There’s something about a perfectly set table…
When I go out to eat or have people over for dinner (both of which I do often), there’s that one perfect moment when I step into a room and see the lovely contrast of shape and material, the light glittering on glass and silver and china, the flowers and linens adding a pop of color.
That moment, that first glimpse, makes me feel as if I’m in the theater and the curtain is rising. It’s all about anticipation and appreciation.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re having a picnic in your back yard, a formal dinner in your dining room or a buffet laid out on your kitchen counter, that first impression is crucial.
And for me?
Although I love food, if that first physical impression doesn’t blow me away, no matter how good the food, I’ll still go back to a restaurant that takes care of the eyes as well as the belly.
Company dinner at my house goes through a whole bunch of phases:
- I begin with my guests–because not everyone is going to want to eat lamb or hot chili or chilled soup. I want to make sure they’ll enjoy what I serve so the menu comes after the guest list. Although I admit that I have occasionally wanted to try a particular menu and asked guests who I knew would appreciate those foods.
- Once I’ve figured out the guest list, I come up with a menu. I try not to make it too complicated, or involve too much last minute fussing, because I don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen. The more I can do ahead of time, the happier I am.
- Then it’s the wine. That’s important to me and I will almost always pick both red and white, even if the meal calls for only one or the other, as some people won’t drink red or won’t drink white. I choose wines I’ve had before and if I’m considering something I haven’t tasted, I’ll test a bottle before I settle on it.
Once I’ve figured out these things, I move on to the most entertaining part of my preparation. Ambience.
I begin with two things: setting (linens, glasses, plates, candles) and flowers. There are a lot of factors that play into these decisions. How many guests? What shape is the table? What am I serving? What color and texture is the food? Is it a special occasion? Do I need plates and bowls?
White china is a necessity in my house so I don’t have to worry about what color the food is, because white goes with everything (ever notice that almost every restaurant uses white china? There’s a reason for that). But I also have the very high end china I bought when I was in my early twenties (I bought it because the name reminded me of Tolkien and so did the painting), the china my mother got when she was married, clear glass Arcoroc that everyone in the whole world bought in the eighties, plus my white china and several sets of plates and bowls that I’ve bought four of (see the black and white ones above) because I’ve fallen in love with them like the big blue plates I bought at IKEA. I have enough place settings for at least twenty-eight people and there have been times when I’ve used every single one of them. My friends I have several shapes and sizes of wine glasses (I have a whole kitchen cupboard full of glasses, plus even more on the bar) and plenty of well-polished cutlery (the silver I bought when I left my husband with nothing but my clothes, my mother’s wedding silver, the lovely everyday cutlery that I mostly use), all of which I’ve added to over the years, so I think I have enough silverware for even more than twenty-eight people.
I have many different tablecloths, napkins, placemats, to either add or subtract color. On the table, I only use vases that don’t interfere with the lines of sight; there’s nothing worse than craning your head around flowers to see someone across the table.
I usually buy flowers (sometimes small flowering plants work—African violets, kalanchoe, miniature roses, even bromeliads or indoor cactus) the day of dinner, though I always have an idea of what I want beforehand. I often browse my neighborhood flower shops so I usually have good idea about what’s available.
And the stage is set…
The food comes next. As I’ve said, I like most of it to be prepared ahead of time – you’ll see that with several of my recipes (Red Beans and Rice, Cold Cucumber Soup, Granville Island Bouillabaisse, for example) or Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners – I can do much of the work the day before or even several days before. I’m a social person so the last thing I want to do is to spend time in the kitchen when all my friends are hanging out in the living room or the dining room.
I’ve prepared incredibly elaborate meals – three or four or even five courses. I’ve prepared simple means – chicken and tomatoes. I’ve prepared buffets – one of my favorites because it’s impossible to be bored with a buffet. I’ve prepared Italian and French meals.
But, in the end, the one thing about entertaining and cooking for me that really counts, is the company. I love spending time with friends and family. that’s what really matters.