Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Question Of Elegance

I am considering how to set the table for Sunday pot roast and two millennial guests. They went into stemware shock on our first holiday meal. I've been meditating about the contest between grandmother's practice and the expedient necessities of 2017 ever since. A brief late Seventies chat with a friend who was pouring me a cup of coffee brought the comment that her mother would never countenance a commercial container on the table. It's an interesting point: households of historic privilege took pride in their home-grown provender. Commercial packaging won't stop talking.

Genevieve Dariaux, who ran Nina Ricci's fashion showroom in its heyday, published a little book entitled "Elegance" that shares gems of design wisdom based on sheer practicality. Design pillar Ettore Sottsass asks if practicality is not a valid factor in the choices one makes, and he observes that even the best castles are fundamentally disposable. 

Setting a table is an exercise in design. Another Italian, Bruno Munari, twits preparing a feast "as if the duchess were coming to dinner". I enjoy presenting a series of courses in the traditional way as a gift of service to hard-working guests, but it's unsettling to find I have discomforted them in the process. Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, asks what it means if one finds oneself confronted by ranks of forks and stemmed glasses at a formal dinner table and answers her own question with the assurance that what it means is that you are not going to go home hungry, that's what it means.

That's enough to keep in mind. Dariaux's notion of elegance differs little from the mathematical one. An elegant solution is simple, effective, consistent, and with luck a little surprising. My partner's impatience with handling stemware was enough to send my collection of expedient glasses from the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain to a nearby thrift store.


I'll tackle the day with my best dishes and cutlery, classic bistro glasses from 1906 France, generous cloth napkins, and foolish ornament that isn't much more than four inches high. The table will be round and small enough to be slightly crowded, which is festive. I'll be able to reach the sideboard to pass dishes without getting up, and I'll be able to clear a course with one pass of a large tray. I like to bar guests from the kitchen. Everybody needs a break once in a while -30-

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