They say you eat with your eyes first, although it would be hard to squeeze a turkey sandwich past my glasses. But seriously, it is true that appearance can affect taste and lovely surroundings can elevate even the humblest meal.
For dining at home, Corelle may be just as good as Wedgwood when it comes to meatloaf and mashed potatoes. However, there is something deeply appealing about a well-appointed table: the sparkle of wine glasses and china, the luster of polished silver, fresh flowers and glowing candles all foretell that a delicious meal is about to be served. Because Thanksgiving is such an occasion, and because family cooks have likely spent days laboring over special recipes that ought to be savored, I thought it might be timely to share five tips for setting a beautiful table.
A caveat: If your palms itch and you break out in hives at the mere thought of creating an intricate tablescape in addition to cooking all day and cleaning up all night, then stop reading right now and go have a bubble bath or take a nap. Life is hard enough without having to spend an hour adjusting acorns and gathering dead leaves or what have you. On the other hand, if you’re already imagining your moss-and-mini-pumpkin centerpiece and Googling how to braid your own table runner out of dried corn husks, then by all means, read on.
You don’t need posh things, just things that you love.
My Thanksgiving table is the grandest hodge-podge of thrift store and secondhand items you could imagine, laid cheek-by-jowl with heirloom pieces. When I set the table, though, I’m not thinking about what’s valuable and what’s cheap. I’m considering what each thing means to me — what memories they’re connected to and which cherished friends and family they remind me of. I usually set the Thanksgiving table with Desert Rose dishes that I inherited from my mother. I miss her the most at Thanksgiving and using her dishes makes me feel like she’s still here with me. My table isn’t fashionable but seeing my collection of Thanksgiving bric-a-brac makes me feel good. I have lots of items with negligible objective value that nonetheless fill me with joy, like the chipped corn-shaped pitcher that my grandmother displayed in her dining room. Lavish some affection on your Thanksgiving table by dressing it with objects that make you happy, whether they’re designer wine glasses or dollar store dishes.
Everything doesn’t need to match (unless you want it to).
I prefer a mix-and-match table with contrasting colors and patterns to a monochromatic scheme and identical tableware. At the very least, it gives people something to look at when conversation lags. If table talk veers into politics, you can politely redirect it by discussing the different china patterns. Most of my things come in sets of four or six, but I can double my place settings by mixing two sets together. I have a drawer filled with a hodgepodge of antique forks and spoons so that sometimes not a single piece of silverware on my table matches another piece. But there is secret to making mismatching work, and it’s color. When patterns don’t match, colors should. When colors don’t match, try contrasting warm tones against cool tones. If you have a blue tablecloth, set it with red, yellow or orange. When something “pops,” people are responding to the unexpectedly pleasing juxtaposition of two opposing elements. That being said, if you feel calmed by symmetry, matching sets and neutral colors, forget this advice and make your tabletop an oasis of order.
Ignore the trends and use what you have.
Magazines and Instagram will tell you that you need the latest thing, whatever that might be: metallic chargers for your plates, cloth napkins, lots of candles (or no candles) and plain plates that allow the food to shine. Nope. Is the Country Living or Architectural Digest photo editor going to be at your house? Well, there’s always Great Aunt Hildegard to cast aspersions on your taste, but never mind her. The point is, forget about whatever is au courant and take a look around your house, because everything is fair game. Put knickknacks on the table or make pine cones into place card holders (but shake out the spiders first). Use napkins as place mats or use tea towels as napkins. Use ribbon as napkin rings and use tea saucers as dessert plates. Use Champagne flutes to hold tea lights or make vases out of them by filling them with fall flowers. If you have fake leaves and silk sunflowers, use those. If you have a lot of construction paper for making crafts with your grandkids, then cut leaves out of that. In fact, if you have grandkids, use them — put them to work making place cards for each guest or send them outside to gather maple leaves. If you have teens, then you’re probably out of luck.
When all else fails, go wild.
Nature is the greatest artist and she is profligate with her wild bounty. Thanksgiving is a particularly good time to include a bit of nature in your tablescape, because we’re all nourished and sustained from the earth. That’s why I started my tablescape by going outside. I gathered dried leaves that had blown into our yard from next door (thanks, neighbor!), relishing their rich hues and crinkly texture. Back inside, I mixed real elements with faux items in a haphazard sort of way; I’m not a purist, I’m a pragmatist. I stuffed a real gourd into a basket-weave cornucopia from the dollar store and filled in the edges with fake moss. I snipped off some fresh sage leaves from my garden and put them in aperitif glasses with tiny plastic pumpkins. Fake leaves were scattered across the table along with real acorns. A tablescape doesn’t need to be 100 percent real as long as the overall effect is interesting and delightful. If a few bugs or mold spores also make it onto your table, just pretend you’re camping, but with a lot more dishes to wash.
If you’re not having fun, forget about it.
Don’t do anything because you think you have to. If you’d rather celebrate this day of thankfulness by putting on your fuzzy bunny slippers, playing an old jazz record and drinking a gin and tonic, then that’s what you should do. Let somebody else arrange the china, fold the napkins and rustle around with a bunch of crinkly leaves. As the theologian Karl Barth said, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”