Furnish your Feast

Every Thanksgiving Eve, my mother would sit down at the kitchen table and make butter lambs. She would take a stick of butter and lay it on its side, adding another half-stick upright at one end.  Small tufts of butter ‘fur’ were accomplished with the aid of a garlic press-  she would carefully cut the pressings and apply them to the little lamb she was building. The face, ears, tail and folded front legs were carefully carved out, and she would make their eyes from little pieces of black olive.  Right before dinner was served, she would place a lamb at each end of the Thanksgiving table.  This was my mother’s way of making us feel important and loved as we sat down to share this special meal together.

As I gear up for holiday entertaining, I try very hard to remember that this is the impetus behind a beautifully staged table. The primary purpose should be to make the loved ones gathered around it understand that the effort put in was on their behalf- I’m celebrating their presence at my table.

It seems to me that the style of how we entertain has changed so much in recent years. Buttoned-up formal dining has been replaced with meals that embody a relaxed and individualized joie de vivre. This shift doesn’t mean that the ceremony of planning special meals has to be downgraded. It does mean that the food itself, how it is presented, and (most importantly) the guests can be the focus!

Whether you are serving your family’s perennial favorites, experimenting with new dishes, or celebrating your holiday in a traditional potluck style, the spirit in which you present what has been prepared can make even the most simple fare feel noble and your guests feel special.

Here are some fun ways to elevate your evening and make hosting the holiday dinner a treat for everyone:

Location - Moving the feast to a new or unexpected location can add a dash of whimsy and make the meal feel like a destination.  Think about taking it to the garden, patio, or a balcony.

Tablecloths - These are no longer a prerequisite for a formal dinner! If you do opt for one, consider vintage hotel linen.  It can often be found for a song on Ebay, at auction, or in flea markets. These linens work especially well in an outdoor setting, creating a juxtaposition between formal and informal that I always love.  It has the secret added benefit of transforming a makeshift folding table or door on sawhorses into a great dining table!

Placemats –If you have an interesting table, show it off with great placemats. Rattan, wicker, linen or mid-century ones made from capiz shell are good choices.  Alternately, a long runner made from twigs or vintage textiles can be just the thing to highlight your furniture. Texture and pattern provided by these kinds of elements combine beautifully with dinnerware of almost any sort.

Dishes – I have the most beautiful set of Limoges porcelain …that I almost never use.  Nine times out of ten, I opt to use either simple white porcelain chargers or my old Wedgwood queensware dinner plates collected at flea markets.  Big white or cream dishes make food look so appealing, and I love how they can combine with other dishes of pattern to allow me be inventive with a table composition.

Goblets – Large and simple, clear glass water and wine stems have great form and utility. Whether you’re drinking Côtes du Rhône or Calabasas’ Finest, guests love them and they pair well with elements of every era and level of formality.

Silverware - You can’t go wrong with sterling or silver-plated flatware.  Even different patterns of hotel silver can work on the same table.  New, handed down from family, or found in your favorite antique store – fancy flatware has a way of making every meal feel like a party.

Napkins –Linen or cotton, new or a vintage print; they look so elegant oversized and cinched through a simple napkin ring. Pewter or rattan napkin rings are my favorite. They go with everything and are durable!

Candles - In my opinion, these are the crowning touch to every table.  It’s fun to experiment with combinations of candleholders of various heights and materials. There is only one rule:  no fragrance.  Nothing should compete with the aroma of the feast!

Centerpiece - Contrary to its appellation, the centerpiece doesn’t have to be in the center, and it doesn’t have to be singular.  I like to think of centerpieces more in terms of table décor, where florals, vegetation and interesting items can be distributed over the breadth of the table.  Keep things low so guests can see one another, but always have something lovely to look at wherever their eyes might fall. Displaying florals, fruits, vegetables and herbs in imaginative ways will never go out of style, but you might also arrange groups of other interesting items down the center of the table which speak to the style and surroundings of your home.  From antlers, to fossilized corals, to mercury glass vessels- the possibilities are endless. 

Last Thanksgiving, we abandoned the indoors and dined in the courtyard.  My family gathered candlesticks from every collection we own; blown glass, carved wood, and silver were arranged down the center of our outdoor table to create a cascade of twinkles in varying heights. We sprinkled the table with rose petals, succulents, and herb clippings from the garden, and composed our place settings not from a formal set, but from a collage of my favorite things from the cupboards. Simple white porcelain chargers, my mother’s sterling flatware, vintage hotel linen, and large modern glass goblets were arranged to make the table feel diverse and vibrant. The food was arranged buffet style on the sidewall of the courtyard using my collection of old transferware platters. Contemporary and vintage elements were combined to feel fresh and interesting, and the end result was a table that maintained a special sense of formality without missing out on the organic and fun nature of the individual elements. Once the dancing fire had been lit in the fireplace behind it, the whole space felt magical.  Long after dessert had been devoured, we lingered. It was almost midnight before we could tear ourselves from the table- in my estimation, that’s the best feedback a hostess could hope for.

Wishing you celebrations to remember!