You probably know that the fork is always placed to the left of the plate, and the knife and spoon to the right, but did you know that plates should be exactly one inch from the table edge? Or that the water glass should always be at the tip of the knife? And that the glass and cup should be straight across from each other?
These are just a few of the "rules" for properly setting a table. For Sharyl Heavin, a home economist who teaches classes in meal planning at Orange Coast College, these are also the criteria she uses while judging the table displays entered at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa.
"While I certainly judge according to creativity and originality as well, sometimes if a contest is close, it comes down to who has properly followed the rules," she said.
Featured prominently this year are tables with a patriotic theme--plenty of red, white and blue, stars and stripes, and good ol' Americana style.
"Just look around," Heavin said, pointing to the table settings on display through July 28 in the Home Arts Building. "I'd say almost a third of the entries this year have some sort of patriotic theme."
Yet, the way these table settings are presented shows differences in budget, taste and creativity.
"I think people are becoming more interested in setting a festive table," Heavin said. "More people are eating at home these days and having dinner parties again.
"If you're having a party, a creative table display can really enhance the mood. Not only that, but today time is precious. Simply understanding a few basic rules cannot only make a table more attractive, but save you time."
Setting a festive table does not need to be expensive, according to Heavin.
"If you look at many of the table settings at the fair, quite a few feature paper plates," she said. "That's where creativity comes in. And it isn't necessary to set fun tables only for holidays. You can make any day a special occasion."
Table settings entered in the contest include a "Back to School" table featuring a hand-painted tablecloth, a lunch-box centerpiece (complete with a thermos for a vase), curly straws and a variety of school supplies, such as rulers, pencils and glue, as accents. Another setting features a camping scene using bandannas as place mats, a lantern as centerpiece, tin cups, pine cones as accessories and even tiny plastic ants marching through the dinnerware.
One table setting was designed around the fair's theme of honeybees. As a centerpiece, a beehive was fashioned by twisting kraft paper into long rolled strips, then winding them around. From the hive, fuzzy dime-store bees are suspended.
"Many of the 26 entries that we have this year are created by children," Heavin said. "That just goes to show that table settings can be enjoyed by both young and old. It can make an ordinary meal seem more special."
This isn't to suggest that more formal entertaining has gone the way of the fondue pot. "For those with more classic settings, we're seeing more mirrors, candles and a return to elegance," Heavin said. "Mirrors can enhance a mood of elegance because they reflect back whatever you place on them, whether it's candles, flowers or crystal.
"Of course, candles and flowers have always been popular centerpieces, but one of the most common mistakes is using a centerpiece that's too tall. People end up having to strain their necks to see the person sitting directly across from them or in some cases, the centerpiece is simply removed to enhance visibility."
Examples of more formal settings include a "Christmas Eve dinner," complete with cranberry-colored goblets, a centerpiece of flowers and reindeer and porcelain candy canes.
A luncheon table is set with violets and china (again with a violet pattern), and a swan-shaped planter.
In her meal planning classes, Heavin has discovered that more people are interested in setting the table properly.
"We have a nice mix of students," she said. "We're seeing more men in these classes, and I've also had a few mothers and daughters. Most of my students are very interested in learning how to make table settings more attractive, yet they often don't know where to start.
"I recommend selecting a theme for a party to make it easier," she said. "For example, if the dinner is to honor a special person, choose a theme that reflects his or her interests. If nothing else, you can always focus on the season, using flowers that are in bloom or other items, such as pine cones or seashells, that instill a certain seasonal flair."
When designing a table, Heavin cautions that beauty should not overrule function.
"Part of the reason that the table is set in a certain way is to make it easier for diners," she said. "Glasses are within easy reach, as is silverware. Glasses should be set straight across so diners don't have to reach past one and run the risk of accidentally knocking it over. All the 'rules' of table setting are established for specific reasons, not simply to be fussy."