Table Talk

By Diane DeVaughn Stokes

Can we talk? Did you ever have a mental block about something and wondered why in the heck you could not remember how it was done? That’s how I am with technology and computer stuff. But so what? Luckily I am married to a techie who can help me every step of the way! However, there is something else that I am more embarrassed about. It’s something all women should know and be good at. It should be in our blood and genetics. It should come naturally. More than anything, once you do it, you should be able to remember how to do it the next time! But sadly I can’t! I’m talking about table settings.

Thank goodness when I moved out of the house forty-five years ago, my mom and dad gave me a Better Homes and Garden Cookbook. You know the red plaid one with all the yellow sections on pies, cakes, side dishes, measurements, meat portions etc. But my most treasured part of it is the one on place settings. I have used it over and over throughout the years almost every time someone comes for dinner. I can prove it to you by showing you the ruptured binder holes in that section that have been taped and mended more times than I care to count. I just can’t seem to remember the proper order of things from one dinner guest to another, even though we entertain frequently.

Don’t laugh. But when I was a kid, I never had to set a formal table, as we were a very informal family. And it wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I had to do it for the first time. Now Mom, if you are reading this, don’t think I am blaming you. You were a perfect mother. It’s just that when we did finally have a formal family event like Thanksgiving and Christmas you and Dad handled it.I hate to admit my forgetfulness, but I can never remember if the salad bowl goes on the right or left. Okay, I just looked it up. It goes on the left but it seems that it would be easier to dig into it on the right. Why stretch across your plate to eat from it, especially if you are right-handed? Maybe it should depend on what hand you use most? I wonder who I can write to in order to get that changed? Who set up the original rules on this stuff anyway?

I used to not be able to recall whether the knife blade turned into the plate or out. Then I reminded myself if it turned out, it might cut someone by mistake. That helped seal it into my old fuzzy brain. And another formal place setting statistic that I can never remember – does the teaspoon or tablespoon go next to the knife? Well, I try to associate that with the fact that you are small before you grow bigger, so it’s the teaspoon first. Yes, sometimes these little hints work for me. Other times I reference the photo spread in my trusty cookbook.

One of the most innovative place settings I ever saw was one my mom did for dinner the first time I brought my future husband, Chuck to meet my parents. Mom knew that he was a Carolina graduate, so to tease him, and lighten the evening, she put out her Clemson orange tablecloth and napkins, which was a very fashionable color at that time, using the inner cardboard roll from toilet paper as napkin rings. Of course she turned the utensils upside down and the centerpiece was a planter with a man in a big sombrero hat with a big cactus. If you know my mother and her risqué wit, you will easily be able to fill in the blanks regarding the placement of the cactus. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she and my dad dressed up with wigs and hats and mismatched clothes that made them look like the parents of Second Hand Rose! God bless Chuck, he married me anyway.

Speaking of Chuck, I am lucky he did not grow up in a stuffy formal environment so he could easily adjust to my style. He does not even know there is a right way and wrong way to set a table. I knew he was the man of my dreams when we were out to dinner one night with friends many years ago, and I saw him eating the roll off of someone else’s bread plate!

I am especially glad that my mom convinced me to choose stainless steel for our bridal registry instead of real silver, because she was right as usual –who has time to shine and buff it before using it? I use our stainless steel silverware all the time, and it still looks great today!

So even though the whole table setting thing causes me to break out in a sweat, I still use my china, stainless and crystal whenever anyone comes to dinner, even an informal one. I remember what Irma Bombeck said upon knowing she was dying, that one of the things she would have done differently if she could live her life over, was that she would have dined in the dining room more often than just on holidays, and she would have used her formal china regularly.

Now the older I get, I care less about getting it right. I care less about formality. I care less if someone criticizes me for making a mistake and getting something wrong. So what if I flunk table setting! Toss the utensils in a basket and put it in the middle of the table and let everyone help him or herself. Who cares? It’s more important to get together with good friends and create good memories than it is to have a memorable table setting! Let’s toast to that! (By the way, YOUR glass is on the right!) Cheers!

About this writer

  • Diane DeVaughn Stokes

    Diane DeVaughn Stokes

    Diane DeVaughn Stokes is the President of Stages Video Productions, Host and Producer for TV show “Inside Out” on HTC, and EASY Radio Host weekdays noon to 3pm. Her passions include food, travel and theater. You can reach her at

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One Response to “Table Talk”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Diane, your mother sounds like a hoot! I can never remember the proper way to set a table either, as I do it only once a year. Great story.

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