Ordering a new Worcester porcelain dinner service might not be something most people would do when adjusting to the complete loss of sight brought on by a hunting accident, but George William Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry (1722–1809), did exactly that. In order to increase his enjoyment of meals, he chose a pattern with a raised decoration of rosebuds and leaves that had originated about 100 years earlier, not at Worcester but at Chelsea. With this dinner service, a version of which is still available and named “Blind Earl” in his honor, George William was able to feel the decorative elements on each plate even if he couldn’t see them.
I can empathize with the earl and remember his story every time I scissor open a microwaved frozen dinner and squeeze the contents onto a favorite plate. Certainly the unadorned mix of food from Lean Cuisine looks and tastes so much more appetizing when presented attractively. Leighton Coleman, an interior designer and a popular host on Long Island’s North Shore, wholeheartedly agrees with the tradition of dressing up the fare and says, “I always try to eat takeaway with a silver fork. I have one orphaned implement for that express purpose—a heavy 1867 Tiffany piece that once belonged to a great-great-grandmother. I like to imagine the Gilded Age dinner parties this fork witnessed and ponder what happened to the rest of the set while using it to eat chicken tikka masala in front of the TV.”
Jean-Guy Proulx, a well-respected classical musician and deservedly popular host of Québec City, also enjoys the private appreciation of his special things. “Everything starts with oneself and making an effort for a solitary meal is also a good way to rehearse presentations you might want to use on a larger scale later on. When I am alone, I like to use my best china, the best things I have. For my fortieth birthday I bought a set of Rosenthal porcelain—it ended up taking me five years to own the whole set and that makes it even more valuable for me.”
Depending on accoutrements to enhance the enjoyment of meals is no new thing. Successful restaurants have always relied on presentation to enrich their offerings and enormous industries flourish from the support of customers convinced that a pretty table will make their food, and even their lives, somehow happier and more enjoyable.
When entertaining in his picture-perfect eighteenth-century house, Leighton foregoes delivery from the local Indian restaurant, turns off the television, and adjourns to the dining room. “I believe that beautiful china, fine crystal, good silver, and creative tabletop design improves the taste of food. Especially with my cooking!”
“I find,” he adds, “that a good table setting , as well as good conversation, builds the anticipation of what will be served; it creates the ambience and ultimately whets the appetite.”
Jean-Guy Proulx puts it this way: “I think that we eat with our eyes. When the time comes to sit at the table, if the food is well presented and nice to look at, my experience tells me that the dishes will actually taste better.”
“You eat with your eyes,” echoes Jacqueline Drake, a lady who entertains often in each of her four homes. “Each place has its own format,” she explains. “In New York and Florida I tend to have large, seated, formal dinners. In Aspen, my husband Rod and I like to do barbecues, making sure everybody has a seat. In Westchester, I welcome guests on a smaller, more intimate scale. I might use different settings at all these places because I love my china and glassware and it’s all fun for me. I really have no favorites—I like all of it and have really enjoyed collecting it over the years. And for my guests, the various settings they know I can produce provide a wonderful element of surprise.”
Baron François-Xavier de Sambucy de Sorgue, husband of Princess Chantal of France, provides another perspective on the role of attractive presentations. “It is important,” he says, “to make your guests feel that they are honored, that they are particularly privileged people for being at your home, at your table, and an important way to do this is to provide a special environment. At our house in Provence, for example, our favorite setting is based on our collection of Flora Danica, the Danish porcelain that was originally made for Catherine the Great who, alas, never used it.”
Silly Catherine. The Empress clearly didn’t appreciate what the people interviewed here are saying.
Alix Jacobs is a design consultant and events planner based on Philadelphia’s Main Line. “For me,” she says, “the visual presentation is paramount. Just as ‘clothes make the man,’ food presentation makes the meal. It impacts everything which follows—the actual consumption of the meal and the ultimate success or failure of the entire experience.”
Alix goes on to explain, “I run weddings and I always get involved in the decor and the tabletop setup. I tell my clients that the presentation needs to be amazing. And moreover, even if the food and wine are only passable, the meal will still be a succès fou. If you are not drawn to the table because it is beautiful and glamorous or fun, you will not enjoy or remember whatever is placed before you.
“I think,” she concludes, “that in heaven I will set tables. And have a cook.”
Not surprisingly, most of those interviewed mentioned the role of nostalgia in creating beautiful presentations for meals.
“One of my happiest memories,” recalls Leighton Coleman, “was watching my grandmother set her dining table with the help of her butler. She was very confident about which silver and china she wanted to use and did her own flower arrangements. Of course she never allowed me to eat in the dining room at that age since she was concerned that any of her grandchildren might break things. So she had us eat in the kitchen’s dining room on a Georgian tilt-top dining table set with Quimper and Flow Blue. Funny to think that both of those are now sought after by many serious collectors, but it was what my grandmother deemed the nursery china should be. To this day, sighting Quimper and Flow Blue make me shudder.”
Jean-Guy Proulx remembers seasonal flowers were always on his family’s table even though he was an only child and the family was a small one. He adds, “My memories also involve the delicious smells associated with food —soups, meats, sauces, vegetables. Those smells still inspire me.”
Alix Jacobs also credits the impact of the past when she decorates a table. “My favorite settings involve memories—family pieces from my mother and grandmother, acquired in China when they were living there. And I especially remember certain details from my childhood—the green Chinese service platters shaped as leaves, the butter dish that held ice in a pierced tray below.”
Perhaps partly explaining her own love of these delightful settings, Jackie Drake recalls, “My mother’s table was always beautiful—always a truly appealing setting with special tablecloths for different childhood occasions. I remember one with special embroidered corners—I think my sister still has it.”
The appeal of nostalgia notwithstanding, the joys of one artifact from the past—finger bowls—have escaped most people today.
François-Xavier de Sambucy de Sorgue sentimentally remembers his mother using them and floating flower petals on their surfaces, but he and his wife no longer use them. In a practical mode, Leighton Coleman, who inherited a set of eighteen monogrammed ones, gave away some as potpourri holders and uses the rest when serving shrimp. “I fill the cut-glass part with shaved ice and carefully arrange the shrimp and some parsley in a swirl pattern in the bowl.” Jean-Guy Proulx uses them only when serving shellfish but adds, “A hot, wet hand towel is easier.” Jackie Drake finds any use for them awkward and somewhat pretentious, but Alix Jacobs offered a different perspective.
“I must admit it’s been a while since I have seen them used,” she says, “but now that I think about them, I’m going to make a point of bringing them back. Anything that keeps guests at the table enjoying the occasion is a good thing!”
Point taken. And I am reminded of one formidable and humorless New York grande dame who used them at all meals, even if she was only dining with one other person. “If you don’t use finger bowls all the time,” she explained, “the servants are apt to get lazy and try to skip over that part of a meal.”
So, if you like the idea of finger bowls and if you’re comfortable with them (or if you’re worried that your servants might get sloppy), the advice seems to be to use them. There are, however, various other things which should be avoided. Too much formality can be off-putting and uncomfortable. Moreover, there’s no point in overdoing the decoration: too many ornaments on the table can be mistaken for favors; glitter on the tablecloth tends to end up on people’s clothes and in their hair; and feathers in a centerpiece have been known to molt.
Bottom line, making an effort has special rewards and setting the table needn’t cost the earth. As François-Xavier de Sambucy de Sorgue points out, “Dining with style is not a question of budget; people with taste always know how to do things with a certain panache.” And, practically, Leighton Coleman suggests you “shop at estate and garage sales and flea markets for interesting period plates and other tabletop items. Then for food, go to Trader Joe’s. When it’s placed on pretty china, no one will ever know.”
Leighton also suggests another possible perk of entertaining with pretty things and confides, “I never use or collect dishwasher-safe china. It just doesn’t elevate the table in the same way vintage Minton, Wedgwood, and Sèvres can. And then there is nothing as satisfying as hand washing your plates after a delightful evening of good company.”
The image of the elegant Leighton Coleman, up to his elbows in soapsuds, washing dishes after a dinner party, is one to cheer the heart.