Tag Archives: table top

Conversation Starters: The wonder of Salt Cellars

blog photo of salt cellars on Fran's table

“Above the Salt” Idea: Entertain guests like a pro with great salt cellars for your table.

Do you know someone who can really throw a fabulous gathering no matter how large or small? I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to know some party planning geniuses and, to be honest, I spend a lot of time paying attention to them – what they do and how they get it done.

What I’m describing here is the subtle art of home entertaining. Creating an intimate setting where the drinks are flowing, the food is excellent, and the music sounds fabulous, but at the very heart of the party is the conversation: electric, happy, and memorable.

THAT’s the key, right there: the trigger for a great conversation. Without it, you could host a party with a five-star magician as the main entertainment, and still watch it flop. I know. I’ve seen it happen. So, what IS the secret? What’s the trick to triggering conversation and keeping everyone talking?

Consider these examples:

  • When friends come to visit a friend of mine’s home for drinks, he pulls out old AOL sign-up CDs from the 90s and uses them as coasters. Boomers laugh. Millennials gape at them as though they’re museum collectibles.
  • Another friend uses “vintage” Melmac cups, saucers, and plates from the 1960s – a very nice retro look that goes with her retro décor. Along with her movie posters (also from the 60s), her home really is like a museum, but you should hear all the conversation!
  • An author I know collects photos from pre-World War II Europe and has framed reprints all around his home. For people who have traveled to Europe – especially Italy and Germany – these are very precious images that never fail to trigger a conversation.

The truly cool thing about this “trick” is that, for it to work, you don’t have to go all out and redecorate your home. Add things that complement your existing décor and personal tastes. But, do your research and be THAT person who knows a bit about whatever you’ve add to make things just a bit more interesting. In my case and for my taste, I like curios that I pick up from estate sales, often for the tabletop or kitchen.

Recently, I rediscovered Salt Cellars, also called ‘salt pigs,’ which were used to hold and dispense salt. They can be either lidded or open and vary significantly in size, shape, and materials – from very simple to incredibly elaborate made out of precious metals and stones.

Salt cellars of various shapes and sizes have been found dating from the time of the Greeks and Romans. During the Middle Ages very elaborate salt cellars were placed at the head of the table as a sign of status and prosperity, so they were often crafted in silver and decorated with sea motifs (remember – it was sea salt that was being put into the salt cellars). 

In addition to the large bowl placed at the head of the table, smaller ones would be set around the table for the guests. Social status was measured by where guests were seated relative to the master’s large salt cellar. So, high ranking guests sat ‘above the salt’ and closer to the host while lower ranking ones sat ‘below the salt.’

Some of these master salt cellars were so large and ornate that they were called ‘standing salt’ because they weren’t passed around the table.  The tiny spoons first appeared in the 17th century as the use of these larger salt cellars increased. Common salt shakers didn’t appear until the Victorian era in England but remained unpopular because salt tended to clump up due to moisture in the air.  After anti-caking agents were introduced in 1911, salt shakers became more popular and cellars were eventually demoted off most dinner tables.

Salt cellars are now a collector’s item, but I like to use them around the table with different salts in them.  Sea salts come in many shades and flavors that can really add excitement to your food. Using different salt cellars with different salts is another way to kick-off conversations, and keep the memories flowing no matter how you’ve been “salted.”

Check out my video for more ideas on home entertaining.

Home Entertaining Tip: Create a Great Cheese Board

Make it colorful and fun: alternatives for cheese boards, knives, serving bowls.

I have a friend who grew up in England. One afternoon last spring, we sat out on her patio overlooking the valley with a light breeze blowing over our shoulders. We were having tea served in exquisitely painted china that her father collected decades ago, some light crackers, and slices of cheese served on matching silver plates. So elegant and light – so her.

Later this summer, I visited another friend. We sat in her living room as her kids chased each other around in the backyard with a water hose. As they squealed, we chatted over tumblers of wine coolers, crackers and cheese served on dinner plates.

We all have different ways to entertain, all different styles. Even for the friend who’s coming by for just a moment, we offer a little liquid refreshment and/or something to nibble.  And, if you come to my place, there will be cheese.  The unexpected visit can be just as much fun as the party you’ve planned. All it takes is a little imagination.

First, cheese boards come in all sizes, shapes, and materials – you can really use almost anything flat including a china platter.  If you took a survey, most people don’t even bring out a cheese board either because they cut the cheese before guests arrive or they think they don’t have something that will be ‘right’ to use. But let’s say you want to use a board – you can find them truly almost anywhere. Sometimes I use a beautiful flat, squarish piece of black slate as a “board” of sorts: the cheese and fruit look so beautiful against the dark color of the tile. My point is, your “board” can be made of almost any material.

Cheese knives also come in all shapes, sizes, and materials as well. Maybe you want to slice the cheese ahead of time, but it’s not a rule. Many times, I will cut a few slices or pieces and leave the rest of the piece of cheese ‘whole’ for my guests to cut.  My video shows some of the knives I’ve collected on my travels. I even have one with a handle that is shaped like a mouse that I picked up a few years ago in a small shop in Paris.  It’s a great story to tell my guests, and it looks fun on the plate.

Along with the cheese and crackers, you may want to add olives, gherkins (small pickles), nuts, or perhaps truffle honey, and so on. Place these ‘extras’ in individual small bowls or containers – the more colorful and fun the better – place them either directly on the board if there’s room or next to it on the table for easy access. Pick ones that add visual interest to your cheese board.  You’ll need small spoons or small spreaders as well for the honey or preserves – remember sweet, whether it’s dried fruit or something else, pairs perfectly with cheese.

The trick is to pick up the boards, small bowls, containers, cheese knives and spoons/spreaders as you see them and not to wait until you actually NEED them. I’ve always found that if I’m searching madly for something the day before a party, I rarely see what I’m looking for. Take your time and have fun planning.  If you’ve found things you love to use you will already have the right tools for that unexpected guest!

Home Entertaining in Style: The best way to build a collection of fine silver and crystal

The secret: estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores. And they’re fun!

For some folks, having the perfect set of home entertaining “ware” is a matter of inheritance. If you are one of the lucky ones to have inherited crystal, china, and silver–family heirlooms–then you have my envy.

Not me, not my mother. She didn’t want anything that my grandmother had. To be honest, I have no idea what my mother passed up and certainly don’t know what happened to those pieces. My parents preferred a very casual form of home entertaining, so the thought of polishing silver and washing crystal and fine china was just too much of a hassle.

I get it.  I have great friends who love to entertain like that – no silver, crystal, etc. and they throw some of the best parties around! One couple not far from me—celebrity film writers—own the biggest collection of mismatched vintage Melmac ware I’ve ever seen. It’s really something to behold. They even have some pieces that date back to the 1940’s.  It’s very cool and is completely their style.

I love to mix and match items on a dining table or buffet as well—but my style is more along the lines of silver, crystal, and fine china – sometimes mixed in with more casual items when the mood strikes! They don’t all match and they’re not all from the same time period. But, that mix of different styles, patterns, and materials creates lots of interest for my guests, so they’re great conversation starters. You never know when someone will point out an item that they love and want to know all about it. Even if I don’t know the exact story of that particular piece I do know where I got it and that starts the fun.

So, if you like finery or really any particular entertaining style, and if you’re like me with no family heirlooms, there’s the joy in finding different pieces while building a collection, adding to what you have, and replacing what gets broken (it happens). And, there’s no better way to do that than going to estate sales, flea markets and second-hand resale shops.

Estate sales can be found by simply googling – you will come up with a great website like Estatesales.net.

This site is convenient. You can search by state and then zip code for estate sales that are happening in your area.

There’s also Hughes Estate Sales here in Southern California where you get into whole collections of great pieces provided in a controlled environment.

They start on Fridays but I really like to go there on Sundays when the discounts are the biggest! This is where I found my Lalique juice glasses that you can see on my recent video.

Flea Markets can also be fun. I recommend checking Google for the best ones in your area. In Southern California, the one I like best is the Rose Bowl Flea Market, which happens on the 2nd Sunday of every month. Flea markets are hit and miss— so, don’t be sad if you go and you don’t find anything that day – there’s always next time. Bring along a friend and plan to spend some time looking around and having some fun while you’re at it.

Here are some basic collector tips that I’ve picked up along the way.

For either estate sales, flea markets or second-hand shops, be willing to take your time going through what’s there. Understand that just because on one day you find nothing doesn’t mean that the next week there won’t be a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Don’t go out looking for a perfect set of 8 or 12. In these venues, items are very often odd numbers in a set. For instance, I found a really nice set of nine etched crystal goblets at a Denver second-hand shop. That’s okay with me—my table only seats 6!

It helps to set goals. Think about what you need to build your collections. Maybe look at patterns, designs, and styles ahead of your outing: so easy to do with the Internet. Get familiar with types of things that you like and price ranges that you’re willing to pay so that you don’t spend a lot of time with dead ends.

And, always remember, silver turns black if not kept polished–so don’t be afraid even if the item is blackened. Pay closer attention to the overall quality of the article in terms of damage (dents, missing parts, and so on). If you find a tray you love, but the silver plate is worn out in some areas–don’t worry- you can always have silverware re-plated at a fraction of the cost of new.

Most of all, make it fun and bring your found treasures home with great stories to tell your guests.

Party Etiquette: Which bread plate is mine?

Don't be confused by etiquette

This tip will save you from the embarrassment of grabbing the wrong bread plate (or wine glass) at a formal party.

A friend of mine told me this story about one of the first formal parties he attended. It was one of those kinds of affairs where someone pulled out all the stops. And despite all the preparation and reading, he had no idea what to do.

“Suddenly, I had performance anxiety,” he laughs.

“There was every imaginable utensil, plate, glass and other things I’ve never seen set on the table,” he said. “I was confused, but then I discovered that my neighbor was confused – in fact, I think the whole table was completely at a loss.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“We shared. We made it work,” he laughed. “Even the host thought it was amusing.”

The funny part is, my friend is the maître d’ of a five-star restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA where table rules are the standard for every meal. Beyond plates and utensils, there are practical rules like no elbows on the table, no reaching in front of the person next to you, always say “please” and “thank you,” and so on.

My historian friend tells me that table manners evolved over time since the early Renaissance as a part of the cultural revolution. But how about this as a surprise – table rules probably began in Italy (yay!) and not France. Cultural anthropologists (there’s a title for you) attribute the move toward universal social manners with a book written in 1558 by the poet Giovanni della Casa titled “Galateo.” In it, he describes all kinds of manners, including washing hands before sitting down, the use of hands while eating, and the way of putting food into your mouth.

Today, rules cover a myriad of things, right up to how and when one sits at a formal dinner table if royalty is present. But for your table, it’s the bread plate.

The first tip, from my friend the career Maître d’, is that at a party where nobody is sure whose bread plate is whose (much less, which plate is the bread plate), don’t feel bad. Nobody else is sure either. The person on the other side is just as confused and bewildered as you are.

The second tip, from me – keep your cool and ask questions. Dinner is to be an enjoyable, friendly experience. Nothing good happens if you feel like you’re taking a test.

The third tip is a little trick I picked up a long time ago. Touch your thumb and forefinger together to form a small “d” with your right hand and a little “b” with your left. Now, think of the little “d” on your right hand. It stands for “drink.” Those glasses on your right are yours. The little “b” on left-hand stands for “bread.” That’s YOUR bread plate!

Now you’ll never be confused again.