Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Table Talk: Lap Dance

Everyone knows that when you sit down at the table, the napkin goes on the lap, but then what? And what about if you are at someone's house, do you wait to place your napkin, or do it right away? No one wants to feel like a rube at the table, so here is the "Napkin 411" (wake the children!!) :

In a restaurant:
As soon as you are seated, remove the napkin from your place setting, unfold it, and put it in your lap. Do not shake it open. At some very formal restaurants, the waiter may do this for the diners, but it is not inappropriate to place your own napkin in your lap, even when this is the case.
The napkin rests on the lap till the end of the meal. Don't clean the cutlery or wipe your face with the napkin. NEVER use it to wipe your nose!
If you excuse yourself from the table, loosely fold the napkin and place it to the left of your plate (placing it on the right side wouldn't be wrong, but for the sake of consistency, use teh left!). Do not refold your napkin or wad it up on the table either. Never place your napkin on your chair.

At the end of the meal, leave the napkin semi-folded at the left side of the place setting. It should not be crumpled or twisted; nor should it be folded. The napkin must also not be left on the chair (what is it about the chair?!).

At a private dinner party:
The meal begins when the host or hostess unfolds his or her napkin. This is your signal to do the same. Place your napkin on your lap, completely unfolded if it is a small luncheon napkin or in half, lengthwise, if it is a large dinner napkin. Do not shake it open.

The napkin rests on the lap till the end of the meal. 

The host will signal the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table. Once the meal is over, you too should place your napkin neatly on the table to the left of your dinner plate. (Do not refold your napkin, but don't wad it up, either.) 

So, while this may not be the lap dance you had in mind, now you know everything there is to know about the use of napkins at the table- happy eating!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It takes a village...

Kudos to the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and J. Wesley Tann for doing the right thing! The mayor and Mr. Tan have teamed together to sponsor and teach the basics of dining and social etiquette to the citizens of this "hard-scrapple" city. The story has been repeated on many online sites, and I couldn't think of a better, more uplifting message.

For Mr. Tann, "Good living is easy. All it just takes is practice." And he should know. Mr. Tann, 83,  was one of the first black fashion designers to open a shop on New York City's Fashion Avenue, and he designed clothing for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leontyne Price, the famed black opera singer.

Tann's students include mothers, fathers and children all taking part in a city-sponsored program that Mayor Cory A. Booker hopes will take politeness and manners from "abstract concepts" to daily essentials. The city hopes that by improving the niceties shared among Newark's residents the quality of their lives and their futures will be markedly improved -- one fine meal and one properly executed place setting at a time.

The class will heighten awareness and appreciation of basic manners and dining skills in daily life by teaching handshakes, public behavior, and basic telephone skills. Students will be served a three-course meal prepared by award-winning Chef LeRoy Baldwin and served by wait staff to simulate dining in an up-scale restaurant complete with a formal table setting: tablecloths, china, flatware, and glassware. The students will learn table-setting, use of utensils, use of a napkin, European and American dining styles, dining posture, and appearance. 

Catherine J. Lenix-Hooker, manager of the city's department of recreation and cultural affairs, said that this program is important "so that they (the participants) are able to have the kinds of social skills that make them very productive and at ease in different kinds of social situations."

Youth from Newark often bear the heavy burden of being poor or working class, she said, or the bad reputation that can hang over even this city's most promising young people. Thus the importance of "learning the language of the silver."

"Our youth need to know how to conduct themselves in a public setting -- some of the dos and don'ts," Lenix-Hooker said. "If everything else is equal, it will help them break through these barriers."

All it takes is a resource and you, too, can teach yourself and/or your children the basics. A great website for just that is's Menu and Dining Etiquette Guide. It's a quick reference to double-check some of the finer points of eating at the table. But there are tons of these, just do a little searching. All it takes is a willingness to step in and expect more from yourself and your children around the table. 

One piece of advice: Don't correct out at a restaurant or any other public place. Save this for the safe environment of the home. You can always talk about whatever happened later, and it preserves the sometimes fragile dignity of young people. 

Manners, politeness, and niceties should never be a weapon used to make people feel superior to others. They are merely a way to honor those around you. Pay it forward. It will come back to ten-fold. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All in a day's work

11 arrangements, 4 hours, 1 tired back. Floral props for product shots and photographs for the new webpage in development. Keep a look out!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tabletop and the Single Guy

A single guy looking to entertain... Sure, he knows how to have his buddies over and watch TV, and no one is expecting the annual Super Bowl party to turn into high tea at Buckingham Palace, but sometimes he may want a bit more. Maybe for someone special, or maybe because he's just tired of beer and delivered pizzas whenever his friends come over.

I've had several friends ask about what the single guy is supposed to do. They want to have their friends over and entertain at home, and they'd like it to be a bit more than a college keg party. But they also don't want it to be fussy. They've checked online and that's what they've found: fussy.  Dinner party do's and don'ts from party planners supposedly aiming at these guys with menu planning and three day prep-schedules. But this isn't realistic, and it would probably be a bit of a disaster if undertaken.

If cooking isn't your thing, than try cocktails. Having people over after work for some drinks is a great way to entertain. It's casual, there are no great food expectations, and the rules are pretty open-ended.  There are tons of resources online for mixing drinks, but the best (and most fun) thing to do is to hang out at the best bar in town and watch. Bars can get pretty busy, but sit at the bar. A good mixologist usually is happy to talk cocktails with their customers. Ask questions, watch and learn. Not that you want to become a bartender, but it will help you understand how to mix a drink. If you end up finding a cocktail that you really like, zero in on that and watch how they make it. For a great time with friends, all you need is one really good mixed drink to serve, and it might as well be one that you like!

Now, some tips:

1. The one thing that I have learned is top-shelf liquor really does make a difference. Use what the bar uses in the drink you want to serve- after all copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes, there is more than one ingredient with alcohol, and yes they are equally important. You may not think it matters about Cointreau or St. Germain (liqueurs that are trending now in many drinks), but it does. The subtle flavors in the drink that you like didn't come from a generic bottles of hooch.

2. Anther key is fresh juices as mixers and the proper garnish, whether herb, fruit, or both. You can perfect a great margarita, but if you use a bottled sweet-and-sour mix, you're going to kill that expensive tequila. That is one thing that you can do a few nights before- buy a bag of produce and juice it. If you don't have an electric juicer, you can always get a wooden reamer or just use a fork. Room temperature fruit juices better than cold fruit, and you'll want to roll the fruit with your palm on the counter to start releasing the juices before cutting it in half (remember, you'll also want to strain off the pulp). Keep a couple of clean glass bottles around to store the juice in in the refrigerator. If the bartender you've been watching slaps a sprig of mint for your favorite drink in his hand before putting it in your glass, it is to release the oils that hit your nose first, and then flavors your drink. If it's in the drink you're serving, have a bunch of the herb in a glass with water ready to go.

3. And speaking of sweet: simple syrup is probably the easiest thing to make yourself, and it's key ingredient in a lot of cocktails. Google how to do it. Of course, you can always buy it in the liquor section of some markets, but ounce for ounce, it is more expensive than the gas you put in your car, and after all, it's just sugar and water. If you have a plastic squirt bottle, it keeps it handy in the fridge.

4. If the cocktail you love can be made in advance, make it in a quantity. I tend to favor this. If there is something that may go flat in the drink, like a mixer, I'll leave that out and have it handy for people top-off their own.  Of course it is hospitable to hand a guest at least their first drink and then let them loose on their own. I use a large glass covered jar I found at Target which was meant for storing flour, but with a ladle, it makes an inexpensive punch bowl. It holds a lot more than a pitcher or cocktail shaker, and only cost me about $8.00! Or, you could set up a serve-yourself bar with all the ingredients handy and a large card telling how to make the drink. There is something cool about the interactive aspect of this. And what can happen is guests start experimenting with the ingredients and making new discoveries. They key is having it all laid out. Either the jar/punchbowl or bottles with the mixer(s) and garnish(es) in bowls or cups, glasses, and a quantity of ice handy nearby (a cooler works if you don't have an ice bucket, but if you don't have an ice bucket- go to the hardware store and buy a galvanized pail. Clean it out and tie a bar towel around it. These also make great, inexpensive wine coolers, too! Or clean out your sink and use that!). I also have a small scoop, but you can use a small cup, as well, for scooping the ice- and if you have something handy, people will use it.

5. If you can, use real glassware- this doesn't have to be expensive, but it can separate the men from the boys... If there is a crowd and you'll never need 50 glasses again, they are easy and inexpensive to rent. Also, along with glasses, have small paper cocktail napkins. They are at every market, and again, will help raise the bar for you. If color or pattern choices are overwhelming, choose white- you'll never be wrong!

For food, all you need are some bowls of nuts- think what they had at the bar you were at. Some bowls of good chips also work, and there are a ton of interesting chips on market! But remember, you're not feeding the masses! This should be the easiest part of the gathering for you, so don't sweat this. Try doing this with some friends before you head out to dinner or the movies. Frequent test runs will help you with your game.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Effortless Elegance

Come on, with a magazine cover with title like that? If I can be elegant with little or no effort, I'm in! Well, that's the job of magazine editors- to persuade you to buy their magazines. And that is what Dara Caponigro, Editor-in-Chief of Veranda did. Don't get me wrong, the May/June issue is great, but there is a heck of a lot of effort happening on these pages. The cover photograph is beautifully styled- the hot pink geraniums tucked in a green pagoda centerpiece matching the color of the font in an otherwise colorless room is pretty great! But when you read the editorial (yes, I read the articles!) you learn that the 19th century house was sawn down the middle and moved about 65 miles to its present location in Georgia. Effortless? I think not. So I looked very closely at what may be the effortless take-aways, and was surprised at what I found. As my focus is the table, they are mostly regarding the table with some extras thrown in for good measure!

1. Branches. You can't open a shelter magazine without seeing them. They can provide sculpture and architectural interest to any room. Now the owner of the home on the cover, Furlow Gatewood, is part of John Rosselli's team and helps supply the New York "design baron" with antiques scouted from every local show in the South. And as such, he uses great antique blue and white Chinese vessels for his branches, but a simple cylinder can have an equally elegant look- or try hunting for large chemistry flasks on line. These can add even a bit more interest than a plain cylinder. Flowering, or not, branches can bring life into a room and keep your trees outside looking neat and trim, too.

2.Fruit bowls. Or should I say, giant clam shell as fruit bowl? It may take some effort to locate, especially if you're looking for a faux shell, and they aren't cheap, but once you have one, all it takes is a trip to the market and a bunch of bananas and grapes and there you go! Gatewood has his on a fabric draped table surrounded by old wicker chairs, but even without this flourish, these vessels can up the ante of "fruit bowl". In a different editorial, the fruit bowl returns in a more sophisticated way. This time it is a large porcelain bowl, but the material of the bowl is secondary to the fact that whoever filled it left some of the stems and leaves on the fruit! That simple touch of green makes the whole thing pop! Even if the lemons or oranges didn't come from your tree, tuck a few stems of leaves from one of your own trees (preferably some that "look" like they could be from the tree that grew the fruit) in your bowl along with your fruit. It will instantly elevate the statement.

3. And speaking of fruit... India Hicks, the daughter of legendary interior designer David Hicks, and one of Diana, Princess of Wales' bridesmaids, in a spread about her family home in the Bahamas, places whole pineapples on porcelain plates, crowns up,  down her table. Add some candlelight, and you have a very elegant, effortless table setting!

4. A single hydrangea stem in a narrow bud vase. I talked about these, before... I love them, but they can be tricky especially in dry climates (um yeah, "hydra"refers to water!). But they can also look beautiful, even one bloom at a time. Of course, in the editorial, these come from Gatewood's allee of hydrangeas in great terra-cotta pots that line the drive to his house, but if you don't have access to home-grown flowers, they can easily be picked up single stems at the grocery store. It may take a few times to get the height of the stem just right, which is a bit of effort, I know. Just try not to go higher than twice the height of the vase, or it gets a bit tippy. Oh, and leave a few leaves on near the neck of the vase, too! The stem in vase looks great on a chest of drawers, side table, or bed side table.

5. More stems are more. In another editorial, on a dining table is a grouping of small cups and vases filled with a few stems of garden flowers. These are then corralled on a silver tray. Presto! A centerpiece that didn't take great effort to pull off! Of course, you need the collection of vases or cups and if you don't have a silver tray, a lacquered tray or box would do the trick. Again, once you have the equipment, all it takes is a trip to the market and a few bunches of flowers that you deconstruct and place in the smaller containers and then group on a tray and you're done!

It may take a closer look, but there are tips to be had everywhere!