Dinner takes on a variety of forms—a quick bite, party buffet, or getting together with family on a relaxing Sunday. There are also formal dinners when linen, China, and sterling silver are gathered and arranged for the best of friends, out-of-town guests, and clients, all of whom will enjoy and be impressed with your magnificent presentation and culinary talents.
In her essay, Setting the Table, author Evangeline Holland shares some startling facts about the progression of formal dinners, from the Middle Ages (500 AD, after the fall of the Roman Empire) to the turn of the 20th century.
It seems that sharing food in a communal setting was considered a sign of stature and significance. According to Holland’s research, “…the table setting included the Salt Cellar, which was the first thing to put on the table. The salt was far more than a condiment—to sit above the salt was to sit in the place of honor, and until the salt was put upon the table, no one could know which seat would be allotted to him or her.” During the same period, tables would hold massive displays of silver items, holding the poultry, meat, fish, and vegetables; and of course, loaves of bread.
What was missing from the tables of these early feasts were utensils, the very items we’re accustomed to finding as a dinner guest. We learn from Holland that; “Spoons and knives…were not furnished by a host, (and forks did not exist), but were brought by guests whose servants, so equipped, cut the meat and carved the food for each person. The guests also had no plates and few knives, but ate with their hands and threw the refuse on the floors. The cleanliness of the cloth, or Nappe, was of paramount importance and a matter of great pride.”
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