Table Manners: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
Drawn on the ‘Grace Before a Meal’ painting by the French artist Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin is the scene of two young children settling down to eat. The table is placed in the kitchen of a house with pans and pots beautifully arranged on the walls and small toys put aside mid-play. A cloth is on the table. The chairs are arranged just so for the children to sit on. And the silver cutlery is placed delicately for their well-mannered use. It is the 18th century depiction of mealtime etiquette, with tiny petticoats primped and dutiful servants lying in wait.
Ever charming as this scene may be, it holds the perfect counter-marker for exploring just how much the topic of etiquette and table manners has changed for all of us, here in the 21st century. Change is rightly said to be inevitable and is a universal phenomenon that applies to every aspect of human existence. With no singular account of the genesis of mealtime etiquette in the evolution of mankind, it's pertinent to admit that somewhere along the way, table manners became quite important to those who considered themselves civilized.
Table manners – from how a host arranges the tableware at a place setting down to how a guest holds their utensils – are said to define the meaning and experience of a meal and even one’s status in society. In the middle ages, Europeans had quaint ceremonies when it came to food, and their manners were simply centered around the avoidance of getting themselves or their garments too greasy or stained.
Though we are long past the middle ages, one might draw parallels to present day America with the common practice of using our hands to eat many of the foods most loved by consumers today. In some regards, this is a complete departure from what we typically count as table manners – greasy chicken wings, burgers, pizzas, etc. filling the tables and tummies of diners. However, if viewed through the lens of centuries past, this was a form of table manners all its own, just not exactly an advancement on the subject matter. Thanks to beacons of hospitality hope like The Emily Post Institute, though, the art and science of propriety and presentation has not been entirely lost in the modern age.
Fine Dining or Casual Dining at Home: The Dining Table Set Up
Most modern homes today are designed with an open floor plan in mind, where the dining room, kitchen, breakfast nook and even other rooms in the home are all merged into a central living space. Given this communal layout, the kitchen, formal dining room, and living room (sadly, including the all-mighty and all-consuming television) share the same space, and consequently, erase any perceived formality of dining.
While setting a proper table for either formal dining or casual dining may look complex to anyone other than Emily Post, the truth is, it’s not really that tricky. The core principle is simply adhering to the arrangement of the utensils in their order of use. Another rule of thumb is the placement of forks to the left of the dinnerware, with the knives and spoons to the right. In general, the place setting design should be arranged with only the exact number of utensils that will be used throughout the meal. Lastly, the placement of tableware accessories, like the butter dish and salt and pepper shakers can be handled in a slightly more loose and creative fashion across the tablescape. This is quite unlike flatware rests, though, which should be positioned directly and mindfully under the neck of each utensils at each table service.
Formal Place Settings:
The formal place setting could be described as an informal place setting, just with many more dishes, utensils, glassware, etc. What guides where the utensils are placed is essentially the order of the menu, working from the outside in. In general, the cutting edge of the knives is placed towards the dinner plate. Glassware is set above the knives and spoons to the right, while the napkin is often placed either on top of the dinner plate, itself, or to the left of the forks. Sometimes, the napkin is placed underneath the forks, however, when using flatware rests to elevate the cutlery, it makes the most sense to set napkins just off to the side as not to disturb the elegant utensil rest arrangement.
As a sophisticated touch toward the end of the meal, dessert spoons and dessert forks can be brought to the table just as that course is served. By using flatware rests throughout a meal, diners are made to feel quite special because having utensils elevated safely up and off of a tabletop feels a lot cleaner and looks more presentable.
White linens are considered best for formal place settings. Although, colored tablecloths or mats are also used in formal settings with the inclusion of other strategically curated and colorful tableware accessories. Fine dining accessories like candles, place cards, and floral arrangements are used for the beautification of the formal place setting and in some cases for catered events and special occasions. Tablecloths must be squared off and evened up on each side of the dining table and should drop between 12 to 18 inches from the edge. The diagram below is a typical example of a formal place setting.
Informal Place Settings:
The informal or casual place setting does not follow strict rules. However, the number of utensils included in an informal setting can vary, but are still arranged in an orderly fashion. There are just far fewer of them.
The dining plate is usually the first thing set on the table and is placed at the center. In many restaurants today, though, dinnerware often does not arrive until the meal actually arrives. This provides all the more reason that tableware accessories like flatware rests are important in casual dining place settings. By providing a clean, elevated spot to place resting utensils, diners feel protected from whatever might be on an unfamiliar tabletop. Without a dinner plate or bread plate set out on the casual tablescape initially, and with one’s napkin already placed in one's lap, there would be no other spot for cutlery to sit, if not for the cutlery rest.
Since time immemorial, our yearning for survival, development, and preservation made wise men inventors of technology, which has allowed life to be safer and more comfortable for all of us. Among some of the most common, yet indispensible inventions are utensils. They have enabled better food preparation, table service and consumption all around. Due to cultural differences, evolving tastes, and scientific food safety progress, these essential tools have continued to improve and enhance our experience of food over time. As important as the fork is to us today, so should be the flatware rest upon which to safely set it. Not only does it protect a diner from invisible contaminants in their surroundings, in fact, it also beautifies the entire cutlery ensemble. They just make table settings more attractive to behold, classier to handle, and allow utensils to function as the clean and hygienic eating tools that they are intended to be.
And whether we're speaking about table manners from yesterday, today, or tomorrow, feeling clean and hygienic is simply more civilized.