Food Friday: Setting the Table

When I was growing up, my parents had a sit down dinner since that’s how they had been raised. My mother had nice china and table linens, but we rarely saw them since she used them only for special occasions. Instead we had everyday plates and cups, often plastic. The margarine was set out in its own tub. (Remember that this was the 70s, when margarine was thought to be healthier than butter. )

My father had business contacts from all over the world and they would come to visit us. In one case, a German guest showed me a photo of his daughter. She was sitting at their table. I would never have thought to take such a picture of a person at a table since our table was nothing special to look at. But their table was beautiful even though they had already finished their meal. Each plate was white glass, and crowded round each plate were clear glasses of various deep jewel tone colors and shapes, some cylindrical and thin, some globular, and yet others like cones. A light went on in my mind, and ever since then I started to see table settings differently. I began to notice the beautiful dishes and table settings in my friends' houses. 

Fast forward to college, when freshman year and dorm food banished all thoughts of table settings. Then came second year, when I moved into a campus co-op named Synergy. The house was organic and vegetarian way back in 1981. We had a big hippie kitchen in a huge hippie house right on campus. Since we were a co-op we cooked all our own food in a big kitchen in rotating teams. There would be no chefs or housekeepers for us.

The ethic of this house also required a communal sit down dinner as a deliberate act of culture. However the table settings in Synergy were like none I had ever seen. Since we were all about conservation, with reuse happening before recycling, our cups, plates, and serving utensils were a motley collection of all that had come through the kitchen. We drank from a selection of old jars, such as those from sauces or jam. Our plates were all completely mismatched. Bowls were just old plastic containers from things like bulk peanut butter. Most wonderfully, the center of the table held as many as a dozen great steaming loaves of bread: home made whole wheat bread. It was the signature of the house. We would cut slices or tear chunks, and slather it with butter, jam, hummus, or whatever mystery stew the cooks happened to create. Kids from other dorms would come by just for the bread. There is a reason for the expression, “breaking of bread”. It seems to bring people together.

Greg and I bonded while making this bread since it literally took all four of our hands to knead it. We had met while cleaning the kitchen at Synergy. We took it upon ourselves to clean this hippie kitchen, since he and I seemed to be the only ones who noticed how dirty it was. We met over a filthy sink, and there was something about me turning on the garbage disposal at the wrong time. No one was hurt, but he did have to take a shower after the incident. 

Greg sometimes ate a couple of houses down the row where there was a clean kitchen, a chef, and of course, meat. His sister lived there and she had made friends with the chef. I think they had an arrangement since not uncommonly Greg would go there and use their massive Hobart mixer which would hold a 16 batch of his mother’s chocolate chip cookies. As you could smell the bread of Synergy wafting down the row, you could smell the chocolate chip cookies coming from the other direction. From then on, our collective memory would be infused with the aroma of bread and cookies. 

After graduation, we married and lived in a little farmhouse far away from University life. It was a bit run down, so we repaired and decorated it. Happily, among our wedding gifts were many table linens and pretty dishes, so it followed that the table got set very nicely. The cutting boards were set with bread and platters filled with cookies. When our daughter and the boys came along, they helped with all of this. Ever since then we have set the table and had a sit down dinner. 

Today I believe in the power of the sit down dinner more than ever, to promote communication, coordination and peace in the family. And for me, all my best dishware is out all the time. I think it sets a festive mood and makes people feel valued.

What would I do if I were just starting out, of modest means, and wanted to bring some inspiration to meals ? There are two possibilities. First, I could go minimalist and get all clear glass dinnerware from the dollar store. Everything would match, and design interest would come from the food itself, the table, or the table linens.

A more colorful and more ecological choice would be to thrift. I would have a fantastic set of non matching antique plates. I would shoot for a reasonably common size, and perhaps a common theme, say a color scheme or a design element like birds. A physician friend of mine did it complete with mismatched silverware, and mismatched but coordinating goblets. It was nothing short of magnificent. It was all thrifted, very inexpensive, and truly delightful.

And that is the point: to delight. Making the food and setting the table is a gift to others, and a joy for you.