Polishing Up on Tableware

You're reeling a bit these days, right, guys? You were good all year, so all your friends wanted you to come to their holiday dinner parties (the "extra man" and all that). But it made you crazy. Sure, the chow was first-rate, but ramming it mouthward with the requisite gentility and grace got to be a minor nightmare.

Let's be truthful and admit that your idea of a fun dinner is one that arrives by messenger, is surrounded by cardboard, and is washed down with sparkling beverages that come in multiples of six. Utensils, vessels, napkins, plates--all the little niceties that separate us from slavering, hooting, knuckle-walking cave creatures--are unnecessary. You simply eat, drink, burp and recycle the containers (we're not barbarians, after all).

But when you sat down in front of that first formal place setting, with your name almost unrecognizable in Gothic calligraphy on that little card, you didn't know whether to ask for the gravy boat or more gut sutures: The table had enough hardware on it to perform a quadruple bypass.

Forks that looked like little King Neptune tridents, spoons that looked like everything from kettledrum mallets to dental mirrors, knives that looked like scimitars and beheading axes. It made you dizzy.

And then, in your delirium, you think of throwing one of these soirees yourself--partly as a repayment for a good time (remember, the food was terrific), and partly because somebody dared you to. But where do you turn for advice if you're normally accustomed to setting the table with a pizza cutter and a Bowie knife?

You turn to Sherry Johnson and her St. Andrew's Dining Society, a promoter of table-setting elegance and correct chow behavior in a world where kids grow up thinking food is hatched in polystyrene containers.

Johnson, an interior designer from Mission Viejo, is out to change all that. Under the banner of the society (it's named, in part, for the traditional Scottish feast day of St. Andrew on Nov. 30), Johnson has published a little booklet called "Setting the Table," which ought to fit nicely in any silverware drawer. It's Emily Post and Letitia Baldridge condensed into a quick-reference guide to flatware, service plates, glassware, cups and saucers, salt and pepper, napkins, tablecloths, candles, seating arrangements and hints on how to bring it all off--all in 11 pages.

The booklet is--thank God--illustrated. Page 4 alone, with its drawings of, count 'em, 16 different flatware implements, is enough to make the average extra man fairly pulsate with adrenaline. But not to worry: Johnson says you don't necessarily have to buy all this stuff in order to put on a big feed. Just provide enough knives, forks and spoons to handle all the dishes you plan to serve. Exotic dedicated-use items such as fish knives can come later, once you get good at it.

And, to ensure that you do, Johnson's kit includes 20 gourmet dinner recipes and--the payoff--20 menu flash cards. That's right: cards with full menus printed on one side and the correct place setting for that specific meal illustrated on the other. You can use them to eliminate the guesswork, or you can simply drill yourself relentlessly until you become a table-setting authority.

By all means, said Johnson, have the messy finger food for the Super Bowl party, but . . .

"Certainly the Super Bowl is an exception," she said, "but I think traditions have become important again and the family has become important again. That means that people are eating at home and being together more. Whether you're having a bowl of soup or a family dinner, you put the silverware in the right place."

A few well-chosen decorations too. Table ornamentation doesn't have to be fancy or excessive to be effective, just imaginative, she said. The most formal dinners may call for white tablecloths and napkins, but for more festive or seasonal events, colored or patterned linens can be used. If you have a table you want to show off, it's no sin to eliminate the tablecloth altogether and put the meals on place mats.

Centerpieces, too, can depart from tradition. They don't have to be floral or even organic. Small knickknacks or other decorative items can be used to create a small scene in the center of the table. Johnson's favorite trick is to "make a nice green arrangement that I keep on the table all the time, and when I have guests I add fresh flowers to it. Ivy and herbs are wonderful for this, and it also works with dried arrangements. It's possible to get an arrangement right out of your back yard."

Feeling a bit less lightheaded? You're not alone. Johnson said that a lack of confidence in setting a proper table transcends age, sex, even entertaining experience.

"Even among hostesses who think they knew everything," she said, "there's a lack of confidence. No matter how many times we've entertained, we're all nervous when the doorbell rings."

If you want a copy of the booklet/recipe/flash card kit (it costs $18.45 including tax and shipping), you can write to the St. Andrew's Dining Society, P.O. Box 1874, Newport Beach, Calif. 92663.

So relax. And pass the gravy boat. And that--oh, you know--that pointy thing.

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