Table manners: Holiday dining etiquette
For many of us, it's only during the holidays that we bring out our best tableware and silver. Let's all resolve in 2009 to use the "good dishes" more often. STYLE AT HOME makes it easy with this refresher on what goes where.
Did you know? At Rideau Hall, where the Governor General hosts about 400 events a year, there are six footmen who set the tables. They measure the distance between the place settings, tables and chairs for consistency and also fold all napkins in elaborate designs -- some, like swans and bishop's mitres, from books and others of their own creation.
Chopsticks likely originated in China about 3,000 years ago. The word chopsticks is supposedly pidgin English for "quick" (as in the phrase "chop-chop"), which is said to have come into use because one of the Chinese words for the utensil literally means "bamboo object for eating quickly." If any guests are inexperienced with them, offer a knife and fork.
Plates and bowls The soup bowl (on a saucer) and teacup are laid above the plate, with a small bowl for sauce next to the chopsticks. As at this dinner, rice is often brought to each guest in individual bowls.
Chopsticks Usually made from bamboo, plastic or wood, chopsticks are placed at the right of the dinner plate with the tips on a chopstick rest. The soup spoon may be set in the bowl or to the left of the chopsticks.
Here's how to hold and use chopsticks: Rest the lower stick on your ring finger, supporting it in the crook next to your thumb. Hold the upper stick more or less as you would a pencil -- between the index and middle finger, with the thumb anchoring. The lower stick remains still as you manoeuvre the upper chopstick to pick up food between the tips.
• Rest them on chopstick stands or on a plate -- not on the table. Once used, your chopsticks should never touch a bowl or platter used by others.
• Never wave chopsticks around. When picking up food, the back of the hand faces the ceiling at all times; showing your palm is considered unrefined.
• Use chopsticks to dip food in soy or other sauces in your own sauce dish; don't pour sauce over food.
• Don't ever stick chopsticks upright in a rice bowl since this would resemble incense sticks or food offerings honouring the dead.
Images courtesy of Paul Chmielowiec
Did you know? For formal European style, spoons are set with bowls facing down and forks with tines down. That's why some flatware features decorative flourishes on the back.
Plates This meal starts with soup brought to each diner. The small plate on top is for a fish course. Salad is eaten after the main course, so the service and dinner plates are removed and salad is brought on its own plate. There's no bread-and-butter plate -- bread is placed right on the table, and butter isn't served.
Flatware The soup spoon is to the right of the knives. Next, working inward from both sides, are the fish knife and fork, then the dinner knife and fork. The salad fork is last. Dessert utensils will be brought to the table when dessert is served; likewise cups and saucers. At many formal dinners, the dessert spoon and fork (latter only if needed) sit horizontally above the plate with the fork closest; the bowl of the spoon faces left; the fork tines face right.
Glasses Stemware is placed on the right side of the setting in the order of service and generally with smaller glasses slightly in front. If coffee is served after the meal, glasses are removed and cups and saucers brought to the table and put in their place.
The butler did it: Basic table traditions
• The plate (with service plate, or charger) forms the centre of the setting, with other items arranged around it.
• Flatware is placed in the order in which it is to be used -- that is, from the outside in, with knives and spoons to the right of the plate and forks to the left. Knives are always placed with the cutting edge facing the plate. Leave about a half-inch space between flatware. Align flatware and plates one inch from the table's edge.
• The most formal table is set with a white linen damask tablecloth (over a pad to protect the table) that falls no more than 18 inches from the edge of the table, and linen damask napkins that are at least 20 inches square. In formal settings, the napkin is placed on the first-course plate or to the left of the forks. There are no rules for its placement at less formal settings; just make sure it's easily accessible.
• According to Emily Post's Etiquette: The Definitive Guide to Manners, Completely Revised and Updated by Peggy Post (HarperCollins, 2004), if you must excuse yourself from the table, set your napkin at the left of your setting in loose folds, soiled parts hidden; don't crumple or fold neatly. Ditto at the end of the meal.
The semiformal setting
This is as formal as it gets for a lot of us. The good stuff is used but can be mixed with less formal elements, like stainless-steel or silver-plated flatware, or less ornate stemware instead of cut or etched crystal. You might also decide to show off a beautiful table by using a table runner instead of a formal cloth.
Plates For this setting, we opted to forgo a service plate (also known as a charger); instead there's a dinner plate topped with a salad plate, since salad will be served first at this particular meal. The bread-and-butter plate sits above the forks, with a knife resting on it.
Flatware Since salad is the first course, the smaller fork is first on the left. The spoon at the top is for dessert. If a dessert fork is not required (say for a mousse or sherbet), as in this case, the spoon appears solo.
Glasses Mix crystal or glass stemware as you like for semiformal settings, grouping them at top right. Our trio: a white wineglass (left), red wineglass, and water glass at right for access throughout the meal. Many etiquette books place the water glass on the inside.
The informal brunch
Did you know? Flatware, rather than silverware, is a more accurate term because not all forks, knives and spoons are made of silver; flatware refers to utensils made of any kind of metal. In some places, especially the United Kingdom, the term cutlery is also used.
The rules aren't hard and fast for informal meals like brunch. Let your menu be the guide. Here's how we set our table.
Plates and bowls Since this brunch starts with cereal or granola, we set a bowl on top of the plate. A large plate is best since brunch menus usually include eggs, other hot dishes and some salads.
Flatware A fork, knife and cereal spoon should suffice. If you're serving salads before the hot course, you may wish to add a salad fork. The teaspoon can sit right on the saucer.
Glasses and cups A goblet for juice or mimosas sits above the knife. The cup and saucer can move to the right when the goblet is cleared and tea and coffee are served. For brunches when tea and coffee are consumed throughout the meal, the cup and saucer would sit at the right, above the knife. Add an elegant note by using goblets instead of plain juice or highball glasses at a holiday brunch.