Friday, November 5, 2010

A Lost Art.... Setting a Correct Table

   For many years I had the privilege of co-sponsoring the largest tablescaping competition in America.  Held yearly at the Los Angeles County Fair, many competitors put a whole year's worth of time into designing tables in an effort to win top prizes, even if the themes were not announced until just a few short months prior to the competition itself.  
The was a "booth" from a speakeasy a la "Chicago"
   I have many memories from my years of sponsoring and judging, but there were often times that I had to back up my calls on tables which were not quite right, with regard to etiquette.  Yet it was several questionable etiquette decisions that led to me leaving my card at the information booth after viewing the tables for the first time.   
Me judging a Military themed table.
  I went to the fair with the family in the early 1990s. Getting  out of the heat, we all wandered into the Home Arts building and spotted the tables. Viewing the tables, reading the corresponding menus submitted by the competitors and the judges comments, I noticed several people had been docked points when a table was set perfectly.  Other tables that won the top prizes, were set incorrectly. I overheard other fair goers mentioning some of the same errors.

Christmas table with ornate custom tablecloth.  
   At a nearby information booth, I asked who had judged the tables. Told the judges were retired Home Economics teachers, I gave my business card to the woman in the booth an asked that it be passed along, noting the judges made several errors.  I forgot all about it until the following spring when I received a call from the head of that department, asking me to judge.  I was more than happy to judge table settings.  I had enjoyed setting the table at my grandmother's house, and even at my friends' homes when I was young.  It is truly a lost art.

   That first year, the 24 tables, divided up into 6 different themes, were each set 3 different times.  They would stay on exhibit for about a week, then new competitors would set new tables, and so on.  The first judge I worked with was about 35 years older than me.  To her, I was just a young pup with an etiquette business.  Now, there is no degree, nor government agency, nor oversight committee, or any other actual certification for being an etiquette instructor regardless of what some companies charge unsuspecting new instructors for bogus certification. But this woman had a degree in Home Ec. and she had started judging the tables before we were even scheduled to begin. "I've already picked the winners. You can help with the comments." was her opening line after I introduced myself.  Huh?!?  Was she kidding?  No, she was serious.
Stunning Asian themed tables
  She said she had been judging tables, preserved foods, baked foods, etc... at several county fairs for years.  She was a bit blasé about the whole thing, but I wanted to check the tables out for myself.  I didn't want to step on her toes, so I figured I would go through the "winners" with her and see if I concurred.  I found a glaring error on the first table set for 4, that she had deemed a 1st place table.   

  "According to the card, this is a formal dinner?  Why are there cups and saucers for coffee at the table?  That's incorrect."  She disagreed with me, but I stood my ground.  I am sorry, but at a formal dinner, one does not set coffee cups, saucers and spoons at the table.  That is the rule. I didn't make it up. A luncheon?  Yes.  But at a formal dinner table?  No. Check any etiquette book."  We moved to the next table. "Why are there bowls at the settings? There is no soup or other food on this menu that would require a bowl to be on top of the dinner plate."  I was told that the bowls were there because "... they came with the set of dishes."  She was serious.  She felt it was perfectly okay to have a large soup bowl at each place setting, with no soup on the menu. 

   It was at about this point the head of the department came over to see how we were getting on.  The other judge was not pleased with me, but the head of the department was interested in what I had to say and agreed with my calls on the proper etiquette. There was a bit of a chill in the room and it wasn't the air conditioning. We made it through the first tables and I went home exhausted.  
Close-up of safari setting
In all fairness, the experience the other judge brought to the table was extremely helpful. She made some great observations with regard to the custom table cloths & napkins that many competitors made. The tables are too big for 2 settings & too small for 4, so table cloths had to be customized for the tables to look their best.  She also noticed other little artistic details that I wouldn't have picked up on. She also knew a lot about the foods on the menus. I had never given much thought to menus unless I was ordering something in a restaurant, so that was a plus.
Details from a Safari themed table
  The following week I was working with another retiree.  A friend of the first judge.  She was very enthusiastic and said, "The rule is you have to say 3 nice things about each table."  I hadn't heard that rule before with regard to comments.  It may sound easy, but if a table is set completely wrong, with forks on the right, spoons, knives and glasses on the left, plates askew, and one hot mess of a design, how does one come up with 3 nice things to say?  

 We were half-way through the tables when the department head came out with a letter of complaint from an entrant in the previous settings.  It was a 4 page, typed letter, complete with a copy of page from an old Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt etiquette book.  A book I have in my library.  It was about the formal dinner table with the cup, saucer and teaspoon.  "She is very upset!  She was even in the newspaper setting this table up.  She is a long time competitor!"  I read the letter and pointed out that the entrant had included the exact rule I had cited when docking her points.  "The rule is stated right here.  She provided the rule and is upset that we marked her off?" I offered to call the entrant and explain that she really hadn't read the book she provided us the portion from. 

 She was very gracious over the phone. "My mom showed me the rule after I sent that letter!  I missed it.  I am so sorry."  She told me she had been competing for a while and had even helped with her mother's tables before she was old enough to compete herself. Now, she and her mother competed against one another. She mentioned that neither one had never been marked off for cups and saucers before. I told her I hoped to make the judging more uniform in the coming years, and I did just that.

Posted are a few of my favorites from the 10 years I judged.  I will post more about the competition in future blog posts, and some tips from top prize winning competitors (Eda Bierman & Candace Mayeron) I have come to know as friends since I stopped judging.

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