It begins with the choice of cloth or no cloth. Placemats or polished bare surface? And we build from there.
The plates centered with the chairs and turned just so, ensuring the pattern is pleasing and consistent. Then it’s the silverware or stainless – knife edges pointing into the plates with soup spoons on the outside, if indeed soup is on the menu.
Positioning of the forks has changed over the years with dessert forks positioned at the top of the plates and a recognition that now salads are usually part of the main plate, meaning only one fork to the left of the plate along with a crisply folded napkin.
Ah, the napkin. We usually default to the nice silky paper large dinner napkins now. Who has time on a regular basis to wash, iron and fold linen any more? But every now and then, for a special occasion or really special guests, the linen comes out adding an extra bit of grace to the table.
Then we move to glassware. Water glasses aligned with the point of the knives with wine glasses to the right. That is the step that involves use of a damp cloth to eliminate the evidence of spots of water from prior use.
No longer do we automatically include coffee cups beside every plate as customs do change, although the little-used cups remain available just in case.
Finally the serving pieces are selected that will both contain the dish to be served as well as enhance the appearance of the table itself; bowls for rice, potatoes, vegetables and platters for meats or fish. And we can’t forget the small savories – the olives, pickles, or spiced additions that spark up the meal.
This is the calming ritual that sets the stage – or sets the altar – for the most important business of life – gathering of family and friends at the table for a shared meal.
Is this merely a memory from the 1940s when the photo above was taken? On most nights in our home, meals take place over the kitchen sink or around the kitchen island at best. More likely evening food is consumed in front of a television after a day of errands or workouts or conference calls.
But every now and again – usually on Friday nights or for holidays or guests – the ritual is performed once more, linking me to my mother, my aunts and my grandmother, and I realize the power of this eminently feminine ceremony. By setting the altar-table of our home, inviting a gathering of people to share in a meal, we are building and deepening the very relationships that provide the true meaning in life. As my father always said, life’s meaning is found in the interaction of people – talking, laughing, and sharing an activity. And what is more intimate than people sharing conversation over a meal served at a table arranged with caring attention?