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Table Setting Image - How to Set a TableEntertaining:
Dinner Party Etiquette

From the book The Art of the Table:
A Complete Guide to Table Setting, Table Manners, and Tableware
By Suzanne Von Drachenfels

Coming together to share a meal is one of our most vital traditions. Whether dining with friends, family, or business associates, we know that an elegant setting and gracious manners bring a sense of harmony and order to the occasion. Yet when it comes to knowing precisely how to set a table for formal and informal dining, which fork is for dessert and which for the appetizer, how to serve different types of wine -- even how to eat certain foods -- many of us are not fully confident.

Suzanne von Drachenfels learned this firsthand in her career as an expert on table setting, tableware, and etiquette. Conducting seminars throughout the country, she would hear the same questions again and again: Should bread be buttered entirely or bite by bite? What is the purpose of holding a wine glass by the stem or the base? Is handmade crystal worth the price difference?

Von Drachenfels shows us how to select, lay, and use tableware to enhance any dining experience, and how to properly store and care for it -- whether it's your grandmother's porcelain or everyday stainless steel. She provides guidance on mixing and matching tableware patterns; the basics of coffee, tea, and wine; menu planning; napkin folding; and the proper service techniques for all types of entertainment. So as not to let the lore of the table fall away, she delves deep into the history of specific tableware and the customs we keep, making today's practices understandable.

Table Manners

"There is much in a person's mode of eating".
~ Ovid

Table manners in Europe date back to the eleventh century, to the days of chivalry and knights-errant. The knights, or chevaliers, were armed horsemen, "gallant, courageous and fair" -- hence our word cavalry. In the thirteenth century, Frederick II inaugurated courtly manners, which emphasized intellect, wit, and beauty. Our word courtesy is a diminutive of "courtier's customs," while manners comes from the Latin manuarius, meaning "of the hand."

  Bite not thy bread and lay it down,

  This is not curtesy to use in town:

  But break as much as you will eat,

  The remnant to the poor you shall leave.

  ~ The Boke of Curtesye, c. 1460

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave birth to modern table manners. With the invention of movable type around 1440, books on social deportment based on consideration of others began to circulate. William Caxton, the first printer in England, published The Boke of Curtesye, around 1477, a tome that set forth the duties of knighthood and chivalrous conduct.

Renaissance women of the aristocracy played a more passive and decorative role than today, and it was gentlemen with leisure time who contemplated social deportment and wrote etiquette books. In 1528 Baldassare Castiglione, an Italian diplomat, penned Il Libro d'Oro, which was translated into English as The Courtier in 1561.

Children of the aristocracy learned table manners through menial service in noble households and from etiquette manuals. In the sixteenth century, Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, writer, and professor of divinity at Cambridge, who believed in the education of youth, set forth the following guidelines for social deportment.

At table or at meat, let mirth be with thee, let ribaldrie be excised; sit not down until thou have washed, but let thy nails be prepared before, and no filth stick in them, lest thou be called sloven and a great nigard. Remember the common saying, and before make water, and if need require, ease thy belly, and if thou be gird too tight, to unloose thy girdle is wisdom, which to do at table is shame. When thou wipest thy hands put forth of thy mind all grief, for at the table it become mete not to be sad, not to make others sad.

And in the sixteenth century, rules of dining were formalized:

For rudnes it is thy pottage to sup,

Or speake to any, his head in the cup.

They knife se be sharpe to cut fayre thy meate;

Thy mouth not to full when thou dost eate;

Not smackynge thy lyppes, As commonly do hogges,

Nor gnawynge the bones As it were dogges;

Suche rudenes abhorre, Suche beastlylnes flie,

At the table behave thy selfe manerly...

Pyke not thy teethe at the table syttnge;

Nor use at they meate Over muche spytynge;

This rudnes of youth Is to abhorde;

Thy selfe manerly Behave at the borde.

~ Francis Seager, Schoole of Vertue and Booke of Goode Nourture for Chyldren, 1557

Court etiquette was so elaborate in the seventeenth century that it bordered on the ridiculous. Aristocrats were given tickets of admission to court ceremonies with a code of conduct printed on the reverse side. Gradually, etiquette came to mean a mode of behavior, not only for the French court but in social situations everywhere.

Although etiquette in Europe and England was dictated by gentlemen of leisure, in the United States men were too busy laying the foundation of a new country and providing a living for their families. It fell to the women to teach social deportment and etiquette. The exception was a young George Washington, who at age 16 wrote Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a school exercise that included 110 rules based on a seventeenth-century book written by Francis Hawkins, Youths Behavior, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men, itself based on a set of rules set forth by French Jesuits in the sixteenth century. The number one maxim that runs throughout Washington's book is consideration for others. This is the basis of modern table manners.

Nothing is as revealing about one's environment and social adjustment as table manners. A person with poor table manners usually has poor manners in other areas of life. Suffice it to say that manners must relate to one's lifestyle; otherwise they are mere affectations. Although every decade brings sweeping changes, the customs of the table prevail because they make sense and, once obtained, are never lost or taken from us. Let's start at the beginning of a meal, and work our way through to the end.

How Long to Hold Dinner for a Late Guest

Rather than delay dinner for everyone to accommodate the arrival of a late guest, dinner is held no longer than 15 to 20 minutes.

At a formal occasion, when a guest arrives late to a dinner or luncheon, a butler or maid answers the door (so as not to interrupt the table conversation), and the hostess remains seated. The latecomer goes to the hostess immediately, offers a brief explanation, and is served the course in progress. If the latecomer arrives during dessert, as a courtesy the hostess sees that a dinner plate is made up for him or her.

At an informal meal, the host answers the door and greets the latecomer, who makes a brief explanation to the hostess. When the latecomer is a gentleman, the other men at the table remain seated. But, if the latecomer is a lady, as a courtesy, all the gentlemen rise and the man on her left helps her into her seat.

Where to Put the Cocktail Glass When Dinner Is Announced

A cocktail glass is not brought to the dinner table because water and several wines are served with the multicourse meal. The extra glass crowds the place setting and disturbs the symmetry of the table. Moreover, the taste of grain-based spirits nullifies the flavor of wine served with the meal. Simply leave the cocktail glass in the room where cocktails are taken.

Miscellaneous Manners

Do one thing at a time at the table. If you want to sip your wine, temporarily rest your fork or knife on the plate.

What to do if the table is improperly set. Don't rearrange an improperly arranged place setting and offend the hostess. In a restaurant, where an improperly set table does not reflect on the skills of the host, quietly rearrange the ware for comfort.

Where to place the hands when eating. To avoid creating an obstruction to your dinner partner, when holding a utensil, rest your other hand in your lap. When not holding any utensils, both hands remain in the lap.

Urges to resist. To create a relaxed ambience, resist the urge to fidget, rearrange the silverware, twist the linens, drum on the table, and play with salt and pepper shakers. For cleanliness, keep the hands away from the face and hair.

Posture. Good posture at the table means sitting straight with the back rested slightly against the back of the chair. To avoid spills, lean over the plate each time you take a bite. Never tip a chair backward; the position is hard on the back chair legs and disturbs the symmetry of the table setting. Avoid wrapping your feet around the legs of the chair. Refrain from leaning back and extending your legs under the table, putting your arm on the back of a dinner partner's chair, or looping your arm around the back of the chair. To do otherwise blocks service and obstructs others from the conversation.

Elbows and forearms off the table. To avoid crowding one's dinner partner, during a meal the elbows remain close to the body and off the table. To prevent a barrier to conversation, the forearm and hand are not wrapped around the plate. But between courses, in the interest of hearing conversation at a crowded or noisy table, the elbows are rested on the table so one may lean forward, or the wrist and forearm are placed on the edge of the table.

Reaching at the table. To keep from creating an obstruction for others, at the table reach only for ware close enough to grasp in one fluid motion. Otherwise, ask a guest to pass it to you.

Dealing with disagreeable food. When food that you don't like or can't eat is served, rather than make an issue and offend the hostess, take a small portion. Place the portion on the plate, dabble with it, and eat a small amount (or none at all). To compensate, take larger portions of other foods. For a severe allergy, say, "No, thank you" and after the meal, quietly explain to the hostess. At a buffet, take only the foods you like.

Spilled food. When a guest spills food at a formal affair, a butler takes the appropriate action. But at an informal meal, the diner quietly and quickly lifts the food with a utensil and places it on the side of his plate. However, if food is spilled on another guest, the diner apologizes and offers to pay for cleaning (but lets the other person wipe up the debris).

Removing different foods from a platter at one time. When a platter contains a combination of foods, such as meat, potatoes, vegetable, and garnish, take a moderate serving of each, including the garnish. However, if the removal of garnish will overly disturb the appearance of the platter, leave it. If a course is presented that contains another food underneath, such as toast or lettuce, take the entire portion.

How large a portion to take from a platter. When a platter of presliced food is presented, and each slice is an ample size, take one serving. But if the slices are small, and it looks as if there are enough servings for each guest to have two, take two for yourself. As a courtesy to the last guest, make sure to leave enough food on the platter so he or she has a choice from several portions.

Which portion to take from a platter. Rather than rummage through a platter and disturb the look of the presentation, take the portion nearest to you.

To refuse a beverage. Do not wave the hands about to refuse a beverage or cover up a glass or turn a cup upside down; simply say, "No thank you." To do otherwise disturbs the look of the table. When a guest refuses a glass of wine, see that he or she is given a glass of water.

Second helpings. At a formal affair a multicourse menu is served that precludes the need to offer second helpings. However, at an informal meal, the menu is simpler and second helpings are encouraged. If the hostess does not offer second helpings, do not ask for them. Instead, take a modest serving the first time and wait for the hostess to suggest more.

How many pieces of food to cut at one time. To avoid a messy plate, cut one bite at a time, and not more than two pieces.

Assisting with service at the table. At a formal affair domestic help is provided and guests do not assist with service, except to move the shoulders slightly to make service easier. At an informal meal, help generally is not provided and the guests assist with service by passing the dishes nearest to them. To avoid congestion, serveware is passed to the right and the guests do not delay service by helping themselves along the way (unless it is suggested that they do so).

Thanks for service. Each time service is provided at a multicourse meal, verbal acceptance is not necessary because it distracts from the conversation. Acceptance of the course is in itself thanks. But to refuse service, a verbal rejection of "No, thank you," is given. At a simple meal when a serving bowl is passed upon request, it is courteous for the receiver to say, "Thank you." It is not necessary for those who receive a dish in passage to say thank you.

Greeting a butler or a maid at the table. When a guest knows a maid or a butler, rather than draw attention to the fact and interrupt conversation, give a brief greeting, such as "Nice to see you."

Complimenting the hostess on the food. In the early twentieth century, even modest homes had help. Meals were prepared by a cook and it was impolite to compliment the hostess on the cuisine because it was inappropriate. Today, few people have help, hostesses delight in food preparation, and a compliment on the cuisine is appreciated. However, there are those who still hold that the conversation is more important than the food and a compliment on the menu or a particular course distracts from the discourse and is inappropriate at a party. The decision, therefore, is individual.

Turning the table. Years ago at a formal affair, it was customary for the hostess to begin conversation at the table with the guest seated on her right. The guests followed suit, and in this way, no one was omitted from conversation. Halfway through the meal, the hostess directed her conversation to the guest seated on her left, and the guests did the same, a custom known as turning the table. Today, the dinner table is no longer deliberately "turned," and a courteous guest makes sure he or she talks with the partners on both right and left sides.

How many people does one converse with at the table? A formal table is laid with several candelabra and multiple tall centerpieces that block cross-table visibility and make conversation with those seated on the opposite side difficult. For ease of conversation at a formal affair, guests converse with their dinner partners and chat only briefly with those seated several places away (so the person in the middle does not have to lean backward). But at an informal meal, because fewer courses are served and the table setting is simpler, cross-table visibility is not blocked and group conversation is encouraged.

Smoking at the table. A lighted cigarette is never taken to the table. Smoking is offensive to nonsmokers and dulls the palate. A table laid without ashtrays indicates that the hostess does not wish her guests to smoke. But if ashtrays are provided, before proceeding to smoke and as a courtesy to others, ask the hostess for permission. Because some people are allergic to smoke, wait until the table is cleared for dessert or hold off until dessert is finished. Never use a dessert plate or a saucer as an ashtray.

Who clears the plates? At a formal affair, plates are removed by a professional staff. But as most informal meals are served without help, the hostess clears the plates, often with the help of a guest or two. At a family meal, members clear their own plates.

Leaving the dining room. To signal dinner is concluded, the hostess catches the eye of the host, lays her napkin on the table, and suggests that everyone go into another room for coffee and after-dinner drinks. The hostess rises from her chair. The gentlemen help the ladies to their right and the guests leave the dining room in whatever order they wish. The host leaves last.

When to depart a dinner party. "With the bread eaten, up breaks the company," says Cervantes in Don Quixote. But such a speedy departure would not be polite. At a formal affair, guests do not depart until the honoree has left (unless they have told the hostess in advance that they must do so). Because entertainment and socializing follow a formal dinner, it is courteous to remain for at least an hour.

At an informal party, out of consideration for the hosts who have worked hard to make the occasion possible, it is polite to remain for approximately an hour. However, guests may depart within the hour and in whatever order they choose.

Saying good-bye. When it's time to leave, rather than detain one's host with a lengthy good-bye, make the departure brief but cordial.

Copyright © 2000 by Suzanne von Drachenfels

The Art of the Table: A Complete Guide to Table Setting, Table Manners, and Tablewareby Suzanne Von Drachenfels

For the novice host, this is an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide with more than one hundred helpful illustrations. For the host with more experience, it is a rich and exciting source of new ideas. Like its author, whose passion for the table is contagious, The Art of the Table is an authoritative, elegant, and sophisticated resource for all one's dining needs.

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