Holidays are a time for family and friends to gather in the spirit of community. Our roving reporter John Bloodsworth is on the scene to share insights of how tableware affects our social experiences.
Julia Child said that being able to serve and eat a whole fish is part of civilized dining. While most of us do not relish the thought of our meal staring back at us, serving it on a bone china plate as part of a resplendent table setting does make the meal easier to swallow. The experiential pleasure—trout heads and tails aside—of setting a fine table can transform a mere meal into an epicurean experience.
“Eating is a necessity, but dining is a social experience,” said Lark Mason, the founder of Lark Mason & Associates, the New York and New Braunfels-based auction house that recently hosted an exhibition and sale of luxurious table settings. Drawing on collections from around the country, the show was a comprehensive look at dining implements, china sets, fine glassware, serving vessels, cooking utensils and table settings from the 17th century to the 20th.
“We wanted to tell the story of the development of dining, the customs and rituals that evolved over the centuries associated with the serving of food,” said Mason, who has been the Asian art expert on the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow since it began airing in 1997. “Five hundred years ago, we had no plates,” Mason continued. “We used hard circular bread crusts, which evolved into the first plates of wood and metal. Pre-1700, we ate primarily with our hands, so we went from using three fingers to scoop up food from communal pots to implements with specific uses.”
“That led to the organized table setting, where you work from the outside in,” Mason said. Much of our dining material came to us from Asia—hence the word “china”—including lacquer ware and porcelain. Today, dining by candlelight is a romantic experience. “Before electricity, cut glass provided more surfaces to reflect light from candles,” Mason said. “It was really about magnifying the available light.”
Your setting can be as formal as your tastes demand, but a simple centerpiece can change the tone of a weekday family meal. “Setting a table is really about honoring your friendships and family ties, showing the people you love that they are special, creating a shared experience with social interaction,” Mason said. “Of course, it certainly helps if the food is good.”