Richmond Proper: On Setting the Table

“Now and again, Miss Manners likes to frighten everyone by brandishing weird silverware. Lettuce forks. Ice cream knives. Bonbon spoons. She leaps out at kindly folk who say, ‘Etiquette is just simple consideration of others,’ and demands, ‘Oh, yes? Then what about THIS?'” — Judith Martin

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” — Emily Post

“Now and again, Miss Manners likes to frighten everyone by brandishing weird silverware. Lettuce forks. Ice cream knives. Bonbon spoons. She leaps out at kindly folk who say, ‘Etiquette is just simple consideration of others,’ and demands, ‘Oh, yes? Then what about THIS?'” — Judith Martin

After reviewing the most authoritative sources on the topic, I’ve found that the world of place settings is a jungle indeed. With so many pitfalls and so many villainous objects to arrange in just such a way, skimming the pages dedicated to the subject in most etiquette books leaves me more confused than informed. But I believe that all the madness produced by so many forks with so many functions was originally intended as a courtesy. Back in some dim time, our ancestors developed very specific tools for eating very specific foods, so that one could always have the very best implement for the task at one’s disposal. After all, an oyster fork does make eating shellfish easier, as the shells are often too crannied to be probed by a much larger dinner fork. But oh, wise ancestors! When you started introducing marrow scoops, pickle forks, and sugar nippers, you went too far. What started as a way to ease the handling of awkward foods turned into an even more awkward life of nonchalantly trying to figure out which utensil to use.

A simple, standardized set of tools seems like the most sensible way to set the table. Most of us will rarely (if ever) attend dinners that require what Miss Manners calls a “nightmare table setting,” with 40 different objects arranged around our plate that we are expected to know how to use. So instead we will focus on the basic table setting, which works for everything from a family dinner to a sit-down wedding feast. Below is a diagram from the Emily Post Institute which shows how to lay out each piece for a simple place setting:

basic_sm

Some characteristics to note:

  • Repeat after me: fork, plate, knife, spoon. Fork, plate, knife, spoon. And so on, and so forth.
  • If no spoon is necessary to eat anything that’s being served, it can be omitted.
  • The napkin can be laid to the left of the fork, or right on the plate.
  • The bread and butter plate and knife are not a requirement, and can be left off if not needed.
  • Knives are placed with the blade facing the plate.

How to remember which items to use:

  • Make an “OK” sign with your right hand, and mirror that with your left hand. It will look like a “B” and “D.” This will remind you that your bread plate is on the left of your plate, and your drink is on the right of your plate. Good to know, for those of us who are prone to drink from the glasses of others.
  • If you do find yourself at a more formal dinner where there are multiple forks and knives (and even spoons), just remember to work from the outside in. Use the fork farthest away from your plate first, for example.
  • If someone else forgets which utensil to use for which course, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill by correcting them. As pointed out by wikihow.com in “How to Be a Good Host in the Southern Tradition”, “Do not confuse etiquette and manners. It’s bad etiquette to use your dinner fork on your salad. It’s bad manners to comment that someone used their dinner fork on their salad. In the southern tradition, manners always trumps etiquette.”
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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her husband, Dan, and their two cats.

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