Setting the Table: A Recipe
The shadow of November is on the horizon, and for me that means my favorite holiday is coming – the ultimate, all out dinner party that is thanksgiving.
In my house, Thanksgiving dinner isn’t relegated to the 24th – part of the excitement of the season is in the build-up: the three or four weekly dinner parties in November that anticipate the big one, where I test out my “big-day” recipes and cook for all those people I love who have their own families to feast with on the 24th.
The one big difference between the big holiday meal and my Friday night dinners (besides the turkey) is timing. From work, to grocery store, to meal prep, to table, I barely have time to answer the buzzer at weeknight dinner parties, let alone set the table. And sure – as I’ve done these more, I’ve loosened up considerably – found a few great recipes I know like the back of my hand and can make without much thought or effort; embraced the idea of friends helping with the cooking; even shunned flowers or dessert on some occasions.
But as a committed aesthete, there are some real boundaries to my laziness. Maybe laziness isn’t the right term, because there are a few things that I can do to STILL be lazy (or at least, focused on my friends rather than pressing the napkins) – while maintaining the idealized image of “dinner party” that’s been top of my mind since childhood. (I was once subjected to “etiquette classes” and I’ve never fully recovered).
The key to making your space look good while actually enjoying yourself and getting a meal on the table, you ask? A no-fuss recipe.
Step 1: Stock up on basics.
basics: the obvious
If you’re going to have people for dinner (regularly or otherwise) you should invest in a full set of serveware that is matching and presentable. No need to go all out: having one set is fine – just as long as it works for everything. It should be sturdy enough to handle the dishwasher, in a unified color family, and in a pattern or style you like enough to look at day after day.
Once you have a full set of glassware, silverware, and porcelain (or any material variation thereof) that work as a cohesive set and are big enough to serve your largest parties, you can start adding personality with eccentric accents and highly-specific pieces. (Hello majolica! Hey oyster plates!)
Cloth napkins – at least twice as many as your party – are another way to instantly elevate your look and save the planet to boot. Just like your serveware – you don’t need the fanciest starched and monogrammed linen to make an impression on your guests: cotton is fine. Un-ironed is fine! Pick a color that complements your porcelain and hides stains – not white.
basics: the ephemeral
Tapers (a.k.a. the tall pointy candles that go in candlesticks) add instant drama and romance to a meal. There’s nothing worse than sitting down to dinner under fully bright lights. Candlelight on the other hand actually makes your guests (and your food, if you’re worried) look more appealing. Tapers are also another opportunity to add color and texture to your table.
If you have a large dining table, try clustering a few tapers at different heights (either use various candlesticks or cut the tapers from the bottom) and accent your groupings with tea lights. Different heights will make sure that light is dispersed more evenly across the table and your guests are able to see each other.
For color – I love the look of black candlesticks in a dark room – they make the light appear to float in space. Pastels are another way to add warmth, especially when paired with fresh flowers.
That brings us, of course, to flowers. Not only is the idea of prepping flowers while I’m making my meal stressful, it usually means that the flowers I’ve put so much effort into aren’t even looking their best. Instead, I try to buy and prep flowers a day or two before the meal – that way any closed buds have a chance to open up.
Some prepping tips: Even if you’re happy with the length of your flowers, cut at least an inch off the bottom of the stems at a diagonal and let rest in warm water – this reminds the flowers to open up and grow. (Cut flowers that have been sitting on a shelf have been stunted – they need a little prompting to remember they’re still alive). While the stem will happily drink up all the water in your vase, most leaves left under the water will rot in a day or two – when in doubt cut them off.
Sometimes cut flowers can grow wildly after they’ve been arranged in a vase. If your buds have fully opened and you’re happy with your arrangement and want it to last until tomorrow’s dinner party, pour a shot of vodka into the vase to “re-stunt” their growth.
If you’re not feeling flowers but you still crave a little greenery, a garland is a great way to add texture to a table. While it’s definitely something that should be done a day or two before the night of, stringing together fresh bay leaves or other greenery is a surprisingly fun and easy DIY – plus if you’ve got a garden it’s almost always free.
basics: the textural
While table cloths, placemats, runners, and chargers are almost never completely necessary, they add depth, color and texture to your table. While I’d probably never use all three at once, a combination of two add that extra special something to a meal. Plus, if you take the two minutes to pull these out of storage and set them on the table before you start cooking, it makes for an easy starting point to let guests help set the table as you shake up their drinks or pull something off the stove.
Did you know that back in the day, people set their tables with comic figurines and miniatures? While I’m not necessarily suggesting bringing back grandma’s porcelain ladies – don’t be afraid to add something unexpected to the table.
Step 2: Prep your area
prep: before you cook
Survey the space. Is the bathroom gross? Is your laundry out? Don’t lose track of the forest for the trees.
Make sure that you’ve set as many chairs as needed. This will help you easily set places later without putting too much thought into it, and alert you early if you’re short on space.
Set out your table textiles, placemats or chargers. This further defines the space so that later, if you’re rushed, your friends can help put together the finishing touches.
Decide how you want to serve. If you’re keeping the food on the table, set out the serving bowls and plates ahead of time to make sure you have room for everything. (Don’t forget the serving spoons!)
Add flowers or candles along the central spine of your table. Where you can, it helps to keep things low so that guests can talk across the table, but adding points of height, particularly with a few tall candles, keeps things balanced and light.
prep: pulling it together
As I’ve said before, don’t be shy about asking guests for help. It can be a great ice-breaker for guests who don’t know each other to lay out plates and silverware together (and, if you’re a sociopath, a good opportunity to test their etiquette knowledge… FORK-PLATE-KNIFE-SPOON!)
Another good opportunity for helpful friends is candle lighting – as long as they’re set where you like it’s easy to stay hands off and keep hungry busy.
prep: let loose
Just because there are rules doesn’t mean you should follow them. The best dinner parties put people first - if you’re rushed or stressed, grab a glass of wine and remember why you’re here.
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Cover image: Chelsea Hansford and Daniel Corrigan of Simon Miller set the table for a dinner at home. image: t magazine