In Search of a Well-Set Table? Bring Back the Bling

Set formal holiday tables this year with thrift store finds

I never got to really see the dining room tables that I was continuously reminded were heirlooms because they were always obscured by three layers of linen and padding. Though my family in rural Mississippi rarely socialized outside their closed ring of siblings and spouses (even the production of cousins was rare),

they never failed to set formal tables for each other. It didn't seem to be a point of rivalry, it was simply their idea of civilization. I was surprised, then, to discover that setting tables is one of those conventions that I always assumed to be a shared one but is actually pretty rare. Largely to blame is that setting formal tables at home isn't the vogue, and it hasn't been in recent memory. Flipping through shelter and cooking magazines still yields the same disappointing, rustic place settings, one rusted spoon after another. Gourmet magazine's newsstand edition, the last print champion of white tablescapes, died this month. My stepdaughters have never escaped into the familiar relief of very cold water from a particular silver goblet while enduring the entire family, in varied degrees of craziness, at one table while fighting a hangover. They have never filled a relish tray or chuckled at the gnarly claw-knuckles on fried chicken tongs.

Pristine linen on peeling paint is High/Low 101, ABC Carpet & Home circa Shabby Chic, and while I appreciate the mysterious distress of an old dresser as much as anybody, I'm ready put it back in the bedroom where it belongs. (Don't worry, I'll have sealed in the priceless old dirt with a polyurethane sealer so I'm only removing the offending new dirt when I clean off old sticky meringue.) In fact, while you're at it, please put the armoire back in the bedroom as well. It is actually a "cabinet" in which we keep televisions and store placemats, if it must have a name. (If there is an old wash bowl/pitcher set in the living room, it goes in the bedroom, too, unless someone in your house plans to stand there washing themselves, blocking your view of the game.)

When we invited twenty people to dinner this Thanksgiving, my inventory produced four forks and one misplaced table cloth. It became clear that my calling in this matter was to set a table worthy of my Aunt Rebecca's silver peacocks (tails down), but on a budget of what change I could find on the floor of the car. Linens came from The Guy From Dallas at City-Wide Garage Sale who sells by the pound. Two hours up on 12' tables digging tunnels through mountains of cast-offs yields some beautiful surprises. You don't always know exactly what you've got until you get home with it: An unstained Battenberg lace tablecloth (it is rare to find clean ones) hits the ironing board, and one edge is unlike the others...buttonholes here...it was a shower curtain in someone's Nineties' bathroom! A new seam down one side, and you see the results below. That day's haul also included 14 napkins, a damask tablecloth, a table scarf embroidered with blue pansies, another Battenburg tablecloth, 20 sets of plate flatware, three butter dishes, a coat (?), and surprise! a hastily-finished crewelwork owl that must have jumped in my bag when I wasn't looking. The preparation and ironing of these items was unbelievably hot, sweaty work. My dining room became a sweat lodge proving ground when glassy-eyed with task-obsession, set up among clouds of white broadcloth, I went through some changes. The iron hissed over a cocktail of dripping perspiration and distilled water. I thought I saw Hazel hovering sympathetically over the task at one point of exhaustion. She said that sweat gives a better surface than starch, and to keep ironing. On another day I'd swear the zombie-mummy of an Edwardian bride was emerging in there, and by the time I got the wine coasters and jelly glasses down it looked like Don Corleone was coming over.

Corleone Social Club: Table cloth, City Wide Garage Sale; water glasses, jelly jars, HEB; Short candlestick holders, Next to New
Texas church plate from a collection of about 20 built from markets and thrift stores.
Burnet Road provided silver-plate serving pieces, crystal candlestick holders, and decanters. I rummaged in the garage for still-packed wedding presents. Polishing silver is not labor to sneeze at, either. It's messy, requiring standing at the sink, and it's necessary to buff until you're crazy. Rubber gloves? You'll need three pair, minimum, and also know that the sulphur smell will go away. My glassware pretty much consisted of Warner Bros. Pepsi glasses, and restaurant supply was way too precious for the budget, so jelly jars and footed water glasses from HEB were the ticket. My husband's meringues did catch fire, it's true, and while salvaging one of his pies it did double on itself like a taco, arriving finally on his left sneaker. But the day itself was everything I wanted.

Decanter, Next to New; footed tray, Assistance League of Austin; candlestick holders, Next to New
We've now cleaned it all up, the lone green bean in the corner has been removed, the crystal either broken or put away. Wagers were made, eyelashes fluttered, and gluttony reigned at these tables, and a reclaimed sugar shell is once again the rightful witness. These serving pieces and fancy linens once held the dream of living well for someone. Why that moment was abandoned, why these things were not bequeathed to someone who cared is anyone's guess. The things left on the side of the road have stories that nobody is telling. Have you rescued an heirloom today?
Shower curtain/table cloth, napkins, City Wide Garage Sale; candlestick holders, Assistance League of Austin; bee hive shakers, Breed & Co.; wine coaster, estate sale; mint julep cups are for decoration only, catering supply.
Table cloth, scarf, City Wide Garage Sale; glass candlestick holders, Next to New; flatware, mix of City Wide Garage Sale and heirloom
Arrangement from the wildflower garden of Sam Houston Museum, Huntsville

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