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In Defence of the Napkin

Posted: 24/07/11 01:00

'Ditch the linen napkins, silver cutlery and crystal wine glasses - the age of the dinner party is traditionally over', proclaimed an article last week in the Scotsman. Imagine my horror when I read that as I sat with my cup of green tea looking through my Entertaining book at previous dinner party seating plans, working out the seating arrangement for my forthcoming event. The dinner party is alive and well in my flat, thank you very much.

The survey, undertaken by ice cream makers Carte D'Or, found that we Brits are eschewing more formal dinner parties in favour of casual get-togethers with friends. On reflection, this is hardly much of a shock to me. I am rarely invited to what I would call a proper dinner party. That said, this might be, having been told by friends, that I send my dining companions into cold sweats when they have to dine with me, as they start worrying about their own table manners.

To me, there is nothing nicer than spending time talking in-depth with a group of friends whilst a menu of (hopefully) delicious food passes in front of you before being replaced by another course or helping. The more casual get-togethers that we are all supposedly favouring at the moment often involve sitting around a television tuned to some drivel, forcing conversation to ebb. I always leave such gatherings feeling a bit short-changed.

One of my colleagues said, 'Why not just call up your friends and tell them that you were thinking of having them to dinner but frankly, you just can't be bothered and they're not worth it'. Quite!

What did cause me to blanch whilst reading the results of this survey was the statistic that only 15% of us are putting out napkins for our guests. What do the other 85% expect their diners to wipe their mouths on? Thin air?

I did a string of interviews for various radio stations on this survey and they all seemed to be leading the interview with this startling napkin revelation. One presenter told me that various listeners had been texting in saying napkins were too stuffy and too much hassle to wash. No, no, no! They are not too stuffy at all. They are not just on the table to make it look more formal or 'proper' they are there for the guests to protect their trousers from any food drips, and also to dab (not wipe) the mouth free of any rogue gravy, chocolate or the like. Too stuffy? Admittedly, if you live in a two-up, two-down council house and you have guests over for dinner and you've got beautifully starched, pristine white napkins shaped in the fleur-de-lis then yes, it may be a bit pretentious and stuffy. But napkins do not have to be shaped and starched within an inch of their life. There are many more informal napkins on the market. Coloured napkins are now more prolific in our department stores than the traditional white. A yellowy-cream napkin simply folded in a neat rectangle and placed to the side of the setting can hardly be called stuffy.

Here at Hanson Towers I have a colour code with my napkins. My red napkins are used for when I am having lunch, and the starched white ones are for dinners.

The other accusation made by the radio listeners was that napkins are too much hassle to launder. What is so difficult about chucking in your napkins with your whites (or darks, if coloured) and then ironing? And let's not have any of this 'ironing is difficult' rubbish. A napkin is a flat surface and possibly the easiest thing in the universe to iron.

Napkins are glorious and those who shun them are on a very slippery slope, as far as I am concerned. The survey said that Brits are putting out strips of kitchen roll instead of napkins. Oh dear God, no.

One radio presenter asked me whether the correct term is napkin or serviette. My response was such: those who put out kitchen towel will say 'serviette'; those who set napkins will call them 'napkins'.

Napkin Etiquette...
  • Shaped napkins (fluer-de-lis, swans, fans) are set in the space the plate will go
  • Un-shaped, folded napkins are set on the bread plate, to the left of the main plate
  • Place on your lap, refrain from tucking into your top button
  • Unfold your napkin only by half. The crease should be nearest to you
  • If you need to clean your mouth with your napkin dab the corners gently, rather than wiping furiously across
  • If you need to leave the table during dinner, the napkin can be left on the chair
  • When you are finished your meal, leave your napkin to the left of your plate
  • Always referred to as 'napkins', never 'serviettes'.
 

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