Thanksgiving: an important time for fancy dishes and table talk

Why the meaning of this annual dinner table gathering cannot be matched by any other holiday.

Dining rooms across the country are undergoing a transformation. It's part of a pleasant November ritual known as Setting the Thanksgiving Table.

The routine begins as hosts pull extra leaves from the dark recesses of closets and extend tables to accommodate guests. Next come carefully pressed linens, ranging from colorful place mats to snowy white tablecloths and napkins. Sterling or stainless flatware follows – knives, forks, and spoons, lined up just so at each place setting. Goblets and glasses also take their place on the table. Finally come the stars of the show – plates, cups, and saucers, either simple or elegant, contemporary or traditional. Bring in extra chairs from other rooms – never mind that they don't match – add a centerpiece, and voilà! The holiday table is ready.

With each step, a host's anticipation grows at the prospect of welcoming those who will soon gather for the feast.

On no other day are Americans' dinner tables invested with so much importance and surrounded by so much excitement. For millions of holiday travelers crowding planes, trains, and roads, the trip means far more than hurrying home for Grandma's stuffing or Mother's pumpkin pie. It's also about "table time" – the pleasure of relaxing and conversing with family and friends, paying little heed to the clock. In an age of far-flung families, working parents, and overcrowded calendars, such moments are a too-rare commodity.

Even the youngest generation, perhaps seated at the children's table, may sense that the Thanksgiving gathering is an occasion like no other.

Other cultures with slower paces – Italy and Spain among them – understand the importance of table time on a daily basis. For them, leisurely family meals are the rule, not the exception. They don't need sociologists and researchers wringing their hands and telling them, American style, that the family dinner table is an endangered species.

For Americans, what could be more fitting than to set the Thanksgiving table with dishes that hold special meaning?

The November issue of Gourmet magazine gets into the spirit with an article headlined "Bringing Fancy Back." "You'll want to get out your fine china, nicest tablecloth, and antique candlesticks for this pull-out-all-the-stops Thanksgiving menu," editors suggest.

Another magazine takes a slightly less formal approach, advising hostesses to "blow the dust off" their best china and use colorful paper napkins.

Whatever dishes grace a host's table, these fragile objects display impressive staying power.

No one knows who wrote the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle" – the one where the dish runs away with the spoon – but it might well have been a man. Father Goose, maybe. Why? Because any woman who has ever maintained a kitchen or dusted a china cabinet knows that dishes never run away. Ever.

Dishes are homebodies. Clinging vines. They are attached with Velcro – make that Super Glue – to the heartstrings. Some carry invisible fingerprints of earlier generations, stirring fond old memories. Others, more modern, hold the prospect of creating new traditions.

We give away clothes we no longer want, sell furniture we no longer need, trade in cars that have served their purpose. But dishes? No matter how incomplete a set might be, we hang on to it.

So important are these objects that supplying missing pieces has become big business. At Replacements Ltd. in Greensboro, N.C., November is one of the busiest months. Telephones ring and e-mails ding as customers hope to replace broken plates and chipped goblets so they can set a complete Thanksgiving table.

Explaining the sentimental value of china passed down through generations, Lisa Connors, a spokeswoman at Replacements Ltd., says, "It's more than a dish, it's more than a dinner plate. It's a way to look back to where families have been. There's also an emotional attachment. People say, 'We ate on these when we were children.' "

That attachment goes deeper than mere sentimentality. On Thanksgiving in particular, as families express gratitude for everyone assembled at their table, these tangible links with the past serve as a silent way of giving thanks for those in earlier generations who guided and shaped the family and who enjoyed their own versions of table time.

But such tradition has its price. Linen tablecloths must be laundered and ironed. Sterling silver must be polished. Fragile china must be washed and dried by hand – no dishwashers allowed.

No wonder more hosts are choosing more practical tableware. Less time in the kitchen, more time with guests.

In the end, the real success of Thanksgiving gatherings doesn't depend on fancy table settings, Grandma's or anyone else's. Even paper plates and plastic tumblers will do in a pinch. What matters most is the privilege of planting one's feet firmly under a table – however simple or elaborate – and settling in for another helping of turkey, another round of conversation, feeding the heart as well as the palate.

Long live table time.

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