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Setting a Splendid Table


Waitman
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(Speaking of splendid tables, does anybody else fine find Lynne Rosetta Roseannadanna as annoying as I do?)

Maybe it was the corrupting influence of my year serving in a formal French restaurant, but I do love a well-set table. Homey informality and hipster kitsch are all well and good, but God gave us crisp linen and brilliant crystal for a reason, and it seems a sacrilege not to lay it out when guests arrive.

Sadly, this stuff ain't cheap. Mrs. B and I got married -- rather than continue a long and happy cohabitation -- largely for the china and crystal we registered for. (And, also, the kid was almost old enough to be the ring bearer, and we knew there would be audible sighs of relief from the more conservative relatives when we got married in a big cathedral by a priest.) But this is, at best, a one-time only option. And so we are always on the lookout for inexpensive and occasionally archaic table-swag and thought we'd share a couple of valued sources in hope of getting a few tips in return.

We spent a good chunk of Black Friday nestled up in the much-underrated Martin's Tavern in Georgetown and after we had enough gin and football, we trotted across the street to the always delightful Christ Child Opportunity Shop where we decided that, rather than birthday dinner at Palena I'd buy Stephanie a charming 70-piece Hutschenreuther breakfast set (fruit bowls!) for a little less than what the dinner would have cost. Octagonal, floral, porcelain (not china), they are exactly what your grandmother would have served lunch for the ladies on if she had good taste and an affluent husband. We passed on the cucumber (?) spoon but did score a sterling coke spoon for our salt cellar and a silver spoon (and other implements) for a friend's baby's mouth. Had we been feeling a little more affluent ourselves -- or a little more ginned up -- every imaginable silver utensil was available, plus several nearly complete (real) china places settings and even what appeared to be an immense crystal caviar bowl. It is a spectacular shop for elegant, pre-owned tableware and well worth visiting between now and Christmas.

"Salt cellar?" you ask? Of course. How else to pass around the imported, gathered-by-virgins-from-French-tidal-flats crstals that all the right sort of people are serving these days? Surely, not some vulgar shaker. And, of course, the Opportunity Society sells cellars. But our blue-glass and sterling number came from The Red Schoolhouse in Millwood, Virginia. It's one of those co-op places and one of the members seems to have a thing for food-oriented antiques. If you're looking for an establishment that offers six or eight different antique fish sets, this is where you want to be. We've also scored old-school enameled oyster forks, linen napkins the size of spinnakers (who cares if the embroidered initials don't match mine?) and a pie safe, in which to store the forks, napkins and china. Also, if you're up for a day in the country and the weather is good, the Red Schoolhouse is located about 400 feet from one of the seriously greatest pick-nick spots on earth. There's a restored, working grist mill, (discerning gourmets will wish to pick up their blue corn meal after the tour) tables by the creek -- under the oaks or in the sun, as you prefer -- and that rarest of commercial enterprises, a genuinely gourmet-oriented foodstuffs establishment right across the street from the mill (and around the corner from the Schoolhouse), in case you've forgotten your wine and cheese, or just want a cup of excellent homemade soup. And, of course, it's just down the road from Dinosaur Land, for the kiddies. Finding this spot was one of the happiest accidents of my life.

And, finally, I'd be remiss if if I failed to mention the Tablecloth Lady at Eastern Market. Years ago, mere hours before my boss, her husband and six other guests were due to arrive at my house for dinner in the then-unfashionable U Street metropolitan region, my car got swiped (yes, in my haste to prepare I left the keys in the ignition). In the trunk, and worth more than the car, was an excellent crepe wool Calvin Klein suit and perhaps the most luxurious Irish linen tablecloth ever woven in my ancestral home. I'm half convinced we bought it back the other weekend from the Tablecloth Lady, damask linen so unctuous that it's almost as rewarding to cradle against your breast as your first-born child (more rewarding than your friend's). But the Tablecloth Lady sells linens up and down the price and age range and it's almost impossible not to pick up something (cocktail napkins? Bien sur!) if you take a moment to drop by.

Tom Waits rasped "you take on the dreams of the ones who've slept there," about cheap rooms on Minneapolis's skid row, and I think I take on the meals of the families who dined with the settings that now grace my table -- memories of a more elegant time. The Chesapeake oysters slurped down with the enameled forks by dad in a suit and tie and mom and the kids in their Sunday best (and why is the lavender fork more worn than the blue one? Did the girls fight over it because it was their favorite color?). Whose initials grace the napkins? And how was that first dinner, after he became a partner in a prominent rural firm and she could order the linens she'd always wanted -- his initials and her mother's recipe for country ham? And was that the same tablecloth that that was in the trunk of the car? I'd always hoped that the crackhead who swiped it gave it to their mother, and that she'd say grace before family dinner adding that she hoped that, this time, when he came home, he'd get a job and stop running with the corner boys.

Plus, nothing covers up for a slightly below-par execution, like serving dinner in a dazzling room. And polishing silver builds character.

If y'all know some other sources, please pass them along.

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Way too tired to do your post justice, but I will forgive you for slamming the pioneering cookbook author and incredibly warm Lynne Rossetto Kasper since I can imagine why she might annoy (and I did not get today's final-word quote). However, for places I'd recommend for some really cool table stuff, try the Kunsthistorisches Museen in Vienna, e.g. the salt cellar a Medici gave François I.

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Charles, as soon as you get a larger table for your dining room, I will give you an "antique" hand-embroidered on fine linen (from China before anyone knew) table cloth and 12 never-used matching napkins on which you can embroider any initials you wish. Why my mother wanted a table cloth that big, I will never know; we never had a table large enough for it. It will, apparently, break your heart to know that I passed up the crystal and sterling salt cellars with matching spoons that went with my mother's silverware set when I was cleaning out her house. I just hated those things when I was a kid and always managed to use too much salt. So, if you want to salt your food at my house, you will have to use a shaker. However, the sterling silver flatware gets used every time we have guests over. I sold the matching ashtrays, along with the salt cellars. :)

I heard about a store in Savage Mill that supposed to carry old linens--just to keep this on topic.

I also listened to Lynne Rosetta Kaspar today and decided that you are wrong about her. :)

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I will admit to a childhood of eating "special" meals with Lismore and Old Master, and, if polishing silver builds character, I've got it in spades. I have to say, we've gotten away from it, but our new dining table had me thinking about more formal dining, and now your post has inspired me as well. From another place and time, the table. post-3913-055999600 1290905242_thumb.jpg

I'll add Martin's Field in Buckeystown Maryland to the list. I picked up a few pieces of sterling there a couple of years back including a little nut dish shaped like an oak leaf and acorns. The prices were more than fair, and the selection was quite good at that time. I should go back.

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I have two different china patterns from my grandmother in storage, waiting until I have a house (and breakfront, I suppose), large enough to keep them. I believe both are service for twelve -- one was the kosher service and one was the non-kosher. However, one is primarily pink (!), and my colors are muted orange, teal, and black/gray/white, so I'm not sure how that's going to work out. :)

if polishing silver builds character, I've got it in spades.

:) Amen to that! I also have silver service for 30 (Grand Baroque pattern). Note that my table seats 8 uncomfortably. (There's also a formal dining table in storage for me, which does expand to seat 12 or 16 ... Apparently, I need an entirely new house.)

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I have had sporadic luck right here in Takoma Park at PollySue's Vintage Shop. A dozen linen cocktail napkins, oversized linen dinner napkins, the weird wooden armoire in my dining room that holds all the placemats, and the 10 linen placemats with matching napkins that I passed along to you and Mrs. B a couple of years ago all came from PollySue's.

Most of our family treasures are long gone. My mother assumed I wouldn't want my grandmother's Limoges china and gave it to my brother who never uses it, and gave her 1960's-era Noritake service for 12 with all serving pieces to my sister, who put it in a box in her attic and is not sure that it's still there. At least I have managed to preserve my grandmother's antique fruit knives that she received as an engagement gift from my paternal great-grandmother.

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Note that my table seats 8 uncomfortably. (There's also a formal dining table in storage for me, which does expand to seat 12 or 16 ... Apparently, I need an entirely new house.)

Last year at Christmas, we squashed six around my little apartment table and vowed to get something bigger. Now I could seat eight comfortably, and twelve with the leaf, but the chairs are still on order. :) Soon, though. I also dream of a breakfront. I have a huge moving box in the attic marked "cake plates" that hasn't even been opened.

Craigslist should probably be mentioned for good deals on nice furniture, especially at the end of the month, although our "new" table came from a neighborhood listserve. It is also not at all uncommon to find people selling entire sets of fine china.

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I blame turbogrrl for reminding me of just how gorgeous Baltimore-made silver was, and what a grand tradition it once represented. One by one though, they failed or merged until only Kirk Stieff was left standing. At least when that firm closed its doors one dark day not so many years ago, a jewelrymaking friend of ours ended up acquiring a number of their tools and machines at auction. But the skills that once made some of America's finest repoussé pieces will probably never be recovered.

When I win the lottery...

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