Holiday Entertaining: Timeless Advice

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The above vintage photo of Imogene Wolcott, author of The Yankee Cookbook (1939) and former Food Editor of Yankee Magazine (years unknown) appears in my circa 1940s copy of “Parties Should Be Fun…For You!” which she also authored. There is a Forward by Margery Wilson, former silent film star and authority on entertaining, charm and etiquette who is also one of my favorite authors on that genre.

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Although written to address general entertaining and dinner parties (and sponsored by Wright’s Silver Cream), there are some gems in there that can be very helpful to current-day hosts and hostesses who may be stressed out about creating a “perfect” Thanksgiving dinner. 

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Rather than share some of the straight-forward and useful advice on plate placement, how to properly polish your silver and outdated advice such as ensure there are plenty of ashtrays available for your guests (maybe for another blog post!), I transcribed the entire Forward. In my opinion, the logistics and planning are important, but it’s your spirit, peace of mind and putting your guests at ease that can make it memorable for the right reasons:

There are many ways of announcing a dinner, but only one correct way to serve and eat it. Whether a bowing French butler says “Madame est servie,” or a disparaging English nose intones “Dinner is served,” or a sweet-faced mother fumbling at her apron string says with shy pride, “I guess it’s ready now,” the tables of gentle people will look much the same.

Every table reveals individuality (and often reveals too much), but there are certain unquestioned verities from which no one departs. However sim­ple the service, table appointments will be appropriate and exquisitely cared for. There is a glow and gleam to a well-set table as unmistakable as a mono­gram or the grip of a secret society. Above all, the highlights of silver caught by sun, bulb or candle give the final touch of distinction anywhere. Even plate takes an air unto itself if it is polished to do its utmost.

And speaking of plate, I still remember being taken down a bit long ago when I asked a dealer if a piece were solid silver. He condescended to ex­plain as though to a child that one never says “solid silver.” Silver itself means solid — anything else is plate. I don’t think I’ve offended in that way since.

But I also learned long ago not to look down on plate. Some of the most interesting of the older pieces, valuable beyond price, are plate. Whatever we use, if we do it with forethought and care, will be effective. That cher­ished look resting like a halo on our possessions can give our houses the dig­nity and presence we want them to have. So it is wise to choose both ap­pointments that require a minimum of care and the best materials for their care.

So many brides ask me about silver patterns, and always I say in the interest of the bride’s energy as well as the good appearance of her service, ” Dear new housewife — choose a pattern that doesn’t have too many plain spaces to show the scars and scratches of much use. How shabby plain silver can get! On the other hand, unless you are affecting the Victorian era, don’t have too ornate a pattern. And no matter what you choose, don’t use harsh methods of polishing your silver. Strong chemicals make it look too bright and metallic, too garish, almost naked. To bring out the pattern with a fine, gleaming restraint, use a dependable silver cleaner — Wright’s.”

I have inherited much old silver, and all its life it has been cared for by this generations-old cleaner. There’s just something about it that brings out quality. “Quality,” that old-fashioned word that old-fashioned darkies ap­plied down South to people as well as possessions — how easily it reveals itself. Indefinable and recognizable as charm, it’s a kind of gleam that over­lays all one does or owns or touches.

It’s the hostess with the light of joy in her eyes that comes from a real love of making people happy and knowing she is master of the art who will have the happiest guests. She will have made it her business to find out the best and correct ways of making herself, her home and her table attractive and gracious. She will use her imagination, her ingenious sense of drama, and, just to be different, a daring simplicity most of the time. She will be careful of the little things. She will not attempt more than she can do well. She will reduce her menu to a few delicious items and serve them with fine distinc­tion. She will consider mealtime, with or without guests, a festive time.

Mealtime, a time to be one’s best and give one’s best. A time to train one’s small son to draw out his mother’s chair. A time to eat as human beings were intended to eat — in communion with each other. It separates us from the animals to talk while we eat — to demand some simple formalities of gratitude and companionability.

I once knew a man whose stern father had actually schooled him to eat in silence. He grew to be a boorish, unhappy misfit of a man. Gracious people are usually the happier ones.

So let’s make each meal an occasion, a pause in the strain of the day — our table an altar of friendliness to which we will bring nothing but courtesy, wit, confidence and joy. Children and even grown-ups familiar with such a table will be adjustable and find it easier to get along with other people — find it easier to save themselves from the increasing pressure of problems and worries. Here in our homes is a sanctum where we can express our love for each other by making our tables a happy memory for our families and our friends.

The lady of the house should always remember that she is a hostess every minute of every day. I hope she realizes her opportunity to lay beauty and nourishment for the character and the mind as well as food for the body before those whom she receives.

The standard of living in America is the highest in the world. It is the growing graciousness within the American home that will uphold that stand­ard in essence whatever the future may hold.

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5 thoughts on “Holiday Entertaining: Timeless Advice

  1. I have a very old copy of “The Woman You Want to Be” by Margery Wilson that belonged to my mother. It’s quite a time capsule and I treasure it. Have you read it, Averyl?

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