someone died, which means they are going to have lasted for two forevers when they are buried with me.
32 Cut out squares of fabric at least 21” x 21” and ask someone to show you how to finish the edges. Or just wash the pieces of fabric a bunch of times, pull off the loose threads, and be very modern and shaggy.
33 I reveal my prejudice toward cloth napkins made of natural fibers and in generous sizes. The objection some have to such stuff is that they need to be ironed. I don’t have that objection because I find nothing wrong in not ironing them. I steer clear of napkins made of synthetic fabric or even what others find to be a tolerable blend, but I have seen them used to good effect on other tables where textures are different than on my own. I ask that you remember all the time the purpose of cooking as courtship and know that although it is very nice to have neat looking napkins, it is also important that they feel good in the hands of your guests. Fold cotton and linen napkins immediately when they come from the dryer and they will be quite neat, maybe even neat enough to persuade you from what seems to be a more sensible purchase of permanent press or synthetic napkins. I add, because this is a crusade of mine, that natural fibers are wonderfully absorbent which is maybe the point of napkins to begin with, but reluctantly admit that it is a matter of personal choice.
34 Some people—and some of them are terribly delightful otherwise—will even try to argue that paper towels are the best possible napkin. Consider this: Someone who thinks paper towels are terrific is unlikely to be offended by the use of cloth napkins. Whereas the person who understands cloth napkins, when offered a paper towel is likely to wonder what else their dining companion thinks is best when disposable. And we’ll just leave alone the possibility of insulting someone’s environmental sensibilities.