Serving Meals || Home Comforts

 


CHAPTER - 6

Serving Meals

Effect of an attractively set table … Offering food graciously … Tablecloths … Placemats and runners … Centerpieces and candles … Tables set for ordinary family meals … How to set the table … Serving the meal … Order of courses … Filling and removing dishes and glasses … Silver, china, and glassware … A beginner’s set of china, flatware, and glassware … Dining rooms

Meals at home, however informal, should be treated as events that matter. All members of the household, including working parents and busy teenagers, will be happier if they take whatever trouble is needed to be home for meals regularly. Being on time is necessary if meals are to be a success. Otherwise, why should the cook take the trouble to get food ready for dinner? No one, children or adults, should leave the table except for the most important reasons until the meal is over. Turn on the answering machine and let the telephone ring. Turn the television and radio off, and put away books, papers, games, and toys. This puts the focus of the household on the meal and helps people to be emotionally present for it.

The Importance of an Attractive Table

The attractiveness of the table helps people give a meal the respect it deserves. Even everyday, informal meals merit an appealing presentation. Although on special occasions most people want to try for an especially beautiful and more formal table, it is the way you do things every day that sets the tone of the home. A table nicely set draws people to a meal and evokes the right attitudes for enjoying it.

Adults sometimes linger at the table over coffee or drinks to enjoy long discussions. Children should not be required to stay for this, of course, but they should certainly be encouraged to stay and listen quietly. Listening to the grownups talk around a table is one of the major ways children learn about being an adult—how you argue yet stay friends, how to tell a story or a joke, what you laugh at, what is worth talking about, and what ideas and values you respect. This is only one of those ordinary but important things that happen best in the context of a meal.

Offering Food

In offering food, the right touch is light. No one should feel pressured into eating. No one should fear that your happiness depends on their approval of your food. On the other hand, the right touch is not indifferent. Food offered with warmth and pleasure makes the meal feel nurturing. Accept compliments gracefully.

Announce the menu in advance so people can pace themselves for the greatest possible enjoyment of the meal. As with most announcements, brevity is best. Cooks or hosts who discuss every dish at length can make guests feel as if they are expected to be worshippers at a shrine.

Setting the Table

In the age of the automatic dishwasher it is just as easy to have an attractive table as a spartan one. The extra dishes take no longer to wash afterward when the machine does it for you.

Tablecloths. A tablecloth is always pleasing, especially at dinner. The cloth protects the table, protects the dishes, reduces noise and breakage, and looks beautiful. The reason to use real cloth, instead of functional plastic, is that it indicates to you, your family, and your guests the importance of the occasion. Cloth napkins are preferable to paper ones, and you might decide to use these even when you do not use a tablecloth. Whatever you may do in the family, cloth napkins are preferable when you have guests.

White damask is used only for dinner, and nothing but white damask or something equally elegant will do for a really formal dinner. (See chapter 16, “The Natural Fibers,” page 235, for a discussion of damask.) Colored damask is not too elegant for any other meal, including informal family dinners. Other elegant cloths, such as those of lace and fancy cutwork, should be reserved for dinner or more formal luncheons. Prints and colored cloths of all sorts are good for any ordinary home meals.

Laying and laundering tablecloths and napkins creates no extra work for you, beyond larger washloads. Ironing them, alas, takes time. If you have no time for this and cannot either persuade an older child to try this pleasant work or pay someone else to do it, you have two alternatives. One is to buy wrinkle-resistant tablecloths, even though these are less desirable in other ways. See the discussion of resin treatments on pages 229-30 in chapter 15, “Transformations,” and chapter 18, “Fabrics That Work,” pages 271-73. The other is to use them wrinkled and to do what you can to reduce wrinkles without ironing. See suggestions on page 349. But most of us balk at the idea of using wrinkled cloths for guests. The old-fashioned electric rotary irons (or “mangles”) that are now making a modest comeback let you iron many tablecloths almost without effort but produce less good results on cloths with extensive cutwork or embroidery.

A century ago, proper Victorian households did not hesitate to use tablecloths and napkins more than once, but this has come to seem unacceptable in the day of automatic washing machines. My own rule would be never to count on using a cloth for more than one meal, but often you will find that it is clean enough—when there are no guests—to use a second or even a third time, with careful brushing and spot-cleaning. If you put on a clean, everyday cloth for dinner, it may well make it through the next day’s breakfast and lunch. But if you have used an elegant cloth for dinner, it will be best to remove it and use a more appropriate one for breakfast. Napkins, too, can be reused if they are still clean. If you reuse napkins, everyone should have his or her own unique, identifiable napkin ring; replace the napkin in the ring after meals.

SPREADING THE CLOTH

Before spreading the cloth, lay a padding, liner, or “silence cloth” of felt, blanketing, or some similar cloth to help protect the table from warm serving dishes (truly hot ones will require trivets or other more effective protection) and reduce noise and the chance of breakage. The padding also helps the tablecloth look and hang better. You can buy one made for the purpose that will fasten around the table legs and not slip, or make one by cutting or folding an old flannel sheet or thin blanket to the proper size. At informal family meals, you can use a silence cloth or not, as you like.

Choose a tablecloth that will extend six to eight inches past the edge of the table for breakfast and lunch. The dinner cloth should extend eight to twelve inches past the edge. At more formal dinners, the cloth hangs twelve to eighteen inches. The traditional rule is that at most one fold or crease line, running the length of the table, may be visible on the cloth. But crisp checkerboard creases on less formal tables look very appealing.

When you will be serving dinner on a lace cloth, either place it directly on the table or place not only a pad or silence cloth but another plain tablecloth under the lace one so that the silence cloth does not show. Although a lace cloth looks beautiful when wood gleams through, it slips easily; and the other advantages of the silence cloth are lost as well.

The sideboard, too, should be covered with a cloth.

The cloth should be brushed, if necessary, between courses. You can brush the crumbs into a tray used for that purpose or into a plate. You can also use a napkin to do the brushing.

Some people have rustic wood tables or tables with other types of surfaces that will not be damaged by placing tableware directly upon them. Those who despise taking care of tablecloths should definitely acquire such a table, but even then it is worthwhile to lay a cloth sometimes, perhaps on one or two weekend dinners and always on feast days such as Thanksgiving.

You can buy commercial table pads that have a foam back and a vinyl front. Lay the foam next to the wood and the vinyl facing up. Do not leave the pad on overnight, and certainly do not leave it on a table indefinitely. Moisture may be trapped between the pad and the table, causing damage to the appearance of the wood. Although the foam-backed type is nonslip, I prefer a felt or flannel-backed padding. You can buy the nonslip type in a size that fits the table exactly. The softer felt or flannel-backed ones should overhang the table by a few inches.

Placemats and Runners. The idea of placemats is that they show the glory of your table while providing protection where it is needed. They feel informal and casual even when they are quite elegant. Some placemats require no ironing and are easy to launder, but others are quite as much trouble as any tablecloth. Runners, narrow lengths of plain or fancy-worked cloth that lie in the center of the table and extend its entire length (used over a tablecloth or a bare table), are less common today than they used to be, but they dress up a table and can be used to protect the center of the table when you use placemats.

Centerpieces and Candles. There was a time when a table without some decoration at its center looked as bare as hands without gloves and heads without hats. People still put centerpieces on holiday tables and tables set for guests, but many have ceased bothering for family meals. It is an easy and pleasant custom, however, and when you have one just for the family, it underlines the significance of even everyday meals.


At more formal dinners, the tablecloth should show only one crease line that runs the length of the cloth. Inset (in circle): A nonslip pad cut to the dimensions of the table may be used.

A centerpiece at a family meal can be just a grace note: a few seasonal flowers or fruits or colored leaves in fall are all that is necessary. You can use anything: pretty vegetables, squashes, decorative china, dried leaves and flowers, your child’s latest Lego or Tinkertoy construction. (Parents of young children: setting your child to work making a centerpiece for the dinner table makes the child feel useful and contented while you concentrate on cooking.) For formal and semiformal occasions, flowers are traditional, but you need not be traditional. Whatever you pick, it must be easy to see over and proportional to the size of the table. Avoid crowding plates and dishes with it.

Candles are only for dinner and only for after dark. They should flame above eye level (about eighteen inches high) so that people do not feel blinded. For safety’s sake, do not set them too near the edge of the table or near anybody’s elbow. Two or three candles at each end of the table are sufficient for a table set for six or eight. One candle at each end of the table does not give enough light and looks bare even when supplemented with other light. Or you can make candles part of a centerpiece and ignore their small contribution to the light, relying mostly on artificial lighting. (See chapter 47, “Kindly Light.”) People used to say that it was an insult to guests to have unlit candles on the table, perhaps because it looked as though you did not think the guests important enough to waste candles for them or as though you were ignoring their preferences. I think you needn’t worry about this today.

Setting Out Dishes and Flatware at Ordinary Family Meals. The rules for tablesetting are very bendable nowadays, so much so that it is hard to believe that anyone ever mourned for lack of ice cream forks or four different kinds of spoons for soup. (“Ice cream forks?” murmur today’s readers.) Still, many conventions linger, because they are useful and pleasant. Even if you choose to flout them, it helps to know what they are so that you can cue your guests, to help them feel as comfortable as possible.

What goes on the table depends on which courses you are serving and what you are eating. At formal dinners, you begin by setting out very large service plates, upon which you set the appetizer or soup. For informal dinners at home, however, most people forgo these and either set the appetizer or the soup on the dinner plate or serve these courses with their own smaller service plates or saucers. The salad plate and dessert plates can be set directly on the table. Dessert cups and bowls go on the dessert plate or on their own smaller service plates. When you have guests, you set out bread plates with butter spreaders. Some think you should do this when there are no guests, no matter how informal the meal, but I let this be determined by the size of my table and what I am serving. If the table is crowded but the dinner plates have room and are not flowing with sauces or juices, I do not see why you should not put bread at the side of the plate—particularly if you are using the oversized dinner plates that have become popular.

At an informal home table, people sometimes lay out a fork, knife, and teaspoon when by formal principles only the fork would be required. The table knife may be used in place of a butter spreader for buttering the bread; the teaspoon will be used for dessert or coffee. You should suit yourself on all such matters. These gracious and efficient informalities for simple home meals are so common now that they have achieved the status of conventions.

HOW TO SET THE TABLE

All tableware should be spotless and gleaming. Place settings are twelve inches apart. Plates and flatware are set one inch from the edge of the table so that nothing gets knocked off. If possible, place settings should be directly opposite one another, to make conversation easiest.

The knives and spoons are placed to the right of the plate and the forks to the left, with two exceptions: the fork goes on the right when there is no knife, and an oyster fork goes either to the right or on the plate under the oysters, (If there is no knife at an informal family dinner, the fork may be placed at the left, simply to balance the spoon.) All implements face upward (the tines of forks and the bowls of spoons turn up), and the edges of knives are turned toward the plate. Spoons go to the right of the knives. The pieces that are to be used first are laid in the outermost positions, and no flatware is laid that will not have a definite function during the meal. Thus, if your menu calls for an appetizer of fruit, followed by soup, a main course, a salad, and a dessert, your table setting looks like the illustration at the bottom right-hand corner of page 63.

The napkins are placed at the left of the forks (or in the center of the service plate when you use one) or, at lunch or breakfast, if you wish, on the plate. The napkin for dinner is folded in the manner described on page 355 at chapter 24, “Folding Clothes and Linens.” Place it so that the hem is parallel to the edge of the table, the monogram or corner decoration is in the lower left, and the lower left-hand corner is open. (You can also fold the napkin so that it opens to the right, with the monogram or decoration in the bottom right-hand corner. Just be consistent.) The napkin for lunch may be folded into a triangle or pentagon. A plain rectangle fold is also suitable for any ordinary family meal.

Water glasses and children’s milk glasses are set at the upper right edge of the dinner plate, at the tip of the knife. If wine will be served, the wineglass stands at the right of the water glass. If two wines will be served, the three glasses are set in a triangle, with the white wine foremost. A bread plate is set at the upper left edge of the plate. The butter spreader is parallel to the table edge, handle to the right for easy grasping. See the illustration at the bottom left-hand corner of page 63. When salad is served at the same time as the main course, you place it to the upper left of the dinner plate, as shown in the illustration at the bottom right-hand corner on page 63, or below the bread plate, if there is one.

Dessert utensils may be placed above the plate at the outset of the meal, as shown in the illustration at the bottom right-hand corner of page 63 or may be brought in upon the dessert plate, after clearing the table at the end of the meal, as shown in illustration E of the place settings for a formal dinner at the top of page 64.

The teaspoon for coffee or tea is placed on the saucer.

Informal Family Meal: The table is set for service by passing dishes around the table. No wine will be served; there are glasses for water, milk, or whatever other cold drinks are to be served. The first course will be soup, followed by salad, and then the main course. The salad plates are set out for ease in serving.

Place Setting for Breakfast: The breakfast will include first juice, then cereal, followed by ham and eggs and toast. Coffee or tea will be served with the food, not after it.

Place Setting for Meatless Lunch: The place is set for a lunch that begins with a fruit appetizer, followed by an omelette or quiche, and ending with a salad. No meat is being served, so there is no knife, and the forks are placed on the right in the order in which they will be used following the fruit.

Place Setting for an Informal Dinner: The positions of the fruit and soup spoons and salad forks indicate that the menu will include a fruit appetizer, soup, main course, and salad, one after the other. Water and wine will be served. A bread plate is placed above the forks.

Place Setting for an Informal Dinner: The positions of the soup spoon and salad fork indicate that soup will be served before, and salad after, the main course. To make serving the meal easy, the salad plates are set above the forks and napkins and the dessert implements are set above the dinner plates.

Place Settings for a Formal Dinner: Diagrams A through E show the place settings for each course of a formal dinner. Red and white wine will be served. The water glass and white wine glass stand at the base of a triangle, closest to the utensils. The red wine glass stands slightly behind. The meal will consist of five courses: oysters, soup, roast, salad, and, finally, dessert. Diagram A, showing the place setting before any course has been eaten, includes implements for the first four courses. (The dessert fork and spoon will be brought in with the dessert plate.) In diagram B, the oysters have been eaten and the place is ready for soup to be served. In diagram C, the soup has been eaten and the place is ready for the main course of roast. In Diagram D, the dinner plate has been removed and the salad plate has been laid. In diagram E, dessert is being served.

No matter how inconvenient it may seem, try to avoid commercial packages, boxes, bottles, and jars on the table: milk cartons, jam jars, ketchup and mustard, and bags and boxes of crackers or breads. This includes the butter and margarine tubs from the supermarket that are carefully designed to show no labels; they are still recognizable as a commercial product and look out of place. Put foods intended for the table into bowls and pitchers or on serving dishes.

Other Items on the Table or Sideboard. Place salt and pepper—shakers, grinders, cellars, or bowls—at convenient intervals, at least one set for every two people at more formal dinners. You can serve a basket of bread or place a roll on each bread plate. Set out butter for passing, if you plan to use it, or put pats of butter on each bread plate. Any relishes or condiments are also set out on the table. Plates, cups and saucers, and flatware that will be used later in the meal may be neatly stacked on the sideboard until needed. A water pitcher can go on the sideboard too, as can cream and sugar to be served later.

Serving the Meal

At ordinary home dinners, with or without guests, your goal is to present the meal gracefully, with some element of ritual but without the rigidity of formal meals or the coolness of meals in restaurants. The ritual has to feel like your own, not an arbitrary one imposed on you by some outside authority, which means that at every point you should try to think through why you are following it—whether for reasons of convenience, efficiency, beauty, comfort, or familiarity.

Order of Courses. Part of planning a meal is thinking about the logistics of cooking and serving, and this requires you to consider, first, the order of your courses. The traditional order of courses at dinner is: hors d’oeuvres or appetizers, soup, fish, meat or main course, salad, dessert. Service in the Italian style, now followed in many American homes when pasta is served, begins with the pasta course and continues through the main course, salad, and dessert. (An antipasto, of course, precedes the pasta.) The order of courses at breakfast is this: fruit or fruit juice; cereal; protein course (eggs with bacon, ham, or sausages) with accompanying potatoes or grits and breads (toast, bagels, Danish, and the like).

These courses are options, not requirements for a complete meal; hardly anyone still serves all of them at home meals. Informal home meals usually consist of two or three—for example, salad, main course, and dessert. But each course you choose is best served in relation to the rest of the meal using the traditional order or some variant that your household prefers. Some people prefer to serve all the courses at the same time, leaving each person to decide the order in which they will be consumed. My own feeling is that courses are best eaten sequentially, both because so many foods are best when they are freshly made and because it makes for a more leisurely, graceful meal and is more healthful.

The main exception to the rule about the order of courses at dinner is the salad. Salad after the main course is the European style, which was almost universally imitated in this country until the 1930s, when you begin to find references to the “California style” or “modern style” of serving the salad as a first course. The predominant habit at American informal home meals is now salad before main course, and it is a good custom for several reasons. Salad tastes especially good at the beginning of a meal when your appetite still has an edge. Children are more likely to eat it then, when they are really hungry. From the point of view of nutrition and weight control, it makes sense to eat a salad of tossed greens first, so that you temper your appetite with a serving of healthy, light greens. The traditional order, with salad following the main course, is more hedonistic, for the aim is to clear the palate and help you continue eating with gusto. You needn’t make a permanent choice between the two styles, of course. You might choose to serve salad before (or with) the main course on weekdays, for example, and serve it after on special occasions or at more elaborate meals on weekends. It makes little sense, however, to follow the older order unless you are serving a fairly traditional salad. Any sufficiently acidic and light, simple concoction of greens or other vegetables, sometimes with a bit of fruit, will do. Creamy, protein-filled “salads” should precede, or be, the main course.

Filling and Removing Dishes and Glasses. Water glasses are filled about three-quarters full. Wineglasses are filled half full, or a bit more. Warmed dishes for hot food and chilled ones for cold food keep the food at its best longest. At informal meals people usually do not bother to warm or chill the plates, but this is hardly any trouble and sometimes really adds to the enjoyment.

There are two dominant styles of serving at informal family meals, and these may be combined if it seems convenient. In one style, a server has a stack of dishes and the food to be served, either at his place at the table or at the sideboard. The server fills the plates and they are passed hand to hand to each person. In the other, the serving dishes are placed at convenient places around the table, and the diners serve themselves, from serving dishes set (or held) slightly to their left, and pass the serving dishes on to the right until they have gone the full round of the table. Then the serving dishes rest again in the spot from which they started. Less often, the server will walk around the table carrying the dish and serving each person from the left. You may fill soup bowls at the table from a tureen, if you wish, or bring them to the table filled. Do whatever seems less likely to cause spills. Cold appetizers are usually placed on plates before the diners are seated, and hot ones are served after everyone is seated. Dinner plates, however, are always filled at the table.

The general rule is to serve people from their left and remove dishes from their right, except that glasses are filled and removed from the right so that you need not reach across anyone’s plate to do so. Wait until the entire company has finished before removing any dishes because you do not want to rush those still eating. When you begin removing the dishes from one course, take first the leftover food in the serving dishes, then the used plates or bowls and flatware, then any unused dishes and flatware pertaining to that course. When dirty dishes are removed, they are never stacked at the table or in sight of the table, and are never, never scraped at the table. One or two persons are usually designated, or volunteer, to remove the plates, taking them two at a time. You can collect them at the sideboard and then carry them back to the kitchen in piles; however, if the walk back to the kitchen is long, you might find a cart useful so that you need not make too many trips.

When you are preparing the table to receive the dessert, take away all foods, serving dishes, salt and pepper, and so forth, and brush away any crumbs. Then proceed to serve the dessert. Most Americans like coffee with the dessert, but some prefer it afterward, often in the living room.

Silver, China, and Glassware

There was a time not long ago when it was nearly impossible to set a pretty table without having a lot of money. Young brides got advice on how to tough things out—how with imagination, “taste,” and “spunk,” they could give proper dinners with centerpieces of fall leaves, china from Woolworth’s, and no oyster or ice cream forks, while they collected their fine china and real silver. In those days feelings of embarrassment and inferiority were the lot of many young people who had both a rigid idea of how things were “supposed to be done” and too little money to do them that way.

When young people started out in those days, they strove to acquire two sets of silver and two of china, one for “good” and one for “everyday.” If you had lots of money, both sets were of fine china and real silver, but the good sets had more intricate, more elegant designs. If you had less money, you got the best fine china and real silver you could afford for good, and real but less expensive china and silver plate for everyday. Those who could not afford fine china or any kind of silver had to make do with whatever earthenware Woolworth’s and other inexpensive stores sold, and this was likely to be either a gaudy imitation of the real thing or coarse, heavy, utilitarian stuff. There was nothing in between.

Today, you may be told that the system of keeping two sets of china and silver is dead, but that is not quite accurate. It has only changed to reflect some extraordinarily improved realities. Those who can afford to will still have two—or more—sets of china, at least one of which is costly and elegant. But at the lower price ranges, vastly improved quality and design are now available. Fine china of good design and strength and durability indistinguishable from the best is available at low prices from both new manufacturers and the old manufacturers of fine china. Stainless steel flatware is of high quality and such attractive design that many people prefer it for everyday use on the grounds that it is less trouble and, as compared with silver plate, more durable. Although many of us would not call good stainless steel inexpensive, it is not nearly so costly as silver. These changes have swept away a lot of social suffering.

If you can afford only one set of china, you can find one that is versatile enough for both formal and informal occasions. But two sets are still more versatile than one and worth having if you can afford the purchase price and the shelf space. And if neither price nor space is a barrier, you can have two or more basic sets plus whatever pieces and partial sets you like—breakfast sets, tea sets, mixed sets, or collections of attractive individual pieces. If you are economizing, it is wise to begin with an attractive everyday set and collect another, finer set (or mixed pieces) as you can. The old rule against mixing patterns in one course is defunct, along with the rule against mixing cheap with expensive pieces. You can do anything that looks good. This includes having no sets at all but, instead, a collection of individual pieces, place settings, and whatever mixtures you like. I have seen this done most beautifully on a small scale—in studios and tiny apartments with tiny tables by people with little money and exquisite taste.

When you buy china, the minimum number of place settings that makes sense for most people is eight, and few people need more than twelve, at least at the outset. The most successful dinner parties are of six to eight people. At larger events—family reunions, for instance—people usually bring out both sets of dishes and perhaps borrow or rent more. Suggested minimum starter settings of china, flatware, and glass are listed below. Keep in mind, however, that each household has its special habits and tastes that should be consulted when decisions are made about what is absolutely necessary to begin with and what should be acquired as soon as there are the means. Champagne enthusiasts, for example, should get champagne glasses at the start.

Beginner’s Set of China

Eight place settings each consisting of:

dinner plate salad plate soup plate (or cup and saucer or service plate) dessert plate cereal bowl cup and saucer bread plate

Serving dishes, hollow ware:

large platter small platter 2-3 serving bowls of different sizes sauce or gravy boat large pitcher cream pitcher sugar bowl teapot a few small serving dishes of varied sizes and shapes

Beginner’s Set of Flatware

Eight place settings each consisting of:

dinner knife butter spreader dinner fork salad fork teaspoon soup spoon

Serving pieces:

large ladle small ladle sugar spoon salad-serving spoon and fork large meat-serving fork several serving spoons

Beginner’s Set of Glassware

8 water tumblers (8 oz.) 8 juice glasses (5-6 oz.) 8 tall glasses (iced tea or highball) (12 oz.)

For wine and other alcoholic beverages:

8 all-purpose wineglasses, or 8 larger wineglasses and 8 smaller ones.

Dining Rooms

Architecturally speaking, the dining room is a fairly recent innovation. Even after dining rooms became common in the eighteenth century, Americans might or might not have had a room devoted solely to eating until well into the nineteenth. The modern trends have been to “relax” the dining room, to tear down walls, and to mix functions in rooms. But a real dining room devoted solely or primarily to one purpose is still worth having. Those who have none or have had to transform it into a home office or baby’s bedroom, however, often create a dining corner or area in the kitchen or living or common room masterfully designed to do the trick.

The dining room—or whatever room you eat in—should be set up as much as possible to permit ready adjustment of heat, air, and light. Eating in a sweltering room, under a glare, or surrounded by stale smells is not pleasant. Sun and air are essential for freshening any room in which food is served.

Only three types of furniture are essential in a dining room. You need a generous table, chairs, and either a sideboard or a buffet upon which you can rest dishes and food for serving at table. It does not matter whether your table is round or cornered. Leaves for expanding are desirable. Choose a sideboard rather than a buffet only if it has built-in drawers or you have some other means of storing linens and silver close at hand in the dining room. You can put a china cabinet in the dining room, if you wish. Some people will bring in a tea cart or a serving table for serving dinner.

If you have a choice, it is pleasant to exclude from the dining room all furniture dedicated to functions other than dining, such as reading chairs and lamps, desks, stereo systems, and the like. But people who live in small apartments or houses do not have the choice. Sometimes the best way to preserve the dining room atmosphere is to use the dining room table itself, rather than some other piece of furniture, for reading, games, writing letters, or talking. You will need a protective mat or cloth if it is vulnerable to scratches. The size of the table invites the family to join together there. Some of the best times many of us have at home are those we spend gathered around a big table strewn with books, cards, letters and papers, cups, homework, and all the other paraphernalia of casual evenings together, pursuing our various chores and interests in the comfort of the common space.

Some houses have “breakfast nooks” in addition to the dining room, usually in or adjoining the kitchen, or a table large enough for meals set squarely in the kitchen. In older homes, breakfast and possibly lunch or supper were likely to be eaten in the breakfast nook, if there was one, but dinners were served in the dining room. Today, kitchens grow more and more popular not just for the family’s informal meals but even for serving meals to guests, and kitchens grow ever larger and more luxurious. Serving dinner or a casual meal to guests in the kitchen can be fun. The cook gets company while he works, and family members and guests can be pressed into service. But I favor frequent use of the dining room if you have one.

Eating in the kitchen is most fun when novel, and the novelty doesn’t last. You find yourself increasingly annoyed by heat, smoke, and lingering odors from cabbage or sausage during dessert. Cooking creates air pollution—combustion by-products, if you have a gas stove, and smoke and other cooking by-products no matter what type of stove you have. Sometimes the fan is noisy or you wish you could run the dishwasher, which may be hot and noisy both, or the cooking process itself may be hot and noisy—or the dishwasher may create strong smells of detergent. The mess that even the neatest cook at times creates while at work can destroy one’s sense of peace and order. Simple meals, as breakfasts, lunches, and suppers usually are, can often be quite conveniently prepared and consumed in the same room. The sort of pleasure that belongs to dinner, however, ordinarily requires your most civilized setting, and this is doubly true when you have guests.

If you do not have a dining room, then you must do your best to control heat, light, air, odors, noise, humidity, and clutter in the kitchen so as to make meals there as appealing as you can. It is extremely helpful to have a kitchen fan over the stove that exhausts to the outside, a quiet, cool dishwasher, and effective air-conditioning, and to concentrate on neat habits. People used to be advised to hang a curtain or put up folding screens to shield the eye from the untidy sights of the kitchen. I once had a “kitchenette” with built-in folding doors that could be pulled shut to hide the last-minute disorder of cooking. But today, if you have a combination kitchen-dining room you most definitely should not try to hide the reality with screens or curtains. Simply make the kitchen as comfortable, neat, and clean as you can. If you can do this and provide good food, good company, and good cheer, your dinners are going to work far better than many served in fancier surroundings.




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