A long time ago, way before those little perforated cartons of cereal were invented, inhabitants of the civilized world sat down to their meals before lace-encrusted tables and gorged themselves on joints of beef with utensils made of silver.
And though paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and plastic knives and forks have crept onto the American dining table like insects, silver is still with us. It's in a drawer in the buffet cabinet, about to be dusted off and polished for the holiday dinner party season.
But, except maybe at this time of year, nobody entertains at home any more. It's easier to swallow the huge expense of reserving a table for 12 at a restaurant and have the staff deal with the food and the formalities, and let everyone (sometimes even the waiter) go home feeling gypped.
Chalk it up to the death of the servant class, or that women spend more time running their careers and less time running around in the kitchen. In a perfect world, their husbands would do that, but they'd still probably be left with the job of selecting china patterns.
"People definitely judge a household by what they see when they sit down," says Sarah Hanley, a manager at Villeroy and Boch whose South Coast Plaza outlet specializes in fine china. "It's a presentation of the host's personality."
Hanley says setting a beautiful table doesn't have to be a lofty pursuit limited to the pages of a Jane Austen novel or White House state dinners. By shedding their grandmother's inhibitions, most people can manage to conjure the proper ambience for about what it cost to feed those 12 hungry people. And they'll score points for tradition.
Hanley's goal is to set free the average homemaker imprisoned by wedding gift china so fancy she is terrified to use it.
"People tend to be ultra-conservative when they venture out to buy china and silver for the first time. It doesn't have to be that way," she says. "And the china you use doesn't have to be made of bone, and the silver can be stainless steel."
Part of Hanley's job is to administer protocol to her customers at Villeroy and Boch. There she finds herself carefully adopting the role of Miss Manners while advising her customers on the correct number of forks to use for a three-course meal as opposed to a five-course meal, and when and if finger bowls (a dying icon, at best) are necessary. All of this in a world where slamming down a hamburger while steering onto the San Diego Freeway is the accepted norm of taking a meal.
Of course, the dinner party used to serve as the primary excuse for exhibiting one's social status.
"Victorian women had over 1,800 pieces of silver on the table at one time," says Mary Reynolds, a sales associate at South Coast Plaza's exclusive sterling and crystal store, Lucy Zahran Inc. Among them: a sterling lettuce fork for serving individual pieces of lettuce; a sterling corn scraper; a special spoon for pudding; an elongated spoon for reaching into canisters of horseradish--maybe even a knife rest, "so they wouldn't always have to wash out those big linens," Reynolds says.
But the rules for setting a table have changed somewhat to keep up with the microwaveable social graces of the late 20th Century.
"The trend is toward more formal entertaining," says Helen Russell, manager at the Lenox China Store in South Coast Plaza. "New tableware can be combined with family heirlooms to create an understated elegance that is nostalgic in mood."
Hanley says you should start with the basics: white dinner plates are a good background, to which can be added different patterns to suit different occasions. Bone china is always the most formal, she says, but a good porcelain is also a good bet. "And don't be afraid of trim," Hanley advises. "There's nothing wrong with trim."
So if that sounds like a manageable pursuit, here are the five basic pieces that Hanley says comprise the well-healed place setting: the basic dinner plate, the salad plate, a teacup and saucer, a bread and butter dish and a soup bowl that doubles as a cereal bowl.
Reynolds suggests these flatware complements: dinner forks, butter knives, salad forks, soupspoons and teaspoons.
Extras may include open vegetable-salad bowls (Hanley suggests keeping at least two on hand); a gravy boat (although gravy is a bit of a dinosaur in these cholesterol-conscious times); an oval or round platter (for those big productions, like the one you're contemplating for Christmas dinner); sandwich trays (for buffets); and cake plates ("cakes look nicer on a pedestal"). There are also butter dishes and margarine pots, egg cups, napkin rings, ad infinitum.
And there are many choices when it comes to bowls. The basic soup (and cereal), the rimmed soup bowl, the cream soup bowl, a bowl for fruit, custard, rice and eggs. "Bowls can be very confusing," Hanley says.