As I plan my Thanksgiving tablescape (I finally am hosting again this year!), I’ve been ruminating on where my affinity for lovely tables and entertaining originates. As a native South Carolinian transplanted in Baltimore, Maryland, I see a lot of similarities and differences in the concept of entertaining. Let’s face it, while Baltimore is geographically south of the Mason-Dixon line, it is far from being a part of the South culturally. As I’ve grown older, my ideas about how to entertain have made 180 degree shifts, 360 shifts, and really are just on a winding path that snakes from side to side.
My mother is from a long-time (200 years or so) South Carolina family. Not an “old” South Carolina family (like the FFV’s in Virginia), but a well-respected and well-thought of group. The ladies of the family know how to entertain, and have passed down their southern belle traditions from generation to generation. Therefore, my Mama is definitely one of the consummate southern belle hostesses I’ve run across. She has more fine china than any other person I know, and she uses it regularly. Her statement is, “Why have nice things if you never use them?” If you visit, you might have a luncheon or dinner on the porch with the Blue Danube china, or a more formal affair with the Wedgewood Potpourri in the dining room under the Waterford chandelier. (See, I told you. Consummate hostess). Regardless of the china, there WILL be silver flatware.
Truly, no formal Southern table is complete without sterling flatware. A proper southern belle chooses her silver pattern at the age of 13 so she can start to receive pieces as gifts for holidays, graduations, and other momentous occasions. I was a rebel, and waited until the age of 24 (this should have clued me in that I wasn’t a belle who would stay in the South). I chose Kirk Repoussé…a somewhat ornate, but not heavy pattern. No Old Master for this modern belle. I was still living in Spartanburg, SC at the time, and had no idea that I would be moving to Maryland. An interesting fact…Repoussé is the official silver pattern of Baltimore. I think it was meant to be.
In the book A Southern Belle Primer: Or Why Princess Margaret will Never be a Kappa Kappa Gamma, the author states that a belle should never marry a man whose mother has plated silver. It means she is cheap and doesn’t understand the need for nice things. She also goes on to describe which belles will get along with mother-in-laws with various silver patten combinations. My Daddy’s mother had plated silver, but my Mama married him anyway. 40 something years later, I’d say it worked out just fine. Yet, when I was visiting J’s family for the first time after we began dating, I was a bit nervous (I met all 5 siblings and his parents all at the same time!). I shared my nervousness with my Mama, and she asked me to text during the first evening to let her know how things were going. J’s parents live in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, which is a 12 hour drive from Maryland. We arrived just in time for cocktail hour. My mother-in-law is excellent at delegating tasks to help people feel a part of things, so she asked me to go to the china cabinet and set the table for dinner. I opened up the flatware drawer, and to my astonishment, saw that her sterling pattern is Stieff Rose (a pattern that is almost identical to and the sister pattern of my own Repoussé). I instantly relaxed, and sent my Mama a text saying “Everything is fine, J’s mother has Stieff Rose.” Of course, my mother-in-law is from a southern family, so it all makes sense.
When I was 22 and many of my friends were getting married, I bemoaned to my Mama that it wasn’t fair that you had to get married to have nice things. She agreed, and spent 6 months collecting china, crystal, and sterling to give me for Christmas that year. These days, especially outside of the South, many couples getting married don’t register for china, crystal, or sterling. When we got married, J brought his grandfather’s blue and gold china to the marriage, and I brought 2 sets of my own. Yet, we still registered for “our” wedding china that we picked out together. He was disappointed that we couldn’t pick out a silver pattern together (he is not really a Southern man!), but he seems to like my pattern just fine. I loved opening wedding gifts and finding sterling flatware…I felt like a southern belle bride of old! We still get pieces of crystal, china and silver handed down to us from both sides of the family, and I cherish them all. My Godmother is even giving us her Christmas china this year, so that will be exciting to use in the years to come.
A few summers ago, I was having a rough time mentally; I was dealing with crippling anxiety. Some days, I even had a tough time getting out of bed. However, we had committed to hosting a number of dinner parties that summer. Even though I didn’t feel like doing anything, part of me still enjoyed setting a lovely table. One evening, I texted a picture of my table setting to my Mama and she texted back “Do you realize there are 4 generations of tableware and centerpieces on your table? I guess that is why we pass things down, it’s nice to know that future generations will use these things, too.” She was right, and I started thinking about each of the women who had owned the items on my table. They were mostly southern, and very strong ladies who endured much hardship. Wars, mental health issues, the Depression, births, deaths, and other losses…I told myself that if those women could endure hardship, so could I. And I did.
I definitely don’t entertain just like my Mama (when I was younger I always thought she went way overboard! :)), but I like to incorporate a lot of southern tradition into my entertaining. For awhile, I thought that paper plates and everyday china is always fine, but then, after attending dinner parties with good china, I realized how special you feel when someone pulls out the good stuff. Up here, I’ve lived with and visited many hostesses who entertain in a lovely, modern way (think House Beautiful, Real Simple, etc). I like to think that I combine the best of both southern and modern. Think of my entertaining style as “modern southern belle”, a combination of Southern Living and House Beautiful, if you will. As a younger woman, I thought entertaining was all about impressing your friends and guests. However, as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’m understanding that entertaining is more about making friends and family feel special and cared for. And that transcends any style…modern, traditional, southern, or casual. So this Thanksgiving, I’ll pull out the good stuff, mix and match old and new, and hopefully my friends and family will know that while setting a lovely table brings me joy and I’m thankful that I have beautiful things, being able to care for them in such a way is what is truly most important to me.