Decorating table’s center completes dining experience

Several years ago, my students were helping with a large Christmas dinner in the large cafeteria at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

The large, round tables were set with white tablecloths and red napkins. Large donated poinsettias were in the center of each table. Oh, busboy, it looked wonderful.

The guests arrived and sat as directed. After a welcoming and grace, the table conversation began. Then, almost on cue and in lovely, synchronized motions, a guest from each table removed their centerpiece and placed it on the floor. Oops.

A table centerpiece is that item placed in the center of a table that sets the theme and brings extra decorations to the room. I have learned over the years there are really two kinds of center decoration: table center decorations and table centerpieces.

Table center decorations are those decorations we place in the center of tables to be there during non-eating times, or when there is a buffet set up. This centerpiece is a placeholder to make the table look good. It should enhance the theme of the room. It should be balanced and proportioned to the size of the table. These decorations should be easy to remove if the table is used.

Table centerpieces are those items that are placed in the center of tables for a meal. They, too, should work with the theme and should be proportional to the table, but they also must be functional to the meal. They should not be higher than 12 inches, allowing guests to see each other. They should leave space on the table, allowing room for food and extra room for passing food.

A line of candles or little vases works well. They should have no odor – so no lilies, no perfumed candles, no cinnamon pinecones. Fragrance can interfere with the taste of food.

Any item placed in the center of a table should be clean – sparkling clean. Glass should shine. Fruit should be polished. Everything should be dust-free. Flowers or greens should be very fresh, not wilting or browning. They should not be poisonous. We might like to think that a guest would not eat the flowers but don’t count on it. Surprisingly, daffodils, hyacinths, irises, hydrangeas, lilies of the valley, ivy, rhododendrons and poinsettias all are poisonous.

So, why bother with a centerpiece? To enhance the table, the room and all of your efforts, of course. I was never very good with centerpieces – pretty basic, like store flowers or maybe a pretty dish. I like to marvel at the wonders one can come up, but putting them together was never my thing until this one day. I was visiting a friend in Watertown. She remarked that her table and dining room needs some decoration. Dull me, I wished I has stopped at the grocery and gotten a potted plant. Martha walked around the house gathering bowls and vases. Quickly, she put them in the center of the table: Six mixed-up things of all sizes. They looked great. She then walked outside with kitchen shears and clipped all sorts of twigs and branches. With some ribbon, she tied them together then placed them on the sideboard. “I like to gather and cluster. Just about anything works,” she laughed. OK, I thought. I can do that.

So I have started to look around – pictures, pitchers, baskets, bowls. I turned items upside down for different heights. Built ’em up. Tried to fit the size of the table. Used a variety of sizes, colors, textures for interest. Here are some other things I found you can do too:

  • Pictures: A variety of framed kids placed together or in a line. Place them on vases.
  • Books: You can have fun with these. Layer and build a house. Decorate with ribbons, swirled around the base or wrapped like a package.
  • Mirrors: Take them off the wall. No one goes in the bedroom at dinner time. A terrific base for candles or your clustered items. Sprinkle them with candies.
  • Food: Apples with candles cut into them, lined along a long table works or a pyramid of oranges or a basket of vegetables. Use that tiered cake plate that never sees the light and accent it with nuts or olives, or candy.
  • Sticks and branches: Walk outside and clip greens, twigs, or whatever. I don’t like plastic flowers on any level.
  • Presents: Wrap empty boxes, and place them together or in a line. Wrap and or tie ribbons on the base of vases or around kitchen tools.
  • Candles: Make a forest of different sizes, or decorate a single candle. Put them in or on a safe container. Perhaps colorful mixing bowls with votive candles. Remember, if a guest is at the table, candles should always be lit.
  • Scenes: Gather little toys and build a scene alone or in a bowl or basket. Small toys are fun for this.

Well, I got you started. Remember the simple rules, then get up and walk around to find your centerpiece.

Readers can comment at anita@anitaalacarte.com.