Monday, August 31, 2015

Proper Place Setting Etiquette

Correctly drawn diagram of a place setting, with no more than 3 forks on the left. If a 4th fork was to be added on the left, it would replace the cocktail fork, and the cocktail fork would be moved to the right of the place setting, and to the right of the knife. 
In the United States' Colonial period, the only flatware on a dining table was a knife, fork, and possibly a spoon, for each person. With stacked tablecloths, one atop another for each course, explain Wendell and Wes Schollander, in the book Forgotten Elegance, "Part of the reason for this was that the tablecloth was removed after every course. To have a lot of silver and many glasses on the table would have made the removal of the tablecloth too hard.           
The fork is the only utensil that can be found at three sides of a place setting. 
When the change to service à la Russe took place in the 1860s and 1870s, the tablecloth stayed in place throughout the entire meal. In addition, the servants were busy carving and serving food. It now made sense to put out all the silver the diner would need and leave it there throughout the entire meal. The footman had other things to do and less time to hand out silverware. In addition, the mechanization of the production of silverware, together with a drop in the price of silver, meant the host now acquired more silverware. 
 An individual"bird knife and fork" in the Chantilly pattern. The game course could consist of partridge, pheasant, duck, woodcock, snipe or other popular birds eaten in the 1800's. The bird knife was the forerunner of the steak knife we know today, after a serrated edge was added.
There were some practical limits. Clearly if the hostess put out the eight or ten forks one would use at a formal meal, the diners would be too spread out to comfortably talk to each other. Convention quickly settled on three or four forks as the maximum number the hostess could put out so guests could still talk easily to their neighbors. For some twenty years after the Civil War there was disagreement about whether three or four forks were proper.        
The three forks on the left, as set for a formal meal, match with the corresponding knives on the right. This formal dinner setting's menu included a caviar first course, a cream soup second course, a fish course, a dinner course, then a salad course, then dessert. The utensils directly above the plate are always for dessert, (save the salt, pepper, or condiment spoon and possibly a butter spreader.)

In the end, three forks won out – perhaps because the game course became less common. But, because this was a change and an arbitrary number, it was necessary to keep reminding people that they should never put out more than three forks at a table setting." –From the book, "Forgotten Elegance"

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