Article by Maralyn D. Hill, Photography by Sherrie Wilkolaski
Table settings are something that many of us grew up with and many did not. They used to be taught in schools and summer camps, but it seems they have been dropped from many. They are so different around the world, I simply cannot cover them all in one column, so this month we will focus on the U.S. and Europe.
In general, I will stay focused on settings. But I may toss in some manners along the way, like not talking when your mouth is full. Let’s get on to table settings.
In 1990, my husband Norm and I had two college graduates from an exclusive girls school join our Thanksgiving dinner. They wanted to help prepare. I had all the dishware set out on the table, and said, “Go ahead and set the table, that will be a big help.”
About five minutes later, they came into the kitchen and admitted they did not know how to set the table. “I’ll set the first place, and you can use it as a guide.” What I said worked and they felt proud. I could not believe that four years at a finishing school and this was something they did not know.
You never know when you will be in the position to go to a function where you will have more silverware than you know what to do with. After all, most of our dinners at home are not that fancy. But when you do know what and how to manage, it does make a difference in how you are perceived, if you plan to move up the corporate or social ladders.
So we are going to go through set-ups for a three and five course meal in the United States and in Europe, as well as make a couple of side notes on the U.K. Believe it or not, it is different and can help if you understand ahead of time.
When you sit down at the table, the amount of silverware at each place setting indicates the number of courses that will be served. There is a general simple rule, start from the outside and work your way toward the center. You can’t go wrong. However, it helps more, if you understand which is which.
Let’s start with a three-course place setting, which is usually for salad, main course and dessert.
Three-Course Place Setting
Starting on the left, you would have the salad fork, dinner fork, plate with napkin on top, dinner knife, and salad knife. Above the forks, you would have a bread and butter plate with a butter knife/spreader laid across the top. Above center of plate, you have the dessert fork with points facing right, and above the fork the dessert spoon with the bowl of spoon facing left. The water glass would go above the dinner knife and the wine glass above the salad knife.
The difference in the set up is that the dinner fork would come first and the salad fork second, plate with napkin, salad knife, and dinner knife. The reason for the difference is that in Europe, salad is frequently served after the entrée instead of before the entrée. For an informal dinner in France and Italy, bread goes on the table and a bread plate is not used.
Five-Course Place Setting
A five course meal in the U.S. usually consists of soup, salad, fish course, main course and dessert.
Starting from left to right, you would have the salad fork, fish fork, dinner fork, plate with napkin (and possibly a name card), dinner knife, fish knife, salad knife and soupspoon. The butter plate would be above the forks, like the three courses, and the same is true of the dessert fork and dessert spoon being above the plate.
Glasses are more challenging. The water goblet is closest to the dessertspoon and fork, the white wine glass above the fish knife, the red wine glass behind that and the champagne flute further back. The sherry glass is closer to the front.
A five course meal in Europe usually consists of soup, fish course, main course, salad, and dessert.
Starting from left to right, you would have the fish fork, dinner fork, salad fork, plate with napkin (and possibly name card), salad knife, dinner knife, fish knife and soup spoon.
Glasses are set up the same, thank goodness.
Now, it is not just knowing what is what and what to use when. It is important to know how to place your utensils while you are eating. Why, you may wonder? It lets servers know in a polite way when you are finished. Again, there are differences between Americans and the Europeans. I try hard to adopt European manners when in Europe, as it makes things go more smoothly, and makes me look like I know what I’m doing. But sometimes I slip and revert to American ways.
After you’ve cut a piece of meat (one at a time), place knife on rim of plate with cutting edge inward. You can rest the hand you are not eating with in your lap or your wrist on the table, but never your forearms or elbows. To learn this, when I was at YMCA camp when I was six, if it was done, people would chant (I’ll use my name), “Maralyn, Maralyn, aren’t you able to keep your elbows off the table.” Since I was not allowed to do it at home, I did not have to worry, but the embarrassment worked with others.
If you want to pick up a glass or finish a course before your are finished, place the knife tip at 11 with the handle at 2 and fork in the lower right at 4.
When you are finished, place knife on left and fork on right with the tines up, with the tip pointing to 10 and handles at 4.
For dessert, if it is the fork only or fork and spoon, place lower section at 4 pointed toward 10.
When Europeans eat, the knife stays in the same hand as they cut with and the fork does too. This makes the one bite at a time very efficient and keeps elbows off the table, as the wrist is usually just there.
When a European wants to indicate they are going to rest a few minutes and sip some wine, but are not finished, the knife tip is facing 10 and the fork with tines down is crossing the top of the knife facing 2.
The finished position for Europeans is the same as the U.S. The U.K. places tips towards 12 and the handles at 6.
Miracle of miracles, dessert finishes the same for both the U.S. and Europeans with fork and spoon at 4 pointing towards 10.
I have heard controversy on the resting position that Europeans use. A good friend, who is a French Master Chef, says it is a preferred position for finishing for servers. This way, they can place their finger on the curve of the fork, hold both in place, and not worry about any slippage.
I’m sure there are many more thoughts on this subject and I would be very interested in hearing any of your thoughts. Just write to me at LuxeBeatMag@gmail.com and in the subject line, put Global Etiquette. Please let me know if there are etiquette topics you would like covered. I’ve studied the topic a lot, along with growing up in a home with extremely strict grandparents when I was young. Plus, I do not mind doing the research.
Table setting design by Carol Clinton. Photography by Sherrie Wilkolaski.