I am often asked many questions about the “proper” way to set the table. I grew up in the South and, like many, was taught etiquette at a very early age. I remember helping my mother meticulously set out the various stemmed glasses on the table like something out of a classic film. (Although I assure you it was not nearly as grand as it seems in my memories.) These are the sorts of lessons that you never forget. Although I do still consult manuals when necessary, given my professional background, I certainly can tell a grapefruit spoon from an ice cream fork and know how to pick the right china and crystal for each course. But how important are these formalities today?
What I am about to say may be alarming to some, but when it comes to casual entertaining at home – there are no real rules for setting the table. Other than the basic placement of items, we are free to experiment creatively. Of course there are still strict standards for a state dinner at the White House or tea with the Queen, but alas, my invitations to those occasions seem to always get lost in the mail.
Now I know that some people love rules. For them, it makes everything so easy. But for me, being able to use beautiful things on the table in a creative way is a very freeing experience. It can just be so much fun to pull things out of the cabinets and play at mixing shapes, patterns, and colors.
Before I go any further, I just want to clarify that rules are different from manners. This new freedom doesn't mean that we should forget our manners. Manners are the most important element in entertaining for both the host and the guest. They are the gentle reminders of our past and security for our future.
Are you wondering where I am going with all of this? So often people will pick up a dish or a glass and ask me, “What is this?” to which I always politely reply, “It's a dish,” or “It's a glass.” They respond, still curious, “No, I mean what kind of glass? Is it a water glass or a red wine or a white wine glass?” I respond, “Well, what kind of glass would you like it to be?”
The fact is, today manufacturers make glassware in so many conflicting shapes and sizes that it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. We have traditionally thought of the water glass as being the largest, then the red wine glass, then the white wine glass, but the white wine in one pattern may be bigger than the red wine in another. This becomes even more confusing when we start to mix patterns on the table (yet another wonderful benefit of this new freedom). Perplexing names like “American Red Wine/European Water Glass #1” is simply an acknowledgment that the Europeans favor smaller glasses than the Americans.
While there are tasting glasses created by oenophiles to uniquely capture flavors or certain varieties of wines, most people still choose their glassware based on aesthetics, and that is just fine. You should really pick the shapes and colors that make you happy and create a festive ambience. I would, however, reserve colored glassware for water, white wine, or champagne.
It is really a matter of personal preference as to the size glass you chose to use. I tend to like a large wine glass, but others may prefer a smaller one. Also, as the rules on pairing wines with food have become more relaxed, many people may chose to drink either white or red at a meal but not both, and it is perfectly acceptable in casual entertaining to use only one wine glass on the table.
Even the largest stemmed glasses from many of the European manufactures are not large enough to accommodate the amount of ice Americans like in their water. Lately I have fancied using highball glasses in a matching or coordinating pattern in lieu of stemmed water glasses.
I remember a few years ago, I was visiting a retailer and standing in front of the Cristal Saint Louis display. There was a well-coiffed and elegantly dressed woman looking at one of the most detailed, exquisitely crafted crystal patterns ever made: Thistle Gold. These are pricey at almost $600 a stem but absolutely gorgeous. Given the craftsmanship that goes into making them, they are worth every penny. I asked her if she was looking for wine glasses, and she said that she needed to purchase three of these to replace some that had been broken. She then said, “I don't even drink wine.” I said, “They make great water glasses as well.” I wasn't quite prepared for her reply when she firmly stated, “I use them when I make a fancy dessert like my Jello Surprise.”
Well, need I say more?
I have seen so many people stress over choosing what they are going to put on their table. It really can be and should be a fun process. Don't sweat the rules. Pick what you really like, add them to your wish list, and relish in the joy you feel when using these treasured gifts in the years to come.
Photos courtesy of Consilium Lifestyle Collections