How to be a Good Guest this Thanksgiving – REALLY?

It’s getting to be that time of the year – when being a good guest counts for something.

Rosemarie's Kitchen

This morning, while wandering about the internet; with the morning news on the TV for a little background noise, it came to my attention via Social Media and a fluff news piece that we now need to be instructed in how to behave as a dinner guest. To say that this “news flash” blows my mind is an understatement. So much of what was out there on the subject is common sense and good manners. I shutter to think what we have become that social media and the news needs to instruct us in proper behavior.

  • RSVP. While the importance of an RSVP wasn’t covered directly (yes, no, and how many), the need to respond was touched upon in a strange, indirect way. A good guest alerts their host of any dietary restriction well in advance so that the menu can be planned accordingly. Things such as gluten-Free preferences; vegan dietary needs or food allergies should be…

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If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say . . .

Sunday Night Green Bay Packers took the field. That meant grilling up bratwurst with caramelized onions while listening to my crazy husband scream at the TV set. I truly don’t understand how getting so worked up that the veins in your neck look like they are about to explode can be considered relaxing. I guess it’s a guy thing.

Back in January 2015, I shared my take on Bratwurst in beer. Ever since then, whenever I cook up Bratwurst in beer; I feel just a little bit hurt. There was a comment on my posting I had not expected. Someone made the comment that said I was WRONG and proceeded to provide a link from my post to theirs, the correct way to cook up bratwurst. It hurt my feelings.  I didn’t delete the comment. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Yet it still hurt.

First of all, there is no such thing as a wrong way to cook something. The way one person makes a salad might not be how you make a salad, but that does not make their salad wrong. Just different. I’ve had people say “great post. I like mine with (whatever)” to which I often reply “great idea, I’ll have to try that next time”. Those are exchanges with respect for one another.

Being constructive is also different. Say I was baking bread and the bread turned out as hard as a rock. I might share the experience and ask for advise. That’s fine. I need help. However; I would expect any responses to be next time try this or this is what works for me. (When I complained about cutting butter into flour for biscuits, it was suggested that I use a food processor fitted with a blade – that’s advise – and it was appreciated).

There are recipes and postings for beets and Brussels sprouts and all sorts of things that I personally would never eat. I don’t like beets or Brussels sprouts. Still, I’ll read the post and in the end “like” it. No comments such as “Yuck!”. Why like the post if i don’t like the dish? Because someone took the time to share something they like. It might be well written or beautifully photographed or mean something to them and their family. Maybe it’s mom’s recipe or grandma’s or Uncle Ned’s – it doesn’t matter. Realize it or not, every recipe, every photograph or story or whatever is a little piece of someone brave enough to open up and share. That alone should be admired, appreciated and respected.

I’ve decided to re-post the recipe to reclaim it. This is MY recipe for Bratwurst – Hubby loves it, Kiddo loves it and I enjoy it. If you don’t like it, fine, don’t make it but don’t tell me something my family enjoys is WRONG.

BratwurstBratwurst in Beer with Grilled Onions
1 Package Johnsonville Bratwurst
1 Onion, sliced
1 Bottle of Beer – enough to cover Bratwurst (1 bottle of is enough for 1 package of 5 bratwurst)
1 Package Sandwich Rolls

Pierce Bratwurst to allow fat to drain and beer to soak into meat. (A thin fork, cocktail pick or cake-tester works fine – remember, you want the fat to seep out, the beer to soak in and the bratwurst to retain its flavorful juiciness).

Place Bratwurst in a large pot. Cover with beer let Bratwurst soak in beer for about 45 minutes.
While bratwurst are soaking, thinly slice onions. If desired, place a few sliced onions into the pot with the bratwurst, reserving the majority of the onion for “grilling” in a pan.

Saute onions with a little butter over medium-low heat until golden, about 20-30 minutes.

Heat a gas grill for about 10 minutes or so to get it good and hot. Turn heat on under pot of soaking bratwurst to low and let simmer while grill heats.

Remove bratwurst from liquid. Grill to sear outside, turning as needed, about 5 to 6 minutes per side.

Spread mustard or favorite condiment onto bun. Top with bratwurst and onion.
Serve with French Fries or warm German Potato Salad

Let Bratwurst soak in beer for about 45 minutes. Turn on the heat, then let them simmer for about 10 minutes prior to grilling

Slice one onion. If desired, toss a few onion slices into pot with soaking bratwurst. Set aside until ready to grill in a pan. About 35 minutes into bratwurst soak, begin grilling onion.

Add a little butter or margarine to the pan, grill onions over medium-low heat until nicely browned, about 20 minutes. Stir often to prevent burning.

Remove bratwurst from beer after about 45 minutes. Place on a hot grill to finish. Grill bratwurst about 5 minutes per side, just enough to get the outer skin to char a little and blister.

While bratwurst finish on the grill, remove onions from heat and set aside until ready to use.

Place grilled bratwurst on bun smeared with desired condiment (mustard or deli style brown mustard are excellent choices). Add grilled onions, serve and enjoy.

Mashed Potato Sucess

For those of you on Face Book, then you know how FB will show you something you’ve posted from the past and ask you if you want to share it again. Most of those I’ve seen shared by family are photos and cute stories. Nearly all my “memories” are recipes and cooking tips – some long before my blogging days. (The biggest reason I started blogging in the first place was because my personal Face Book account was so full of recipes and tips). This is one that  popped up today, and I thought I’d pass it along . . . good advise.

Way back in the day of Cook Books with entire sections dedicated to household tips and advise for the “little woman”, there were a good many tips that you simply don’t find in today’s cook books. For the woman (or man) of today, you need to read these books with an open mind, as some of the things simply do not apply – such as how to fetch your husband’s slippers and pipe – if you can believe that! And oh my goodness, make sure your makeup is fresh and you greet your husband with a smile, his favorite cocktail in hand.

The key to a good mashed potato begins at the market – selecting the variety.  While there are a lot of potatoes to pick from, here are tips for the most common and their usage:

Yukon Gold
Yukon gold potatoes are the result of crossbreeding a North American white potato with a wild South American yellow-fleshed variety.
-Originated in Canada and made its way to the U.S. in the early 1980s.
-Waxy, pale, yellow flesh with firm texture.
-Great for roasting and frying, and works well in soups, stews, and gratins.

White Potatoes
-Smooth, light-tan skin with medium starch level.
-Dense, creamy in texture, and holds its shape well after cooking.
-All-purpose potato: Great for roasting, baking, steaming, and boiling.

Red Potatoes
-Red, rosy skin, but can have white, yellow, or even red flesh.
-Firm, smooth, moist texture.
-Are well-suited for salads, roasting, boiling, and steaming.
-Smaller reds are referred to as “new potatoes,” meaning they’re harvested before reaching maturity.

Russet Potatoes
-Most widely used variety in the United States.
-Characterized by netted brown skin and white flesh.
-High starch content and fluffy interior makes them ideal for baking, mashing, and making french fries.

Russet Potatoes make the best mashed potatoes. The higher the starch content; the fluffier the mashed potatoes. (Although I will admit, I like reds or whites, too).

There are a 3 basic steps to mashed potato success, regardless of recipe directions.

1. Salt the water. Place enough salted water in the pan to cover the potatoes, there’s no need to drowned them. Let the potatoes and water come to temperature together.

2. After draining potatoes, return to pan and “dry” potatoes over medium heat until cooking liquid has evaporated. Dry potatoes mash cleaner than wet-ones. Besides, the extra water only dilutes the wonderful flavor of the smashed studs.

3. Heat milk, cream, butter or whatever else you are adding to potatoes before combining them. Pouring cold milk or adding cold butter will cool the potatoes as well. Unless your recipe calls for big plate of cold mashed potatoes, it’s never a good idea.

mashed potatoes

Serving up Leftover – No Fuss, No Muss and No Dishes

A few nights ago, I shared an easy crock-pot recipe for barbecued pulled pork – Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ-Coca-Cola Pulled Pork. It was yummy good, and as promised there were leftovers for a second meal – Pulled Pork Sandwiches.

Tonight’s post isn’t about the recipe itself, but rather how much Hubby appreciates yours truly. We have an arrangement in our house when it comes to chores such as KP duty. Those that cook don’t do the dishes. Now on those days when everyone cooks (Kiddo included), we all do a little clean up as a team. Usually that involves Hubby washing, Kiddo drying and me wiping down (as in stove top, table – the last of the cleanup duties). When we got home tonight, Kiddo excused himself from dinner entirely, and called it a night. Hubby had no sooner walked into the door when his smart-ass phone began to chirp with work-related emails demanding his attention (his job is a twenty-four-seven thing and interruptions in our family time is routine). I realized it would be great to do our Friday-Night leftover gig without creating a lot of cleanup work in the process. It’s been a long week, especially for Hubby. He needed a fun, filling supper AND a break from his nightly KP duty.(Since we do our weekly marketing on Saturdays, we like to clear out the fridge on Fridays. It’s amazing the strange combinations of “foods” that find their way onto our plates. A little of this, a little of that – what fun. Once upon a time leftover night was Thursday, simply because we didn’t eat meat on Fridays. Now we observe Friday penance with prayer – more effective and less wasteful. But that’s a conversation for another day).

Now mind you, when I had Kiddo put the leftover pulled pork into a zip-lock bag, I wasn’t thinking this far ahead. Storing leftovers in zip-lock bags simply take up less space in the fridge. They stack together nice and flat on a single shelf (most of the time), and if you like, you can label and date the contents. I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I’ve peering into a storage container and wondered “what is this?” which is immediately followed by a second thought “how long has that been in there?”

Tonight I served up marvelous Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Curly Fries. And there was NO cleanup involved.

  • Preheat oven per package directions for fries
  • Cover baking pan with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray
  • Open zip-lock bag of pulled pork, add some more barbecue sauce to the bag and if necessary, shred pork further INSIDE the bag while mixing with additional sauce
  • Bake fries as directed, less 5 minutes of cooking time
  • When timer for fries goes off, turn off oven WITHOUT opening the door (fries will continue to cook without getting all crunchy)
  • Place zip-lock bag in microwave and heat for 2 1/2 minutes. Flip bag over and heat 2 1/2 minutes longer
  • Pile hot pulled pork onto hamburger buns, and serve with French fries using paper plates

Now before you all get “green” on me (foil, bags, paper plates = landfill), know this – it’s not our habit to use disposable anything in the kitchen. Yet when I weighed the trash footprint vs water conservation/energy conservation (Hubby’s), disposable won out.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches & Curly Fries

Yummy food without all the clean up mess – that’s what I call a nice start to the weekend!

The Virtues of Home Cooking

parking-orchard-1024x768Last weekend, we drove up to Apple Hill. Nestled in the Sierra foothills of El Dorado County, Apple Hill was born of necessity. The rich soil around the tiny community of Camino was a major producer of California pears. Some sixteen or so orchards flourished in the area around the turn of the century. But by the early 1960s the pear farmers were struggling – their crops depleting and earning a living was nearly impossible. The farmers began growing apples, and formed the Apple Hill Growers Association as a way to support one another. In 1964, a weekend festival was held to celebrate the harvest and drawn tourists up from the cities. Apple Hill expected about 4,000 people to visit the small farms that first year. An estimated 10,000 visitors showed up. Today, Apple Hill  is a major tourist attraction, with over 50 growers, Christmas Tree Farms and wineries in the area. It’s a beautiful drive from the central valley, especially if you ditch Highway 50 and meander along back roads through the Mother Load instead. In addition to the many apples, baked goods and eateries, there are local artists, stocked trout ponds and picturesque picnic areas. It’s a day of old-fashioned family fun, with a carnival like atmosphere, if you don’t mind the long lines of traffic on the tiny two-lane roads and the crowds everywhere. Although a big tourist draw, the growers didn’t pave over the orchards in favor of parking lots.
If you insist upon parking on asphalt, you can always park in Placerville and take a shuttle up to the hill. However, most visitors find parking in the orchards part of the fun. Hubby, Kiddo and I like to get an early start to beat the masses, and we always make it a point to have a fresh Apple Fritter with a cup of warm cider for breakfast.

cooking-squarespaceLast weekend’s simplicity brings me to this weekend’s rant. Hubby and I rose early this morning and headed off to the market with our shopping list in hand. I love to cook. Years gone by, doing the weekly marketing was a source of inspiration. Come across a nice roast, and my mind began to swirl with ideas. Now when I walk through the meat section, most of what I see isn’t very inspiring – and it’s no wonder people don’t know how to cook these days. The pork roasts are all uniformed in size, in nice little one pound packages sealed in their own marinades. Steaks are already rubbed with seasoning. And let’s talk instant sides. There are buckets of mashed potatoes ready at the deli counter. Macaroni salads, potato salads, trays of deviled eggs and pre-made sandwiches. And don’t even get me started on the availability of “home-made” dinners in the frozen food ales. Okay, I get it – convenience in this day of working families, with long hours and busy schedules is important. I’ll admit it, sometimes the convenience of a commercially prepared supper is a necessity on a hectic weeknight. However; what truly frustrates me is that “from scratch” ingredients are becoming more and more scarce. To make a simple meal from scratch sometimes requires stops at two or three markets. When you only have one day off, and you want to spend a few hours joyfully creating in the kitchen, you don’t always have the time (or desire) to drive all over town for ingredients that aren’t canned, frozen or blended. Is that so much to ask?  Once upon a time there were butcher shops that didn’t force you to buy an entire side of beef to get a good cut of meat. Once upon a time, you could stop by your local bakery early in the morning for some fresh-baked goods. And the produce section smelled of fresh fruits. You shopped seasonally and planned accordingly. Now we have gluten-free, fat-free, homogenized byproducts of what use to be real food. Today you can get a pot roast complete with all the vegetables on a Styrofoam tray all neatly wrapped in plastic shrink-wrap. Just unwrap and toss it into a pot. In the mood for kabobos? You’ll find them already skewered with vegetables. All you need do is turn on a gas grill and there you go. Cookie dough is sold in the dairy section – just slice a bake.  (I can’t help but wonder about all the fun family bonding that is lost in the process. Sure, slice a bake is great when you are in the mood for warm cookies without all the mess, but as a child the mess was half the fun!)

2000-01 (04)The other night on Public Television, they aired a program designed to teach people (adults – this wasn’t a kid’s show) how to plan a meal and read a recipe. Really? Read a recipe! I once overheard a co-worker apologizing to her college-student daughter because she had to work late and hadn’t made dinner yet. Let me tell you, I could be gone for days, and Kiddo wouldn’t go hungry in a kitchen stocked with “real” food just waiting to be cooked. Kiddo’s been in the kitchen whipping up wonderful meal since he first learned how to drag a kitchen stool up to the counter.

It’s not enough to buy real ingredients, we need to teach our children what to do with them. And that’s time well spent together. Some of my fondest memories are moments in the kitchen with Dad. My sisters and I are all accomplished cooks. As adults, we enjoy spending time together in the kitchen.

Tonight I’m taking back our Sunday with a nice apple-stuffed roast chicken, fresh, creamy mashed potatoes, home-baked dinner rolls (Kiddo keeps checking on the progress of the “rise” every time he wants through the kitchen – anxious for some warm, buttery rolls), corn on the cob and a dutch apple pie. Heck, I might just need to break out my vintage rose china!

Do You Have a Plan?

From the time I was a little girl, I loved spending time with Dad in the kitchen, learning from the master. When my sisters and I were old enough to fully participate in the meal preparation, Dad held a weekly menu planning meeting. Each of us picked a night and planned the family dinner – main course, sides, whatever else. Mom and Dad took the remaining nights.

From the planned menu, my parents created a shopping list and bought supplies accordingly. When I left home, this habit of planning and shopping accordingly continued. Sure, when something like chicken or fish or what have you goes on sale, I take advantage and stock up. Stocking up helps formulate the following week’s menu.

The menu is posted to the refrigerator door for two reasons. First, I know at a glance the night before what needs to be moved from the freezer to the fridge for the next night’s dinner. Secondly, I don’t get those questions of “what’s for dinner?”

When planning, I make notes BEFORE putting together the menu. If we are attending a birthday party, I won’t plan a big meal or dessert – no one wants a big meal after filling up on slices of pizza and birthday cake. If we have an obligation that would prevent me from cooking that night, I might simply note “Fast Food” or “Chinese Take Out” or whatever. Friday’s plan usually say “Left Over Night – Everyone For Themselves.” Fridays are a good night to clean out the fridge before shopping on Saturday morning.

If I know in advance that work is going to be a late night, I’ll plan something simple or quick for that particular night.

Menus were especially helpful when I went back to work and Kiddo was in charge of all the cooking during the week. Not only did I have each night’s supper planned out, but I had a cheat-sheet of recipes for him to follow, with little details such as “4:00 PM – Chop Vegetables for Stir-Fry” or other details that would help Kiddo have dinner ready when we walked through the door. (Most nights he started dinner, and I finished it).

Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean dinner is carved in stone. At the bottom of the weekly planner it clearly states “Above is subject to change without notice”. While I added that to the planner as a joke, it’s also my “out” when I simply don’t feel like cooking or when life has other plans.

So often I hear people say “I don’t know what to do for dinner tonight.” Either that or they talk about standing in front of the fridge, peering inside and scratching their heads. What I find most baffling about the lack of planning is that they can shop without one.

This brings about a question – do non-planners shop on the way home each night or do they do a weekly “grab” of whatever and take it from there?  While I might make Thursday’s dinner on Monday because it works out better as the day unfolds, I have a plan and all the ingredients on-hand. So I cannot imagine winging it every night. Nor can I imagine the waste and added expense in the food budget to live each day without a clue. Grocery stores are set up for non-planners. You’ll walk by all the “grab” items to get to the real food. Don’t believe me? Run into the grocery store for a carton of milk or a loaf of bread. You’ll walk out $40.00 later with all sorts of cookies and chips and other things you might not have bought otherwise.

Anyway, that’s my thoughts on the subject, for what they are worth. I am a planner by nature . . . are you?

Burnt Offerings – When Things Don’t Go as Planned

So often, we post only our successes – beautiful pictures of perfectly cooked foods. But let’s face it, we’ve all experienced our bombs – mistakes in the kitchen that render food hardly worthy of eating much less blogging about. I think it would be good to see those flops every now and then, as a reminder that everyone makes mistakes. It’s a humbling admission.

The minute we walked in the door last night, I knew I had a disaster on my hands. For one thing, we were late getting home. Actually, we were late getting to work, so we needed to make up for the time. Our car decided it wasn’t going to start – the alternator finally decided to give up the ghost – and in the process drained the battery. Thankfully, our neighbor gave us a jump. Hubby managed to keep the car running long enough to drive out to the farm, borrow Dad’s truck for transportation, and leave our car with our trusted mechanic in town. We’ve been suspecting a failing alternator for a while, but the problem had been an intermediate one, so our repair shop was hesitant in simply replacing the alternator until he was sure that would solve the issue.

It was one of those days. Before leaving for work (or at least attempting to leave) I had started dinner in the crock pot – Baby Ray’s Slow Cooker Barbecued Chicken. From what I could tell, it would have been great. Even coming home late would not have been enough to ruined dinner. However; I made one HUGE mistake. When Kiddo put the crock pot away, he had turned the knob one click to the right, which meant the pot was put away set for “low”.

When I put everything into the pot to cook, I clicked the knob one to the right without looking to see what the setting was, assuming it was “off’ and one click would put it to low. Wrong! My click put the pot on High. That would have been a fine setting for about 4 or 5 hours. But 10 hours later – the chicken was so dry, the barbecue sauce wasn’t enough to keep it moist.

Lesson learned – always check the setting. NEVER assume . . .

My guys ate it anyway, as best as they could with twisted smiles on their faces. Gotta love ’em!

How to be a Good Guest this Thanksgiving – REALLY?

This morning, while wandering about the internet; with the morning news on the TV for a little background noise, it came to my attention via Social Media and a fluff news piece that we now need to be instructed in how to behave as a dinner guest. To say that this “news flash” blows my mind is an understatement. So much of what was out there on the subject is common sense and good manners. I shutter to think what we have become that social media and the news needs to instruct us in proper behavior.

  • RSVP. While the importance of an RSVP wasn’t covered directly (yes, no, and how many), the need to respond was touched upon in a strange, indirect way. A good guest alerts their host of any dietary restriction well in advance so that the menu can be planned accordingly. Things such as gluten-Free preferences; vegan dietary needs or food allergies should be brought to the host’s attention.  Now food allergies and some dietary restrictions makes good sense. I am a diabetic. I am also lactose indolent, and have difficulty processing foods that are high in potassium. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems rather selfish to expect the host to cater to my particular needs. Heck, I don’t even cater to my particular needs, why should I expect others to adjust their Thanksgiving traditions accordingly. Rather, I pick and choose what to eat and how much to eat. Can you imagine if all your guests responded with a list of what they could/would and could not/would not eat? You’d go nuts!
  • ASK IF THERE IS ANYTHING YOU CAN BRING/DO. These days, that’s just good manners. I cannot imagine being invited to a friend’s home for dinner and not asking “is there anything I can bring?” Granted, at a formal affair, such a question might be considered rude, but a homey gathering of friends and family, it should be a part of the “count me in” response. The advise took it this one step further. When bringing a dish, bring a way to serve it. Really? Again, common sense. This “common sense” rule is a two-way street. If your guests are traveling; don’t ask them to bring the mashed potatoes for goodness sake. On the other hand, if your traveling guest is famous for their awesome gravy; it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest they make the gray upon their arrival. Just be sure to have whatever they need on-hand and not expect them to bring the pots and gravy fixings on the plane with them. (Can you imagine going through air port security with a sauce pot and giblets tucked away in your carry-on?)

  • Bring your host a gift.  Once upon a time, this would have gone without saying. A nice bottle of wine, a simple flower arrangement in a vase, a tin of cookies, home made jams, a basket of imported cheese – once upon a time arriving with a gift in hand was the norm. Today we need to be told to show our appreciation for the invite rather than simply “showing up.”
  • Don’t show up too early or too late. Most of the invites I send/receive include this some guidelines such as “We plan to serve dinner at 5:00. You’re more than welcome to arrive anytime after 3:00.” This indicates to your guests that there will be time for socializing prior to the main event. Thanksgiving preparation tends to be extensive and very busy for those hosting the dinner. Unless you are there to “help”, showing up too early can be viewed as a bothersome intrusion. Again, the advise took this one step further. NEVER ARRIVE MORE THAN 45 MINUTES LATE. Really? Since when is forty-five minutes late to a dinner party acceptable? I’m sorry, folks but that’s just plain rude. It’s one thing to split your time between the in-laws, having dinner at one home and dessert at another. We’ve all been there, done that. But if someone is expecting you to show up at a predetermined time – show up!
  • Be an attentive guest and avoid your phone. OMG! Unless your job requires you to be reachable at all time (say a doctor or priest for example) or circumstance warrant it (my sister/daughter in another town is having a baby) nothing is more important than the people around you at that moment. It boggles the mind to think “a good guest should avoid checking their e-mails during dinner” needs to be said. Unplug for goodness sake!

 

  • Don’t complain. Again, I must ask – really? Who are these people? Do we need to be told not to hurt the feelings of our host? Don’t we know that it’s insensitive to say to someone who was gracious enough to open their hearts and their home to us “well, my dear, the bird was a bit dry”. What have our social skills come to when we need to be told not to complain?
  • Remember to say Thank you. I repeat – remember to say thank you. The fact that this is on the list of tips speaks volumes as to just what the world has become. I don’t know about you, but I was taught from a very early age (as in old enough to speak at all) that you should always say “Please” and “Thank you.”

I don’t know what bothers me more – that we, as adults, need to be told these things or that we are getting our instructions from social media. Which leads me to ask this all important question – is there an app for our smart phones for manners?

The Casualization of America and Eclectic Entertaining

I’ve been giving this subject a great deal of thought. When Kiddo was a few years younger, (and the task of setting the table fell upon his shoulders) he asked me why we went through all the trouble of setting a “fancy” table. Granted, it wasn’t something we did for every meal. Everyday dinners involve a plate, a fork, an occasional knife, and a napkin. Rarely is the table set beyond the basics anymore. Yet “fancy” settings still made an appearance – reserved for “Sunday Best” or whenever we had company at the table for a meal that did not involve barbecue or center around a particular “theme”.

I explained that when we enjoy a meal, we do so with a multitude of senses. First, smell. Food must smell good – the aromas must come together in a pleasing manner to get the digestive juices flowing. Scent is the first thing that greets us at the door for a home-cooked meal. The second sense engaged it sight. Not only should the dishes be colorful, but the table on which it is served should also be inviting and draw the diner in. Long before the first dish is presented, the way a table is set (or not set) establishes the tone and gives a hint to what shall follow. The final sense is taste. Food is intended to be savored, to be enjoyed, to encourage the diner to linger and take in every morsel. We begin the dining experience long before that first sampling of food ever crosses our lips.

While all those things remain true, more and more we (Americans as a whole) have moved away from the traditional china, crystal and silver. We rarely serve multi course meals in our homes, opting for a more relaxed style of entertaining. Be it backyard barbecues or sit down dinners with friends, the meal itself is just as stimulating, without all the “fancy” stuff. Fancy stuff, if it makes an appearance at all, is reserved for the Holidays – two or three times a year tops. Even then, the elaborate multi-course, big parade of platters and silver servers are a thing of the past. Still, I miss the fancy stuff.

A long time ago, I gave away my “good” china, first opting to use plates with a Southwest tone that were more in keeping with our home and life-style at the time. We had completely moved away from formal dinner parties, leading lives that were casual and relaxed. “Formal” was something away from home, reserved for Five-Star Restaurants or gala affairs. Eventually, life shifted yet again. Sunday Family Dinners and small gathers for special occasions returned to our home. However; the fine, delicate china and sterling silver utensils did not. Simple white plates and unadorned flatware worked best, lending themselves to the less expensive “touches” of linens, arrangements and colorful decor to set the theme, tone and mood.

formal settingStill, I miss the fancy stuff. I long for a table that is bursting at the seams – knives, forks and spoons streaming out in both directions from the charger. A multitude of stemware and stacks of plates with the promise of wonderful things to come. There was a certain degree of “skilled artistry” involved in the setting of a truly formal, proper table with everything just so. Once upon a time, not only was there an established set order as to the placement of each knife, fork, spoon, (from the outside in, in order of foods served) but strict guidelines regarding spacing, not only from one another (table space had more of an influence here) but just how far from the edge of the table a piece was to be placed. Flatware/silverware was placed in straight lines to the left and right of the plate, the ends of each one inch from the edge of the table, aligned with the charger or service plate. Equally important was the way in which dinner was to be served, with strict rules for placing, clearing and pouring. Just read the excerpt from HOUSEHOLD COMPANION: BOOK OF ETIQUETTE (1909)

“THE DINNER:
It is not easy to lay down any fixed rule for the character of the dinner. That must be governed by the season and the taste and resources of the host. However humble the pretensions of the dinner, it should never consist of less than three courses, namely, soup or fish, a joint (which, in a small dinner, may be accompanied by poultry or game) and pastry. Cheese with salad follows as a matter of course. Dessert succeeds.

The number of servants necessary will depend, of course, on the number of guests. Three will be enough for a party of ten or twelve persons. On their training and efficient service the success of the dinner will largely depend.

What is said about courses applies, of course, to a very simple meal. In those of more pretension the courses may vary considerably in number and character, though custom lays down certain fixed rules for the succession of viands. For an ordinary dinner, the following will suffice as an example.

In serving, one must, without exception, serve the meal from the left and remove the soiled china from the right. Equally important is the manner in which a glass is filled. One must approach the glass, removing it from table to pour and return it to its proper place all from the right. No glass should be filled more than two-thirds full as to avoid spillage. When removing glassware, do so from the left. If an additional serving of the same vintage be required, it must done so in a fresh glass, and placed before the guest from the right as before. No guest, regardless of position, should pour with the exception of the final glass of the evening, when ports are offered in the drawing-room.”

I did a little research into the history of multi-course dining. It seems way back when it was believed that consuming foods that were cooked and served at varying degrees of temperature led to cross contamination and serious (sometimes fatal) food related poisonings. This belief evolved during medieval Europe to the development of multi-course meals served on different plates, bowls and platters. The introduction of eating utensils rather than the use of fingers were not only a matter of convenience but also to prevent the feared cross contamination. Utensils themselves evolved into a status symbol, and a spoon forged from silver became the standard baptismal gift – born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth has roots in this practice. The spoon was followed by the fork, and eventually a multitude of serving pieces for each helping and so forth. The multi-course meal with an abundance of serving pieces and specialty plates evolved beyond the fear of cross contamination and into a symbol of wealth and power. The more wealth one had, the more elaborate the meal became.

With an abundance of fast-food restaurants, food trucks, and drive-through windows, it’s hard to imagine devoting several hours at the end of our fast paced day to leisurely partake in a multi-course meal. Today we generally use just three utensils during a meal: a spoon, a fork, and a knife for everyday meals. Fine dining by today’s standards may require an additional fork (salad), knife (for butter) and some sort of culturally for dessert and coffee, if consumed. A far cry from those of the past, when fine dining required a multitude of specialized cutlery specifically designed for the consumption of particular foods. Each part of the meal was considered a matter of careful planning, thought and study on the part of the hostess. And the elaborately set table was a reflection of her efforts.

By the Victorian age, dinner parties in the home had evolved into carefully orchestrated pageant-like affairs. These productions provided the host and hostess an opportunity to display all of their fine china and silver at once. The more elaborate the meal, the greater the social standing. It was not uncommon for diners to be greeted by a display of a 24-piece place setting. Up to 8 different forks, knives, various spoons, and multiple drinking glasses were meticulously set out for individual guests. Formal attire (Black Tie and Gown) was not a matter of option but a requirement for evening meals served after 6 o’clock. One truly “dressed” for dinner. What one did with a particular dish, plate, knife or fork was an indication as to their social standing and proper breeding. Make no mistake about it, judgement was stern and one could easily find themselves a social outcast. In Europe, the fork remained constant in the left hand, while in America (especially among the less traveled and newly wealthy) one held the fork in the left hand while cutting their food, then switched to the right while eating – and even this was considered a sign of poor breeding by their aristocratic European counterparts. Despite all this, I still find myself yearning for the “fancy” stuff.

Today when entertaining, we are, for whatever reason, far less concerned about social cues of left, right, up and down, and more concerned with the genuine value of lively conversation and good company. Perhaps because our lives are so hectic, we don’t see the point of wasting precious “down time” stressed over things that don’t seem to have much bearing. I suppose in certain social circles far above mine, such seemingly trit concerns still matter. Today, the vast majority of us would rather break bread with those we care about, and nibble on simple yet well prepared foods with our fingers while sipping a good wine from a mason jar.  And still, I miss the fancy stuff with their silly rules that no one seems to adhere to anymore. (Although, I will admit when dining out, I do notice the whole serve from the left, clear from the right thing. Not so in a judgemental, condescending way when it doesn’t happen but rather I am struck with a sense of awe when it does. I wonder about the non intrusive food server and wait staff who flawlessly executes the flow of the meal with such attention to every detail).

Titanic RoseI am truly fascinated by the whole prim and proper eras of social graces – especially those of the more recent Victorian and Edwardian periods. The architectural style and attention to detail of the Victorian area is beautiful. The fashion sense and big hats of the Edwardian period are forever etched in our mind’s eye by the character of Rose in the 1997 classic film, Titanic. While I would love to live in a beautifully restored Victorian home and walk about wearing an over-the-top big hat, I seriously doubt I ever will. (Well, maybe the hat – but that’s a stretch). Which leaves the final fascination – the dining experience of multi-course meals and specialty culturally.

English Cake Forks

English Cake Forks

Vintage Dessert Spoon & Sea Food Fork

Dessert Spoon & Sea Food Fork

That said, I’ve set about the task of collecting some throwback “fancy stuff” from a culinary perspective. And it doesn’t matter these days if my pieces match. (Complete sets of anything truly Victorian or Edwardian fetch a price tag that would require me to win the lottery first). Besides, scouring through yard sales, antique fairs and flea markets seeking buried treasure is fun. Thus far I’ve been picked up some interesting pieces – like English Pastry/Cake Forks and demi spoons with pretty roses on the handles. Most of my “finds” are tarnished, retrieved from big bin of stuff that I need to sort through in the hopes of finding something “special”. Someday I’d like to have an eclectic dinner party for a few friends with mismatched china, odd-looking silverware and all sorts of whimsical serving utensils.  

The Casualization of America isn’t an abandonment of “civilized” behavior, but rather a reflection of realigned values. It isn’t so much an emphasis on how the meal is server but rather how it is enjoyed – in the company of those that matter.

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If your looking for menu and recipe ideas check out Elegant Four-Course Easter Supper, or Patio Entertaining with an Italian Flair – For Father’s Day or Just BecauseThese are great starting point for a little inspiration.