When I was eight, my parents sent me to manners class. I should explain that I have the type of parents who would see an eight-year-old “incorrectly” use a fork, think, My god, what a monster we have raised, and send me off to an afterschool Emily Post boot camp. We learned how to send a thank you letter and how to speak on the telephone, and, over the course of one interminable day, how to set a table for a dinner party. I learned that the napkin was to go on the left of the plate, or on top for dramatic effect. Drinking glasses went to the right, above the knife and spoon.
These skills are a dying art. It’s not that nobody knows how to set a table anymore—most of us just don’t care. In an age where more people know how to take a beautiful food photo than cook a gourmet meal, it’s surprising that the table—the literal thing food rests on—has been left by the wayside. That is, except for one place: the ever magical, über-American, county fair.
In addition to the 4-H competitions, pig racing, cover band concerts, and breakthroughs in fried-food ingenuity (try the “Black Tide Doritos,” a fever dream of the cheese sauce–basted chips topped with caviar and fried escargot), there is the table setting contest. The Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, California, tucks theirs into the same area as beers, pies, and pastries.
This year’s entries were an eclectic mix. July contestants created tables that fit under four larger themes: “Yellow,” “Across the Pond,” “Weddings,” and “Mother Nature.” I spotted a sunny table titled “When Life Gives You Lemons…” (Yellow), an English gentleman’s afternoon tea (Across the Pond), a bridal luncheon (Weddings), and a murder mystery dinner (Across the Pond, again). Entrants devise a menu to fit the event, set the table accordingly, and decorate like crazy.
The judging sheet approvingly notes “effective use of blood spatter” for one Jack the Ripper-themed entry with an almost literally tongue-in-cheek menu. There’s a liver pâté appetizer, romaine heart salad (like a “heart,” get it?), steak-and-kidney pie, and blood pudding for dessert. Just a few entries over, there is a table covered in yellow with “adorable” daffodil-embroidered napkins and another with “baby chick” place cards described by the judges as “quaint and eye-appealing.”
“Every year I say I’m not going to do it anymore—I put so much work into it,” says Shanna Rosa, a tablescaping veteran, whose lemon-themed table won first place in the “yellow” category. Though she describes table setting as a hobby, the contest is on her mind throughout the year. “I must have brought a million fake lemons over the last few months,” Rosa says.
Janet Lew, whose Alice in Wonderland–themed table received a first place ribbon in the “Across the Pond” division likes to collect decorative pieces for her tables while she’s traveling. For her first table four years ago, she purchased teapots and satin fabric while on a visit to China. Though the fair does award cash prizes to those who get ribbons, the Best of Show winner only receives $150 (after paying a $10 entry fee). Lew says she regularly shells out much more than that on each of her tables: “I don’t like to tell anybody how much I spend.”
Though the fair isn’t over yet, Lew is already thinking about next year’s table. She wants to do something “whimsical” again. Much like Rosa, Lew loves to entertain and host perfectly designed parties. Not many people have them anymore.
For most of human history table setting wasn’t an art or even a matter of etiquette. People were lucky to have a table. In medieval royal halls guests might bring their own cutlery to banquets and eat off of bread rather than plates. For these feasts, the cooks dazzled with edible achievements—not artistic ones—preparing extravagant tableaus of jelly, or cockentrice, an avant-garde creation where a pig and a capon are each cut in half with the back of one sewn to the front of the other. If it was on the table it was part of dinner.
Yet the aristocracy yearned for other ways to show off. In the sixteenth century, the Italians developed the art of decorative napkin folding, twisting starched linens into fabric tableaus. (They also created the art of trionfi, sugar sculptures as detailed as those carved from stone, created out of sugar.) In the seventeenth century, silver found a place at the aristocratic table, leading to the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
But it was the middle class that turned tablescaping into an art. As nineteenth-century housewives sought new ways to differentiate themselves from the poor and emulate the rich, they showed off their culinary and artistic skills with their tables. Flower shows, which began during the same time, featured exhibitions of ways to display both food and greenery on the dinner table.
Manners, part of any well-rounded lady’s education, whether she was middle or upper class, were likewise taught in schools or by local women’s clubs. A 1912 article in the Northwest Journal of Education describes an “artistic table setting” display set up and run by the “domestic economy department.” Some of these demonstrations also found their way into the ultimate middle-class event, the county fair, though it’s not until the 1930s that mention of competitive table-setting competitions pop up across the United States. An issue of The Billboard magazine (now known simply as “Billboard”) from 1947 describes a Ventura County, California, table-setting contest that used “Emily Post Book of Etiquette as the authority in judging winners” and “drew several columns of space in the local press.” Lenox china and crystal began sponsoring table-setting contests in 1955, which continued for decades.
With families today pulled in endless directions, sitting down together for dinner—to say nothing of creating an elaborate tablescape—can seem impossible. Aside from magazines like Martha Stewart Living, websites like Pinterest, or shows on the Food Network, DIY design no longer has a place at the table. For purists like Barbara DesRochers, a tablescaping judge at the Orange County Fair, and owner of a family-run catering company, that’s a shame. “A great display actually trumps great food,” she says.
But as is the case with all art, beauty in tablescaping is in the eye of the beholder. Yet the contest is more than just flights of design fancy. Harkening back to a well-set table’s roots in etiquette, each entry has to conform to a strict set of standards. The tables are a standard size for contestants within each category. “Informal” tablecloths can only drape eight-to-twelve inches over the edge of the table while “formal” cloths can go twelve-to-eighteen inches. There are gestures to practicality: if there’s soup there’d better be a soup spoon.
DesRochers says that the judging can take up to five hours for roughly twenty entries. The judges’ personal preferences obviously come into play, yet there’s such a strict rubric for grading—Is there appropriate silverware? Are the tablecloths the right length?—that the Best of Show is sometimes a surprise even for the judges. Sometimes, DesRochers says, she doesn’t love the winning entries but, because they have the most points, they take home the ribbon.
This year’s Best of Show winner was a fairy dinner designed by six-time contestant Gayle Eve. The main attraction of the table was a large custom-built tree Eve started building months ago. The tree had a door in the trunk and fairies hanging from the branches. Placemats were made from woven twigs and the drinking glasses were blue-etched glass goblets. The entire table felt transported from a mossy forest clearing with a beam of sunlight shining down on it.
Eve says she wishes she could decorate tables for a living and used to do windows at a department store years ago. When someone recently asked her why she didn’t turn this into a career path, she said, “Because no one cares how the table is set.” People hire professionals for weddings but that’s it. “No one has even heard of tablescaping.”
When the fair is over, Eve consoles herself by decorating for family and friends during the holidays. “Sometimes they don’t even eat at the table, they just like to have it decorated,” Eve says.