When I was in graduate school, decades ago, my mentor was an aristocratic maiden lady whose father had owned one of the largest woolen mills in New Hampshire. She had taken me and my best friend, Joan, under her wing in a rather futile attempt to turn us into ‘gentlewomen’ (no small task.) This often involved dragging us up to Westchester where she lived, to meet other aristocratic, elderly ladies living in “restricted” communities. They did things that were unheard of in my family such as “pour tea.” I never could fathom why learning how to pour was an important part of my education, but I went along for the ride.
My parents were Depression poor and largely self educated but what they lacked in status, they made up for in intelligence, curiosity and cultural sophistication They could read Tolstoy in three languages – they spoke at least five – could identify an aria from any opera or a quintet in A Major by Hayden in a split second. But ‘pour tea’? Not in their repertoire. They never taught me how to set a table properly (to this day I still don’t know how) or how to write an appropriate thank you card, but they did see that I studied piano with the man who taught Jasha Heifetz’s grandchildren and made sure I had weekly dance lessons with one of Isadora Duncan’s daughters.
It turned out that one of my mentor’s best friends was selling her house in Scarsdale, and, having no immediate heirs, offered to sell me the family silver for $250. The set included well over 500 pieces,of monogrammed sterling, at least 50 place settings and serving pieces of unimaginable beauty. Why in the world she thought I could use all that cutlery was beyond me. At that time I was teaching art in a New York City high school, so I had the $250, but I had no idea what would I ever do with so much silver – let alone clean it. I had no serious marital prospects at the time and, even if I had, he would most likely have been an impoverished musician or graduate student, no one ever likely to give sit-down dinners for fifty. I politely refused the kind woman’s generous offer ($250 was a steal, even in back then) but to this day, I still wonder if I made a mistake.
What still puzzles me is, what could possible constitute so much cutlery? Okay, I get the standard forks, knives, soup, dessert and coffee spoons. But then what? Oyster forks? Fish knives? Grape spoons? Etc. etc. No matter how I try, I can’t get up to a ten-piece setting. Nobody lives that way any more. (at least no one I know) and my family certainly never did. It’s right out of Downton Abbey where unimaginably complex table manners were a way or keeping the ascending nouveaux riches from breaching the ranks of the upper class. You had to be brought up in an environment where ten-piece place settings were standard procedure; it was not something a suddenly rich tradesman could ever learn as an adult. I remember a story a friend (who came from a poor farming family) told me about being invited to a distinctly upper-crust dinner party and “using the wrong fork!!” Before anyone could notice his breach of etiquette, the butler had slipped up behind him, palmed the errant piece and replaced it with the correct one.
To this day, I avoid giving sit-down dinners. First of all, I don’t particularly like them - I hate being trapped next to a bore - and secondly, I’m never quite sure I get it right. I give great “artist” parties (no humility) but my aristocratic mentor, who tried so hard to make sure I had an appropriate set of silver for my married life, would have been appalled at the sight of a glass goblet containing forks.