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Create a dining mood with tablescaping

Create a dining mood with tablescaping
Create a dining mood with tablescaping
Suetta Tingler

A beautiful “properly set table” makes the perfect canvas on which to serve delicious food. To set a proper table doesn’t mean you need to dust off the fine crystal and heirloom china because melamine, even paper, and plasticware can do the job. It simply implies the correct individual placement of eating and drinking utensils, napkins and plates.

If your desire is to “fancy up” the look by adding a cloth tablecloth and napkins, even perhaps a centerpiece, guests will appreciate and notice the extra effort.

Knowing how to set a table is all about the use of creativity, curiosity and knowledge to achieve a particular mood.

Setting a table is old business. The earliest table traditions were documented by the Ancient Greeks. Table-setting scenes are even mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible as well as in the writings of the ancient poet Homer.

European table manners date back as far as the 11th century. The Victorian era (1837-1901) elevated the status of how to set the proper table by using colored wine glasses, name cards and candelabras in homes of the elite.

A properly set table conveys a certain mood for the enjoyment of guests. I first became hooked on such mood settings, or the art of “tablescaping,” back in 2003 when then-Food Network celebrity chef Sandra Lee introduced her trademark idea of semi-homemade cooking to television viewers. Lee took shortcuts when it came to cooking but always found the time to set a specific mood when entertaining guests.

New as it may have seemed some 18 years ago, tablescaping has been around for centuries. So, what exactly is tablescaping? It’s definitely more than knowing on which side of the plate to place the fork.

Tablescaping can be defined as the art of creativity and intentionally arranging a tabletop to deliver a certain mood or theme. It can be as simple as pulling items from around the house and putting them back after the meal or as elaborate as your wallet allows. For example, gathering fall leaves, gourds and a few small pumpkins can dress up a holiday table.

Most people have done tablescaping without realizing it.

Themed restaurants have long known about the importance of setting a mood. Such restaurants have become special attractions in the dining industry because they intrigue and bring excitement to curious diners. In truth, the decorating often makes the meal more memorable than the food. Think Rainforest Café, Chicago’s Portillo’s, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville or sitting around a communal hibachi grill table at a Benihana restaurant.

Allow me to share how the art of tablescaping has made a difference in community and fund-raising events.

Perhaps the oldest and most popular example of tablescaping competition in our country remains a tradition at the Los Angeles County Fair since the 1930s. It is such a big draw that a waiting list of hopeful participants exists because only 20 entries are allowed each year. Such competition has become a popular wave across the United States, promoted by charitable groups, women’s clubs and other fund-raising organizations that are finding it to be a trendy form of entertainment.

Tablescaping competitors on the small fund-raising scale decide upon a theme to dress a table for “paying eyes” to observe. Cash votes are cast, and winners are declared, earning bragging rights, ribbons or small monetary awards. In larger venues, such as the L.A. County Fair, entrants are allowed from two to four hours to set up their tables out of public view. Once winners have been determined, fair-goers are allowed to stroll along a simple barrier out of easy reach of all tables but close enough to see table details and tagged winners.

A sampling of some celebrated tablescaping themes from the past at the Los Angeles County Fair include scenes from “Gone with the Wind,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Wicked,” “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” “Harry Potter” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Mermaids, race cars, ’50s diners, farmhouses and even an RV picnic have made entry. Tables have also been decorated to convey moods of Mardi Gras, the Kentucky Derby, Halloween and Uncle Sam.

The common denominator for carrying out a winning theme includes creativity, surprise, accuracy and personal time and cost.

Here are some general rules that have proven to work well with competitive tablescaping:

Participants assume all expenses as for table coverings, props, signage, etc.

A limited number of participants are allowed entry.

A committee selects a short list of themes to be used or participants create their own.

Same-size tables are used by all participants. A table covering can drop to the floor, but no side chairs holding props can be used.

Each entry must be accompanied by a hand-printed menu, that completes the mood for the theme, placed somewhere on the table. The menu is for show; no real food is involved. No perishable items of any kind are allowed.

Criteria for judging tables include, but is not limited to, creativity, use of color, interpretation of theme, presentation, correctness of idea in terms of placement, proportional size of items used, and correct spelling of words printed on menu or signage.

Why not venture into the heat of the summer to create your own mood-setting party? Title your tablescaping experience “Around the World in 80 Days” and allow your menu to reflect international tastes. I have included some recipes to get your creative juices traveling.


(“Recipes of the Greek Orthodox Ladies Society,” Charleston, S.C.)

1/4 cup salad oil

1/4 cup wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 garlic clove, minced

4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

4 pounds boned leg of lamb, pork or beef sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Combine all ingredients; add meat and let marinate in refrigerator 3 to 6 hours, turning meat over several times. Put meat through oiled skewers and set to grill over charcoal, turning to brown evenly. If a home oven is used, rest the skewers on rack of broiler pan and brown under broiler, about 6 inches below heat. Turn occasionally to maintain even color and baste with the marinating sauce. Broil until meat is brown and crispy, about 45 minutes. Lamb requires 10 to 15 minutes for medium-done, turning the skewers once. If using pork, make sure to cook through. Makes 8 main servings.


(“A Taste of Young Life” cookbook)

1 (20-ounce) package refrigerated cheese tortellini

1 (15-ounce) can artichoke hearts, quartered

1 (6-ounce) jar Kalamata olives

8 ounces provolone cheese cubes

8 ounces grape tomatoes, halved

1 (8-ounce) bottle Caesar dressing

Cook pasta until al dente; drain and place in a large bowl. Add artichokes and next four ingredients; toss to coat. Refrigerate for several hours. Toss again before serving. Serves 10 to 12.


(“Best of the Best” QVC cookbook)

1 (19.8-ounce) package brownie mix, batter prepared according to package directions

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/3 cup cocoa

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 (8-ounce) container frozen whipped topping

1 (20-ounce) can cherry pie filling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 12-inch pizza pan with cooking spray. Spread the prepared brown batter evenly over the bottom of the pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean; let cool. Sift together powdered sugar and cocoa. In a large bowl, mix cream cheese, powder sugar-cocoa mixture and vanilla. Add whipped topping to the cream cheese mixture; beat until smooth. Spread mixture over the brownie pizza and spoon the cherry pie filling evenly over that. Chill before serving.


(Caputo International Market, Chicago)

1 cucumber, diced

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced

1 ounce green olives, pitted and chopped

2 teaspoons cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon mint, chopped

1-1/4 teaspoons wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly. Serves 3 to 4.


(“Celebrity Chefs,” WHAM personalities of Rochester, N.Y.)

1 dozen flour tortillas

4 large chicken breasts, boiled and diced

2 cans cream of chicken soup

1 pint sour cream

1/2 bunch green onions, sliced

1 small can green chili peppers, diced

1/2 pound grated Monterey Jack cheese

3/4 pound grated cheddar cheese

Combine soup, sour cream, onions, olives and chili peppers; stir. Fold in Monterey Jack cheese. Remove 2 cups of the soup mixture. Add diced chicken to the remaining soup mixture. Roll and fold chicken mixture into tortillas and lay in greased pan. Pour the 2-cup soup mixture over the top of tortillas; cover with the cheddar cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.


(Cincinnati Celebrates Junior League of Cincinnati)

2 cups brown sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

1 cup sour cream

1 egg

1/2 cup chopped nuts

In a bowl, combine sugar, flour, butter, salt and allspice; blend until mixture is crumbly and completely mixed. Butter a 9-inch square pan. Spoon in half of the crumb mixture. Stir baking soda and orange peel into the sour cream. Mix into the remaining crumbs along with the egg. Pour batter over the crumbs in the pan and sprinkle with chopped nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes