Let’s Table this Matter

Illustration by Brian Justice

Our principessa of party-giving shares nuggets of wisdom regarding fine tableware

My friend Dan Nilsen is a wine glass snob. I thought I had proper everyday wine glasses until I went shopping with him, an occasion after which I considered going home, pouring gasoline on my wine-glass cabinet and setting it alight.

On the excursion during which I learned of Dan’s wine glass hauteur, we were shopping for a gathering at his house. He’d mentioned his wine glass supply was low. I suggested we swing by World Market to look at the Pinot Noir glasses I use as everyday red wine glasses, sometimes as water goblets. I hasten to add these are from the store’s “Connoisseur” series, as distinct from their “Event Glasses.” As we stood in front of the display, Dan examined the glass and gently pointed out its shortcomings: the stem has seams; the bowl is thick, unpleasing to sip from; and the point where the stem meets the foot is graceless and indelicate. “I’ll just go to Halls and pick some up later,” he said, feet pointed toward the door.

I haven’t yet torched my wineglass cabinet. But we break wine glasses regularly—cheap ones shatter more easily—so next time I buy new, I’ll know better. In the meantime, I’ll lovingly and unapologetically serve wine out of my World Market glasses. I would never let lack of the perfect casual wine glass—or the perfect anything else—stop me from having people over. Neither should you, honey. But it is confidence-building to know you are serving guests from beautiful tableware, isn’t it? You can proudly share take-out or store-bought fare when you know your table looks gorgeous.

And speaking of Halls and wine glasses

My friend Kelly Cole, president of Halls, quotes verbatim what the Neiman Marcus saleslady said to him when he purchased his very first set of crystal wine glasses decades ago: “One thing about washing these? Do it the next morning.” And he has wisely held to that rule ever since.

Breakage issues notwithstanding, who feels like hand-washing anything after an evening of wine, food and revelry? Sometimes before I turn in it’s all I can do to get the food put away and one load going in the dishwasher. In fact, Kelly tells me many Halls tableware purchases come down to that single question—can you throw it in the dishwasher?

At my house, practically everything goes in the dishwasher. If I had to hand-wash my dishes, glassware and silver, I would never have another dinner party. For one thing, I am a sack of sloth. For another, I go through a lot of stuff. The glassware alone is dreadful, what with aperitifs, wine glasses, water goblets, after-dinner drinks. It all goes through the dishwasher, on the china setting, and everything almost always comes out okay, even when I am flagrantly violating the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Dish companies: not the boss of us

Don’t let the marketeers dictate how you use your stuff. You can serve a margarita out of any glass you like. You can use your cereal bowls for dessert, your bread plates for appetizers. You most definitely don’t need to be confined to having full place settings of everything. It’s much livelier to mix patterns. Do not be shy about it.

For a dinner party I use two separate sets of dinner plates because I serve a plated salad as a first course—Ina Garten’s endive, pear and roquefort salad is divine, or her arugula with Parmesan—and I like to have plenty of room for error when I plop it on the plate. Then I use another set of plates for the main course. It’s fun to have a variety of plate choices, providing you have storage space. You can find smart-looking earthenware dinner plates at Target and Pier One. Just don’t expect them to last like fine china plates which, though delicate-looking, are much more resistant to chipping and cracking.

When it comes to tableware, Kelly tells me that tradition is very much alive in Kansas City. The wedding registry at Halls continues to see engaged couples registering for crystal and fine china. (“White dishes rule, now and always,” he says.) That’s good news, as it makes wedding-gift shopping much easier. My mother always told me to send a place setting of the couple’s china and be done with it. “Don’t presume to know their taste,” she would say. “Order from the registry and they’ll love you forever.”

Call me old-fashioned

Are you inheriting sterling-silver flatware? If so, lucky you. When I was a new bride, my mother-in-law gave me place settings for twelve in the Joan of Arc pattern—including iced-tea spoons and butter spreaders—and for years I was too simple-minded to appreciate the fabulousness of it. But now I do, and I thank her up in heaven every time I set my table. I use my sterling for even the most casual gathering because it looks and feels marvelous, and it’s certainly never going to be the worse for having been used.

That’s the thing about sterling. It never wears out, unlike silver plate, which can look just as exquisite but will go downhill with use and begin to expose its seamy copper underbelly. Still, it’s the next best thing to sterling. You can buy tarnished silver-plate flatware for a song in junk shops and flea markets, polish it up and set a magnificent-looking table. Your guests won’t care that it’s not sterling. They are just happy to be sitting at your table. In fact, your guests won’t care if it’s stainless. Just don’t use plastic, darling, unless it’s the direst of emergencies—for example a recent fire in your wine-glass storage area.

Three-Ingredient Melty Cheesy Chili Dip

What is it about a hot dip, topped with melted cheese, that screams “eat me,” no matter what the occasion or time of year? I was at a lavish Kentucky Derby party, hosted by friends Lori and Frank Addington. Their friend Jill Bartram sauntered in with an elegant-looking casserole dish containing a steaming layered chili dip. It was hard to get near it for the julep-drinking, hat-wearing crowd that shifted over to it, but I moved in for a bite. Then another. It tasted like it had been labored over. “It’s so easy,” said Jill. “Three ingredients!” She gave me the recipe:

2 8-ounce packages light cream cheese, softened

2 cans good-quality chili (15 ounce cans, or thereabouts)

2 cups shredded cheese (Jill uses Colby Jack, but anything that melts well will do)

Spread cream cheese on bottom of a good-sized oven-proof dish. Top with chili, then sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with scoops or Doritos. This recipe can be halved for a smaller crowd.

Note: Jill used Amy’s Organic Vegetarian Chili because the hosts don’t eat meat, but she usually makes it using chili with meat. She also throws in a can of chopped green chiles, when she has them on hand.

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