A high-octane friend who has been everywhere and seen it all surprised me one day by sharing a hugely exciting document that was super-duper secret, of course. It was a diagram that showed the layout of the preferred breakfast tray of Elizabeth Windsor HRH (you've heard of her: she works in London). Well, “preferred” is apparently not correct—expected or demanded is more like it. The chart is forward to ensure that wherever HRH goes, no matter the continent or the host, she will be presented with the same breakfast tray arrangement. Or else. Or else what, I'm not sure, maybe a flogging.
There were about 30 little square and circles and odder shapes outlined on the page. The papers got folded a certain way. Every spoon and fork had its rightful place, and by extension, lots of wrongful ones. Everything about this fascinates me. The discipline of regiment. The Britishness of it. And, of course, the idiocy.
Lizzie, of course, has every reason to cling to the old ways. Her brand absolutely depends on it. But the rest of us are free to place our jam pots and soft-boiled eggs anywhere—even throw caution to the wind and have it be different every day. I hate people who are hidebound by tradition. I also hate that scene in so many romantic comedies where the up-from-nowhere girl frets over which fork to use. But being (only nearly, I hope) an insufferable hypocrite here are my various dos and don't for setting a dinner table.
Chargers, Yes or No?
I can take or leave them. Sometimes when you sit down and a dining table is set with chargers, you get this little extra surge of excitement: “Oh, this might be nice.” But just as often, chargers can serve as an early warning that an unbearably long and pretentious evening is about to begin. For the record, I think it can be okay if the charger stays on the table and other plates come and go, even though Miss Manners probably only approves when the first course is soup.
Pass the Saltcellar
Talk about pretension. I love saltcellars. You need the cobalt glass or enamel lining so the silver won't pit. And the little spoons! It's a horribly risky way to season your dinner, though. But at least it's there. A restaurant lunch the other day was perfectly fine but for one glaring error. No salt on the table. After failing to signal a waiter, I finally got up and took one from the sideboard. You should never have to ask for salt. And pepper that isn't freshly ground has no oils and thus no flavor. It's amazing to me how often these basic rules are ignored. And don't give me the nonsense that the chef will be offended, unless of course, the chef is the host.
The World Should Be Flat
My mother has exquisite table linens, which she rarely hauls out anymore, but which curiously never seem to find their way to my spot under the Christmas tree. But every tablecloth I have eaten on in her dining room (and her mother's before that) has these incredibly severe ironing folds that make a half-full wine glass as likely to topple as not. But I've broken the vicious cycle. The easiest solution is to hand them rather than store them lying flat. Get the large hangers with wide tubes (ask your cleaner) and hand them gently with plenty of room. Instead of crease, you'll have gentle ripples. Lay the cloth on the table and let if rest for a while before setting, et voilà, it's a smoothie. Another trick is to iron them on the table (but know what the hell you are doing, or risk a fire or, worse, singe marks on the tabletop). If I plan to have more than one gathering, I'll layer a few at the same time, then peel away the debauchery from one party to reveal a fresh cloth victim.
Paper or Plastic?
Another whole column would be needed to really debate this. And I'm not even sure of the answer. Both are horrid and should be avoided at all costs, unless you are by a pool.
So often hosts, desperate to appear clever or creative, think that stemware is an area where they can experiment, and they are so wrong. The absolute worst are decorated wine glasses. Some have little colored glass beads or geegaws attached, but many go for the Russian czar look with elaborate gilding. It is so rare that any of this works. Here's one way to know if you've gone too far. If any of your glasses resembles ones that have been on The Real Housewives of New Jersey (or for that matter, Beverly Hills), then you need to rethink. And there is nothing worse than drinking out of a heavy cut-crystal vessel, trembling that you'll break either it or a veneer. I took a daylong course about why each Riedel glass is shaped differently, which I enjoyed and recommend. But here's the abstract: Their style and shape is almost always the way to go.
Fondue came back, but I think it's fading again. Try a Raclette grill instead. Lazy Susans are always fun, but they need better nomenclature. Saying, “Please turn the lazy Susan,” sounds more like something you'd say at a brothel. Don't you sometimes wish for a nice warm finger bowl? I can never put my hands on the candle snuffer at the right moment, but I wish I could.
My theory has always been that caterers, jealous that they have to serve rather than be served, channel that passive-aggressive vibe by overcrowding the tables. The worst is at a hotel benefit when they pass the bread basket, and it becomes like musical chairs—some poor slob gets stuck. There are so many ways to fix this. Smaller plates. Bread passed by a server with tongs. And remembering to take away the signs with the table numbers once everyone has been seated. If I have to reach over and lay the thing down, then signal a waiter to remove it, I can become quite haughty, and who wants to be subjected to that?