Confused by tableware? A guide for the clueless.

An elegant hostess shows how it's done

Those of us who write about food often complain that no one ever asks us to dinner.

I'm certain that acquaintances worry, "With all that writing about fabulous food, imagine what she'll think about my cooking."

I wonder if my friend, Suzanne von Drachenfels, author of the recently published book, "The Art of the Table," will suffer the same strange phenomenon?

The contents of the hefty volume deal with the "how to" of dining, rather than the "what" on the menu. However, don't be spooked. The author doesn't make you feel guilty or insecure about which fork to choose, or whether the tablecloth is the right length. Surprisingly, for all its detail, it's a great read.

The book's dust cover is a study in pastels; subtle and understated, a bit like its baroness author, whose late husband's title often seems to embarrass her. But, she roguishly remarks with a shrug, "If it spurs people to buy the book...."

Living a few streets apart from her in Monterey, Calif., I'd often wondered about her "hermitism" while she was working.

"It's the book, you know," she'd say with a twinkle. "It's quite thorough.... Every time I think I've finished with a subject, another relevant anecdote, detail, or piece of history pops up. It's consuming, it takes time, and I wanted it to be perfect."

A brief rundown of the topics covered in The Art of the Table (Simon & Schuster, 592 pages, $40): Dining fundamentals, including the vocabulary of table setting; dinnerware; flatware; stemware; table linens; serving techniques; dining finesse; menu plans; and table manners.

Chapters 27 through 29 - the subjects of which include: decorative methods and styles; the different categories of glass; stemware, shape and purpose, along with accompanying drawings and guide to uses - could be a book by themselves.

Throughout, the text is supported by more than a hundred detailed illustrations (by the author's daughter, Kelly Luscombe), explicit guides that lead the reader out of the confusion of many fine details.

For example, in formal settings, the difference between continental and American arrangement of silverware. In a continental setting, the fork is placed tines down, because Europeans normally eat with the fork "at the ready" in the left hand, while we Americans "zigzag," using the fork to lift rather than impale. Hence its upright position in an American table setting.

Mrs. Von Drachenfels's stint as the tabletop consultant for Fitz & Floyd, makers of fine dinnerware for the White House, plus her experience as a lecturer for companies such as Arthur Andersen and other firms anxious to have their brilliant young MBAs get their elbows off the table, has resulted in a social guide that is user-friendly.

In the same classic, informational tradition of the "Joy of Cooking" and "Larousse Gastronomique," this is a book to keep handy. Miraculously, for all its detail, it manages to escape tedium.

One of the first chapters is a food historian's dream. A perfect example of her dedication to detail, it begins in the Neolithic era and moves through Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman times at table. There follow clear, vivid descriptions of China's great ceramists during the six dynasties (206 BC to AD 1911).

In an interview, Von Drachenfels sits in her sunny family room, surrounded by her collection of priceless Asian art. The first-time author has just returned from an extensive national book tour where her warmth and wit charmed audiences and long lines of book buyers. The writer-researcher calls her staggering documentation, "the history of a building-block of community; a symbol of hospitality, friendship, and love."

She smiles as she remembers: "Everyone who interviewed me brought up the same two things: The 'why' of a book on elegant dining, when the whole world is addicted to the Three Fs: Fast Food to be eaten with the Fingers. And, of course, from the 'Table Manners' chapter, they were amazed (and amused), at the inclusion of my relaxed solutions to dinner-table gaffes: sneezing, coughing, yawning, and burping. Well," she says, "they do happen to all of us."

I pose the "why" question again.

"The dinner table has always been my passion, since I was a little girl. I was an only child, and it was the event of my day, my 'center.' I also always loved beautiful things. When I was 12, I fell in love with an English bone china demitasse cup. It was so delicate, and painted with little blue and white flowers."

She gestures around the room where brilliant cobalt and Delft blue predominate among her treasures. "I struck a deal with the shopkeeper and bought it in little weekly payments out of my allowance. It took me a long time."

As is the fashion today, in the genre of coffee-table or gift books, the center of the book opens into a full-color photo gallery of objets d'art, plus formal and casual table settings from a royal banquet to a tailgate tea.

The book has already become a reference text for the Protocol School of Washington, for the editors of Bridal Guide and Bride's Magazine, and has been praised by luminaries from Jacques Pepin to Letitia Baldridge. But until you crack the cover of the 592-page volume, its sheer weight may be daunting.

However, this is not merely a tome to make Martha Stewart swoon (though I wager she wishes she'd been able to write it). Its purpose is to provide the reader with quick and easy access to the desired information.

Additionally, for anyone needing expanded resources for related subjects, the exhaustive eight-page bibliography is a gem.

"The Art of the Table" has been an eight-year, passionate labor of love, a one-woman Everest of effort.

Enjoying it is effortless.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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