Why a properly set table matters

The Rosen Schwartz family sits down to a properly set, and color-coordinated, table. Says mom Lynn Rosen: "It just creates an atmosphere."
The Rosen Schwartz family sits down to a properly set, and color-coordinated, table. Says mom Lynn Rosen: "It just creates an atmosphere." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 03, 2014

Dinner at the Rosen Schwartz household is no rushed, throw-a-slice-of-a-pizza-on-a-paper-plate affair.

OK, it is on occasion - the hazard of 21st-century married-with-kids life. But often enough, and certainly on this school night, the family of four sit down to a properly set table for dinner - emphasis on properly set.

"On a regular basis, I insist on this scaled-down formality, that there are essential items that belong in a table setting that go on our table," Lynn Rosen, 52, says from her Elkins Park house. Husband Evan Schwartz, 49, puts the final touches on dinner while sons Cooper, 14, and Oren, 11, are charged with handling knife, fork, and plate settings.

"It just creates an atmosphere," she says. "This is a distinct period of time we're carving out of our day."

Rosen, author of Elements of the Table, will speak on the history of a well-set table at the charity event "A Date with a Plate: The Art of Table Setting." (The biennial fund-raiser, started in 2008, is slated for Tuesday and Wednesday at Moulin at Sherman Mills in East Falls. For details, go to www.adatewithaplate.org.)

Alas, the table-setting practice of the Rosen Schwartz family appears to face an uphill battle. In the last 20 years, family dinners have declined by one-third, according to the Child Study Center at New York University. Another poll, released last year, found that almost half of the 1,018 families surveyed the year before said they rarely dined together at home. It was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Policy.

No surprise, then, that some fear that the table set with care may be slipping away, an art lost to TV-tray dinners, then Mickey D's (or, in a more modern incarnation, Panera) on the way to soccer and a time-starved, overworked society.

"I do think we've lost something," says dietitian Connie Holt, an associate professor emeritus at Widener University's School of Hospitality Management. "I do remember more home meals when I was a child and certainly more than I did with my own children and see as a grandparent."

Widener, like many colleges, has a program that teaches students table etiquette. That includes instruction on the increasingly esoteric art of how to set the table - and what to do with all those pieces of cutlery.

Some may wonder why it matters, really, to put out a bread plate when the tabletop, or certainly the edge of the entrée plate, will do just fine.

It's part of a "value system," Holt says. "When you set a beautiful table and guests walk in, they know they're important."

As life moves at a blur, sitting down as a family at a table with at least a plate, fork, knife, glass, and napkin is all the more vital, argues Paul O'Neill, director of special projects in the Hospitality and Sport Management Program at Drexel.

"It allows us to relax . . . to take that break," says O'Neill, who also works as a waiter at the acclaimed restaurant Vetri.

A pretty table also makes the meal "a little more inviting," he says. "It's just like having a bed that's made. . . . Meals should always be an event, even at their most meager and simplistic roots."

Certainly, Judi Goodman and Sharyn Berman would agree. The two are co-chairs of "A Date with a Plate," which this year benefits the Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Interior designers, florists, event planners, and others will each set a table that reflects their business style. In 2012, the fund-raiser brought in about $400,000 through sponsors, a patrons dinner, and ticket sales.

Goodman and Berman, longtime friends, share a sensibility for design that attracted them to a fund-raiser focused on table settings and that has played out at dinner in each other's homes.

"You can eat a meal in a couple of different ways," says Goodman, an interior designer, who lives in Whitemarsh Township. "We always chose pretty." Her three children are grown. But when they were younger, she made a point of setting the table with their help. She'd use her everyday china and often made a centerpiece of fresh-cut flowers from her garden.

Likewise, Berman, the mother of six, loved to entertain and appreciated an aesthetically pleasing table. "I like the whole idea of getting a table together," she says. "Even when I would throw paper plates on the table, everyone teases me, they had to match the kitchen. . . . It makes the meal more inviting."

Now, she and her youngest daughter, Jenna, 17, eat mostly at the breakfast bar at her Lower Gwynedd home. But Berman still insists on cloth napkins for dinner, and dishes that match the place mats, even for breakfast.

Back in Elkins Park, Cooper sets out the Sasaki plates in a cream-and-black pattern. He says that setting the table is "not really that fun," but allows that the chore is worth the trouble - and the allowance, no doubt - because "it just looks nice when you do this. It helps us all come together over dinner."

Often, the family discusses a highlight of each member's day. On this day, Rosen expects to talk about the school play later that evening. "We could have Hot Pockets for dinner," she says, "and I'm still going to try to get them to sit at the table and pay attention to each other."

Despite her tabletop sensibilities, Rosen insists she is no stuffy traditionalist. (She does, however, iron the cloth napkins.) Schwartz assures that his wife never measures the distance between items, à la the opening credits of Downton Abbey.

"No rulers," he says. But Schwartz, who works in marketing, says that his wife's passion for plates and accessories has rubbed off on him. "Even when Lynn is not here, I make sure we set the table."

On this evening, the boys have completed the task, down to the bread plates with pewter butter spreaders (both craft-show finds).

"Everything on the table has a story," Rosen says.

Schwartz brings out the tilapia encrusted in Panko - laid out on a beautiful ceramic platter.

"Did you wash your hands?" Rosen asks the boys, who answer in the affirmative.

"Great!" she says. "Shall we eat?"

And they take their places around the table set just so.


lkadaba@gmail.com

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