Sunday, August 21, 2005

Expert Dining: The Art of the Table by Suzanne von Drachenfels


I've used (and created) "expert systems" before, but I have to admit, I never thought of them in terms of entertainment or casual perusal. The expert system embodied in Suzanne von Drachenfels' volume, The Art of the Table, changed my mind.

Drachenfels brings to bear her years of "tabletop consulting for a large dinnerware firm", her knowledge of the history behind tableware, table setting, and table manners, and an haute cuisine sense of when to season her writing with relevant quotations. The result is fascinating and illuminating, and makes me yearn to host a 120-guest formal dinner, just so I can put what I've learned to the test.

Drachenfels begins by discussing tableware and defining some terms. Do you know the difference between a fruit plate and a salad plate? Can you spot the snail fork in a table setting? (And did you know that the "spork"—properly, the ice-cream fork—was introduced in the late 1800's when Thomas Jefferson brought the delicacy to the US?) Could you name that broad cheese-serving doohickey with the slot in it? (It's a cheese plane.)
I don't mind eels,
Except at meals.

—Ogden Nash, quoted under "Fish Knife"

These and many other tidbits make interesting reading if you're planning to move in high society. But what really caught my attention was the detail of the author's knowledge. If it goes on a table, she understands it, and explains it so you can understand, too. From tablecloth sizes for various kinds of tables, to stemware, to "how to buy flatware," many of these topics provide ready—and thorough—answers to the kind of questions that arise while reading bridal registries. (What is a champagne coupe, anyway?)
Here's to champagne, the drink divine,
That makes us forget our troubles.
It's made of a dollar's worth of wine
And three dollar's worth of bubbles.

—Anon. aside in the Stemware chapter

Each chapter is richly illustrated with black-and-white sketches that compare different kinds of tableware, or show the proper orientation of items in a table setting. A folio of glossy, full-color pages is a sumptuous addition to the beauty of this book, contrasting the impact of a table set for "formal dinner in the grand style" with the inviting charm of an al fresco afternoon tea service.

Not content with merely discussing the table setting (if "merely" could be used in conjuction with this impressive compilation of knowledge), Drachenfels next tells us what is proper in the serving of meals, from the withdrawal from a formal table for demitasse and liquors (and what the servants should be doing while the guests withdraw!) to the expected contents of the plates. Yes, she includes an entire section on menu planning, with attention to food, wine, coffee and tea.
Here lie the bones of Joseph Jones,
Who ate while he was able;
But once o'er-fed, he dropt dead,
And fell beneath the table.
When from the tomb to meet his doom
He rises amidst sinners;
Since he must dwell in heav'n or hell,
He takes which gives best dinners.

—Epitaph on an English tombstone, under "The Sequence of a Seven-Course Menu"

The final section of this enormous reference work covers table manners; not just the ones you learned from Miss Manners, but more esoteric tips, as well. Cutting mangoes, eating escargot, and mining for lobster-meat enliven the lesser-known tips in dining etiquette. The last chapter gives us some insight into the universality of table manners—that you must display manners is universal, although the details are different from one culture to another. And lest you be daunted by the sheer wealth of information to be found between the covers of The Art of the Table, a well-developed index is available to guide you back to specific answers.

We all eat, but not all of us are informed about the customs we follow and the artistry involved in the simplest table service. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history or practice of this succulent art.

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