“Time to set the table!”  I can’t remember the number of times I heard those words from my mother while I was growing up, much less remember the number of times I’ve repeated them to my own children while they were still home to set the table.  Growing up, dinnertime was a casual event in our home, but my parents and whichever siblings were still living at home all ate together, no one off in front of the TV or computer.  The dishes, Mom’s first set of Melmac, were welcome for their indestructability for a family of nine.  I don’t remember napkins at all, but I’m sure they were paper if any.  It was only on holidays and the occasional birthday celebration that we pulled out her trusty old lace tablecloth.  Like most large families, we didn’t have china or silver flatware for 12, so holiday meals with extra relatives meant pulling extra odd plates from wherever you could find them.  Mismatched plates, flatware and glasses were placed on the table following certain conventions, but in retrospect that was part of the charm.  “Oh here, Aunt Ruby, you sit at the fancy plate!”

When I was about eight years old, I received a copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls.  In the back of the book there were illustrations of “proper” table settings, as well as how to lay out a buffet table.  I spent a lot of time looking at those pictures.  They captured my fancy more than any recipes!  I have since passed that book down to my grandson Henry, albeit his interest lies more in cooking than table setting.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and I was living in small town Indiana with Mr. Smith and our three sons.  Late afternoon one day, I walked down to pick up young Emmet from a friend’s house.  The mom was getting ready for dinner and had set the table for her little family complete with tablecloth, cloth napkins and a candle.  No special occasion, just a cozy dinnertime for four.  It woke up the domestic goddess inside me just waiting to burst forth.  I was hooked.  

While I had used tablecloths and cloth napkins in the past on special occasions, I now started looking for casual, everyday offerings.  Cooking dinner was something that had to be done each day but serving it on a table with a lovely woven tablecloth that didn’t have to be ironed, matching napkins and lighting a candle or two was something I chose to do.  And I choose to believe that making every day mealtimes a bit more special played a big part in getting our sons to linger at the table, share something from their days and connect and strengthen our relationships.

Having conquered the casual and warm dinner time for my immediate family, creating dinner parties for our friends became my new passion and took “lingering” to a whole new level! 

Mr. Smith and I would work out a menu, he would take charge of the cooking and wine selection, leaving me free to think about the table.  I always want my guests to be greeted with a beautifully set table that makes them feel welcome and wanted.  It has been said we first taste food with our eyes and I wanted the presentation to be worthy of Mr. Smith’s exemplary culinary talents.  Selecting the table linens, flowers, candles or other table decorations is a thrill for me.  If I can add the perfect party favor, all the better.

Dinner parties for friends and family became such a part of our life that for Christmas one year my son Elliot gave me an “Entertaining” book to record dinner parties in – who was there, what was served, the wine, the table décor, even the seating chart.  It is a wonderful keepsake and I look forward to the day we can again entertain!

I am drawn to beautiful dishes and it often takes all the self-control I can muster to keep our inventory to a minimum.  I love glassware and it has been said that I am the girl with a glass for everything.  Different wine glasses, champagne coupes, brandy snifters, cordial glasses and beer glasses.  Our friend Bob was a beer drinker and while he was a guest at many of our dinner parties in Indiana, we never could convert him to wine. To my dismay, he preferred to drink his beer straight from the bottle.  He and I came to an agreement on this – he could drink his beer out of the bottle in the kitchen but as soon as he stepped into my dining room, that beer had to be in the proper glass.

The setting of the table is important to me, but it is an act of creative love, not a snobbish putting on of airs or trying to achieve some archaic ridiculous level of elaborateness.  You will never find me measuring the position of each plate and fork like they do at the White House or Buckingham Palace.  But you will find me reviewing my arrangement with an eye to whether it will be pleasing to a guest.  Will they be comfortable?  Will they feel welcome and special?

Perhaps it is all the time at home this last year that has dinnertime in my thoughts even more than usual.  I miss my family and friends and remember so many meals around a festive table where I didn’t want the evening to end. My heart is happy whenever my phone pings and there is a photo of my children and grandchildren at the dinner table, waving hello to grandma.  While we can’t all be together, I am thrilled that they are carrying on the tradition of gathering together for a meal, sharing their days, and connecting.  And I’m already planning for the day we can all gather around the same table again.  I will set the table with flowers and candles and we will linger, oh, we will linger.

C’est la vie.

Dinner is to the day what dessert is to dinner. Michael Dorris

Adam, Hsin Yi and Eleanor came for Sunday dinner.  There’s something about gathering and sharing a meal with family that makes our new aerial space more our own, claiming our territory so to speak.  I’m always excited when family or friends are coming for dinner.  I love setting the table, making it special, perhaps adding a party favor to create a mood.

A National Geographic article, The Joy of Food, asks the question:  What is it about eating that brings us closer?  Part of that answer is that sharing food has always been a part of the human story; we use it to make friends, court lovers and count our blessings.  

The benefits of families sharing their dinner time is commonly known and well documented.  From better achievement in school, to having enhanced self-esteem, there seems little downside for kids absent a toxic home environment.   Unfortunately, polls reported by NPR in 2013 reflected data where in almost half of those responding found it difficult to share meals on a regular basis.  In 2016 over 60% of households had two working parents so when all the benefits of dining together compete with evening schedules, what are our choices?  As with all the challenges in our lives, we do the best we can. Some days we succeed others perhaps not.  

During part of my stint as au pair to my grandsons, their dad was working at The Washington Post. The nature of the newspaper business often kept him at work past the boys’ dinner time.  My son Emmet dealt with that by being the breakfast guy.  The boys would start their day with their dad and a breakfast he had prepared for them.  One regular offering was over easy eggs with toast with quickly became known as dip-dip eggs! 

Mr. Smith and I had been empty nesters for many years when I commenced my grandmere au pair adventure. We had come to take for granted a tablecloth, cloth napkins, candles and often flowers on the table.  When I became an au pair, I had to pull some tricks out of my bag as that wasn’t really working for the grandsons. They mostly just wanted to blow the candles out!

When it was hard to get them to sit still long enough to eat lunch, I made that into reading time. They were much more likely to linger at the table and eat something if I was reading to them.  Who doesn’t want to find out what happens to the old lady who swallowed a fly???

For dinnertime, I found it helped to include Eli and Henry in dinner prep and setting/decorating the table.  It was always a huge hit when I would cover the table with brown kraft paper for them to draw on.  They loved creating “placemats” for everyone and assigning seats by writing your name where they wanted you to sit!  They were always happy to build a centerpiece out of Legos, paint on some fall leaves, or help add pine and pinecones to the table.

Eons ago when I was single and living with my sister and her family, she came home on Valentine’s Day with beautiful foil wrapped chocolate hearts that she put at each person’s place. That was the beginning of my love of party favors!  Trying to come up with a favor that coincides with the occasion has given me much pleasure over the years. With my grandkids, I usually stick to a small chocolate or other edible treat for favors and I’m not above using those treats as a bargaining chip to get them to eat their dinner.

New Year’s Eve with the Highland Smiths!

We make memories around the table. Traditions are born there.  Our middle son and daughter-in-law have three young daughters.  On New Year’s Eve, they have cheese fondue and talk about what they were thankful for during the year.  On Valentine’s Day they have chocolate fondue!  During Advent, Becky sets the table every Sunday with the good china and crystal.  My granddaughters all look forward to “fancy dinners”.  In my mind’s eye I see my granddaughters carrying on those traditions with their friends and families.

Who doesn’t love dipping a strawberry in chocolate

One gift my mother did give me is the tradition of all of us sitting down together for dinner.  It wasn’t fancy, but in retrospect I understand how important a gift it was.  Thanks, Mom.

C’est la vie.