A Man and His Table

by Ann Banks and Lana Rowland

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    A down-to-earth guide to out-of-this-world table settings

    Bruce came into the kitchen, slammed his books on the table, and announced, “I don’t want to set any table, even if it is an assignment!”

    The assignment to enter a table-setting contest was given by his teacher in a marriage-preparedness class, a class Bruce had liked, until now.

    “I might do it if it wasn’t sissy,” he said, staring at my lace tablecloth.

    “You can make it look like a man’s table,” I told him, silently wondering how.

    The day the assignment was due, Bruce gathered together what seemed to fit his idea of masculine. He placed plain white stoneware on a black leather desk pad and used a black and silver desk lamp for the centerpiece. The tablecloth he used was a piece of grey flannel I had purchased for a skirt but had not sewn. The table was accented with chrome salt and pepper shakers and a black goblet. But the clincher was the black linen napkin knotted as a man’s tie.

    His table, one of 1,800 entries, was titled “The Executive Lunch.” It was original because it was masculine and exciting.

    Imagine sitting down to a lunch of tomato soup in a chipped bowl, a plain grilled cheese sandwich, and a canned drink, all on a cluttered table. Now imagine tomato soup in a large brown stoneware mug, a grilled cheese sandwich cut into triangles and garnished with a dill pickle, and soda poured over ice in a tall chilled glass. The two menus are the same, but the second lunch could be savored and enjoyed.

    Rolls served in a napkin-lined basket and condiments in attractive dishes are the extra touches that make mealtime more memorable and pleasurable for family and friends. Salad dressing really does taste better poured from a pretty pitcher than straight from the bottle.

    Some people have the mistaken idea that setting a nice table means having everything perfectly matched and purchased from the most expensive china shop in town. It is more important to coordinate color and texture and to reflect your personality and individual taste—as Bruce tried to do.

    The centerpiece is the focal point of a table and can make it come alive. It can be functional, unexpected, or just part of the pleasing picture.

    A centerpiece can turn a drab meal into a tribute by spotlighting a family member and his interests. For example, a handsome bird centerpiece can compliment a brother who you think is a great sportsman.

    If space is at a premium, you may want to make your centerpiece functional. Try these: a sparkling pitcher of amber cider, assorted sizes of wide-mouthed jars filled with cookies for dessert, an appetizing array of cheese and fruit on a wooden bread board. Things you have and love can be used to dress up your table (such as house plants, antiques, or toys). You can add interest by using the unexpected: weeds placed in a calico-lined basket, bare branches combined with winter squash, or lemons in a simple white bowl.

    Try using unusual containers for flower arrangements. A large bunch of flowers arranged in an eggplant or a watermelon can be the center of attention. A red and white soup can is amusing and attractive when placed on a red-checked tablecloth and filled with bright dried flowers. An Easter basket, a copper bucket, a straw hat, or a fish bowl, in addition to being used for flowers, can be filled with cranberries, jellybeans, ornaments, shells, pinecones, or wrapped candies.

    Don’t stifle your imagination by thinking only of buying tablecloths. Take a tour through your home. Check closets and cupboards. You may find a real gem of a cloth disguised as an antique shawl, an outgrown patchwork skirt, an unused curtain, a wooden blind, a quilt, or a bedspread.

    The variety of improvising can be stimulating. Some examples are: using fingertip towels as placemats or napkins, a pretty hot pad as a liner under a soup mug, a red bandana handkerchief as a placemat accented by a blue bandana napkin, brightly colored sheets as cloths for long party tables.

    Folding napkins in an intriguing way may give your table the spark it needs. Rolled napkins tied with ribbons are special when you tuck in a sprig of holly at Christmas, a single carnation on Mother’s Day, a dainty paper umbrella for a shower, gilded wheat at Thanksgiving, or a tiny flag on the Fourth of July.

    Instead of buying expensive napkin rings, try using strips of leather, curtain rings, large beads, fringe, rope, or cranberries on a string.

    Don’t worry about the “proper” serving dishes. A terra cotta pot (with a foil liner) can be used as a salad bowl, a goblet can hold bread sticks, and a cookie jar can be used as a soup tureen. If the dish is suitable to what you are serving and looks appealing—use it! What could be more fun than a meat loaf baked and served in a pumpkin? The only limits on what you do are your own.

    Bruce worried about his “macho image” when he entered the table-setting contest, but he participated and became more aware of the beauty of a table set with care. He does squint sometimes, looking at the sterling silver he won as first prize, imagining it in the shape of tire rims.


    Instead of just placing the napkin beside the dinner plate, try folding it in an original way to make your table look more interesting and attractive.

    Remember, when you are through with your napkin, do not refold it or place it on your soiled plate. Simply lay it beside your plate.

    Handling Silverware

    Don’t be bewildered by the array of silverware at a formal dinner. There’s one rule that can get you through most dinner situations safely and without embarrassment. Do as your hostess does. In other words, if you are presented with a dish or a piece of silverware that you are not sure how to handle, wait to see what the hostess does, then follow her lead.

    Here is a formal dinner setting and the uses of each piece of silverware:

    Formal dinner setting

    Salad Fork This smaller fork is used to eat salad when the salad is served separately from the meal. When you have finished your salad, leave the fork on the salad plate. It will be removed when the salad plates are cleared away. If the salad is to be placed on the dinner plate with the main course, just use your dinner fork for both.

    Sometimes this smaller fork is used for dessert. If you are not served a salad, just leave this fork beside your plate and use your dinner fork for the main course. The hostess may intend to have the smaller fork used for dessert.

    Dinner Fork This larger fork is used with the main course. When you have finished eating, leave it on your plate to be cleared with your dinner plate.

    Teaspoon The teaspoon can be used to stir hot drinks or may be used for food that cannot be handled with a fork.

    Soup Spoon If you are served a soup course, use this large spoon. When you are finished, leave the spoon in the bowl or on the smaller plate under the bowl.

    Knife The knife is used with the main course. It should be balanced across the top of your plate when not being used. (Continental style allows the knife to remain in one hand, with the fork in the other during a meal.) It should be left along with your dinner fork on your plate when you have finished eating.

    Other pieces of silverware If you are confronted with other pieces of silverware with which you are unaccustomed, follow the golden rule of table manners. Watch your hostess. It is only polite to wait until she is seated and begins to eat before beginning yourself.

    Another way of setting a formal table is often seen in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The utensil needed for dessert is placed above the dinner plate. Just leave it there until dessert is served.

    1. Fold into triangle.

    2. Fold bottom edge up one fold.

    3. Turn over and roll from one side to the other.

    4. Tuck in corner point and stand.

    5. If roll is a little looser it will look like this.

    Photo by Gerald Bybee

    Photos by Ann Banks and Lana Rowland

    Stark colors work together to create an inventive place setting called “The Executive Lunch.” Using common items found in the office and combining them with a black napkin folded as a tie and a mock stock ticker, Bruce Banks won first place in a table decorating contest

    With chair covers that match the tablecloth, this table is ready for a small child’s birthday party. The dishes and utensils are all plastic, so no need to worry about letting youngsters handle their own. The centerpiece can be part of the birthday gifts

    Photos by Eldon Linschoten