Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Presentation

Before Sunday dinner one evening many years ago, I was served baby dill pickles as an appetizer. Sliced thin, they were placed in a cereal bowl, and handed to me for me and my boyfriend to eat with our fingers.

Our fingers. From a cereal bowl.

Whatever tangy delight those little pickles may have offered up was overshadowed by the familiar, and tragic piquancy of Awkward. Perhaps an hors d'oeuvre fork, some cheese slices, or a modest pile of crackers could have eased the mortification. Some cured meats, a glass of wine, even a toothpick holder on a doily.

Alas, no. Just a sad cereal bowl with tiny sliced pickles.


Similarly, we've all enjoyed the familiar dish of whipped cream and gelatin pudding. Refreshing and sweet, oft-served at large family events in my state, and inexplicably served with the main course, rather than as a dessert item (something society has certainly encouraged by offering parfait as a backyard barbecue dish). But my chief complaint is not the taste, nor the timing, but the presentation. In the same giant bowl it was mixed in, with a large flatware spoon for serving. Best not to let the spoon fall in the mix, lest you have to shovel it out. A modest and tasty dessert reduced to slop. There you have on your plate with heavy sides of mashed potatoes and gravy, some roasted meat, a sad mound of melting Jello. Have we no dessert bowls? No small goblets? No sherry glasses, shot glasses, martini glasses, prep bowls?

I want to make something absolutely clear: one needn't rush out to the nearest Kohl's and load up on Food Network-brand white servingware to present a nice meal. There is nothing in the world wrong with using the same set of dishes for eating and for serving, though there is something delightful about having serving dishes that actually fit whatever you are trying to serve.

But make it special. Make it clean. Take 20 seconds and slice up your chicken breast nicely and serve it atop your rice. Even the humble grilled cheese sandwich benefits from mindful presentation: instead of a sad, square sandwich on a plate, slice the sandwich in half diagonally, take one slice, turn it 90 degrees and lean it on the other slice. Looks lovely, lets you see the melty interior, and gives you room on the plate for a little bin of ketchup or a bowl of soup.

Hello. I am just a grilled cheese sandwich.

I am still a grilled cheese sandwich. Just better dressed. And poorly photographed.

Yes, wine is great with grilled cheese.
Twist up your pasta into little mounds with salad tongs if you are plating (which I often do if I'm just cooking for two). This concept doesn't even mean the excessive use of extra dishes. Instead of a bowl for mashed potatoes, a plate for meat, and a bowl for sauce, why not trowel out the potatoes onto a serving platter, pour the sauce, and lay the meat in an attractive fashion on top (or polenta, onion puree and pork tenderloin for that matter)? Family style doesn't have to be ugly.

Yes, yes, I know. We're all busy. But having a lovely table for dinner is calming; in much the same way that we feel relief when we return from a long and awful day at the office, peer into our bedrooms, and recall that yes, we did make the bed this morning. And no, I don't mean buying matching ribbons to hot glue onto a custom tablecloth for a "beauuuutiful tablescape." (You know exactly what I am referring to.) Nor do I mean busting out the tablecloth every night unless you really want to. But there is something to be said for respecting the event of dinner. If you have kids, let them help by spooning some sour cream into a little bowl instead of just plopping the whole tub on the table. Use the large platter if you're serving pasta family style. Don't be afraid of using the good pitcher to serve milk to your family. Most of us don't have the pleasure of hosting dinner parties or cocktail parties for entertainment like previous generations did. Why save the special servingware for Thanksgiving only?

Seriously. How much nicer is the pitcher than the jug? Plus, the pitcher doesn't dribble milk out the seam under the spout when you pour from it. And this one of those little tasks that you can delegate out so that everybody is busy helping make dinner and set the table.
I must admit some personal growth in this department. My husband and I received a set of stainless steel salad tongs when we wed. I moved those tongs into five different homes. We struggled for nearly a decade using two big spoons to dish out salad. Since I only ever hosted one Thanksgiving and one Christmas dinner, I only used those tongs twice. IN NINE YEARS.
The Apparently Awesome Tongs
They aren't that fancy. They can't get hurt. But I had some notion that they should only be used when enjoying a special dinner. Isn't that absurd? Now, I can see not using your grandmother's china when you have young children and inattentive parents over for dinner. But why wouldn't you use your glass bowls or porcelain platters or even crystal goblets for dinner?

What is it that makes dinner special enough to deserve a little attention?

I say the fact that you are there. The simple fact that you are able to sit down and enjoy your food. The fact that you are treating nourishment as something worth enjoying. And if you can wrangle someone else to dine with, that's even more reason to treat it as a special occasion. How about gathering your whole household for a meal? I'd venture that's nothing short of a miracle and is a medal-worthy accomplishment. At the very least, why not use the nice pitcher? Just because we do something each day doesn't mean that occurrence is any less deserving of appreciation and respect.

Dinner isn't just a meal. It's an event.

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