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place setting

place setting (Photo credit: jenny downing)

I have this thing for antique cookbooks. They’re fun to read; it’s not just the old recipes, but the little glimpse into life as it was that they give. And if that statement baffles you, I suggest you go pick up a cookbook that was printed pre-World War II. Today’s cookbooks may be full of gorgeous, step-by-step pictures and heart-healthy recipes, but most barely touch on kitchen basics, or the little things that make a difference.

Many of my old cookbooks have chapters on preparing food for an invalid, with tips like “set the tray with your best china, pretty linens and a single flower in a bud vase.” They also have extensive sections on how to set a table, from every day use to banquets. Today, I can find plenty of modern advice for that online, much of it flawed because it mimics hotel- or restaurant-style table settings as opposed to actual formal or informal service (note: hotels and restaurants really are not paragons of etiquette and style).

What amazes me is how wrapped up in this sense of “etiquette” people can get. It becomes a game of who can out Martha-Stewart the next. I stay out of it. I make no apologies for keeping every day things in my home simple. When you don’t know at noon whether dinner that night will involve 4 or 14, or anything in between, you learn to simplify service and stick with the basics. Planned parties are a totally different event.

But there are some things that I simply can’t change.

We use cloth napkins, real dishes, glassware and silverware. Meals are either plated in the kitchen, or served family style at the table. And there is one thing you won’t see on my table… commercial packaging.

My mother would never put a package on the table, everything was transferred into an attractive serving piece. The concept was reinforced by those old cookbooks I love so much – in a day and age when packaged foods were just hitting the market, it was considered inappropriate for the package to be on the table, despite what advertisements and sponsored cookbooks would have everyone believe. It was further reinforced by Miss Manners, who maintains that even breakfast cereal boxes should not appear table side.

So, imagine my reaction when looking through a series of photos from a late-afternoon dinner party, awash in a golden glow and perfectly pretty attendees, a gorgeous table set up and trays of fresh fruits, cheeses, spreads and what not for appetizers., and screeeeeeech! …. all of this Martha-esque perfection came to a sudden and jarring halt!

There, amidst a pile of plump grapes sat a block of cream cheese still clearly marked with the imprint of its packaging, but that wasn’t the real culprit. No! The real culprit was immediately adjacent to the cream cheese. It was a jar, with label still attached. A commercial package had found its way onto this otherwise spectacular table.

Several other images included items still in some form of commercial packaging. Curious, I did what any web-savvy person on a geek-out fest does: I started googling. And I found a few things that surprised me.

  • For some unknown reason, the leave-stuff-in-its-container thing is apparently a trend, and not just in the plastic-tubs-of-dip-at-a-picnic crowd. In fact, it seems more common when it’s glass jars of “artisinal” chutney and “organic” salsa. Perhaps it’s an effort to advertise your level of foodie-ism?
  • For some equally unknown reason, trying to find advice about this subject is nearly impossible. There are oodles of pages about setting the table, creating pretty garnishes, proper plating and tablescaping, and on and on it goes. But very, very little is currently out there about keeping the table free of commercial packages.
  • And finally, I seem to be the only non-retirement aged person in the entire world who cares. Because everyone else looks at me like I’ve grown a third eyeball.