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Sep 16, 2007 12:42 PM

Formal Setting Significance For Dessert Flatware Placement

A question for my late elegant & gracious Grandmother...why is it significant to place the dessert fork &/or spoon above the formal place-setting facing right? Why not left?

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  1. the fork should be facing right because you use it with your left hand, there should also be a dessert spoon but facing left as you hold it with your right hand as you would a knife. Both should be there as both should be used for dessert unless no fork is required for the dessert.

    14 Replies
    1. re: robgm

      I understand everything you presented, as I was reared with such manners & rules. My question, once again, what is the significance of placement?

      1. re: JayVaBeach

        Is it the fact that the fork placement seems to presume left-handed use that confuses you?

        1. re: Karl S

          Nope - I'm a southpaw - never mind Karl. I'm requesting a history lesson, but thanks anyway.

          1. re: JayVaBeach

            Jay, this is holdover from table settings used for formal dinners. Assuming proper French or Russian service, following the removal of the last course, all of the dishes and flatware will have been removed from in front of each diner, with the exception of those two utensils, before the dessert is placed. The dessert will either be pre-plated or plates will be laid before each diner and the dessert passed by waiters. In the past, coffee was served with cordials in another room after dinner although now it is increasingly being served at the table, with or after dessert.
            Lefties always suffer because the world lays flatware to accommodate the right-handed majority. That's why robgm gave the explanation above. These days using both a spoon and fork seems confusing. Fortunately, these formal manners are rarely required. It's just good to be familiar with them in case you ever get stuck in such a position because of business or social situations.

            1. re: MakingSense

              Just out of curiosity, why do you say that using both a spoon and a fork seems confusing? Even at home for "regular" dinners when I serve dessert, I set the place with both, if the dessert has ice cream or a sauce. TIA.

              P.S. I always enjoy your explanations of such things.

              1. re: MMRuth

                At formal dinners at our home, and in restauranats when I was growing up, the table was set with all the silver to be used for the meal and was placed on each side of the charger or dinner plate. All - except dessert service. When the main meal was finished everything was cleared from the table except water and wine glasses. Then the dessert, plates and silver utensils, were brought out. We never saw the dessert fork and spoon above the plate.

                1. re: Gio

                  That's because the setting of flatware above the plate was traditionally a mark of an informal meal. The boundaries between formal and informal table settings used to be fairly well defined, but are less so. What was once informal is now often considered formal, because what was once casual is now considered informal. Et cet.

                  1. re: Karl S

                    Interesting - so the more formal option would then be for the dessert utensils to be brought to the table? Or already there closest to the plate?

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      In my experience...brought to the table.,, Not already set with the main silverware. Isn't the evolution of usages fascinating?

                  2. re: Gio

                    Some confusion over the meaning of "formal" - it used to mean the real deal - gloved waiters and a very ritualized table and order of service. This has changed dramatically and isn't what people mean today when they say a "formal" meal in their homes as virtually no one has staff with that level of training. My husband was a diplomat and we haven't been to one of these shindigs in decades and even then they weren't thrown by Americans. Even the White House and the diplomatic circuit has relaxed their style here in Washington.

                    Karl is correct that the table settings have changed in response to a less formal style and the lack of trained staff at the highest levels so there's been a "trickle down." Restaurants of course are all over the place. That still shouldn't mean that all bets are off and you can do any any old thing you want. Graciousness and practicality go hand in hand.

                    As part of my consulting practice in DC, I often organized meals for clients so I have a library of reference texts on etiquette. What is now considered a "formal" dinner table setting was an "informal" lunch setting in the 1952 Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. Even with that, there were a batch of exceptions for optional placements of certain flatware. I did this for years and never winged it. At certain levels, especially among the diplomatic corps, some people take this stuff quite seriously, so I always "looked it up" to avoid faux pas.
                    I tend to err on the side of "grey haired lady" propriety rather than trendy so that my clients weren't subject to criticism which is why I use the old texts. (And why people paid me.) This is different from what others may choose to use in their own homes.

                    Just remember that this changes constantly. Always think through your table settings and service in terms of your menu, whether or not you have staff to help you. It means the difference between a lovely meal and chaos.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      I was consulting my Vogue Book of Etiquette from 1948 - by the inimitable Millicent Fenwick (yes, the same one who later became a liberal Republican Congresswoman from New Jersey and who was long associated with Doonesbury's Lucy Davenport). A treasure of information that captured explanations from a blueblood to the bevvies of anxious rising post-war middle class housewives. There are things in that book that are not to be found in Post or Vanderbilt - it's a wonderful resource in terms of a photograph of the transition in etiquette from one class to another.

                      In any event, there was a time there were three main categories - formal, informal, and casual - and different standards for each applied to breakfast, luncheon, dinner, tea, and supper - and that's not counting town vs. country distinctions! What's now casual wasn't even on the radar screen. But what's great is all the discussion of food in that book. OMG! Because it was Vogue, there's lots of great detail. It was my mother's book, and I treasure it.

                      1. re: MakingSense

                        "Some confusion over the meaning of "formal" - it used to mean the real deal - gloved waiters and a very ritualized table and order of service. "

                        Yes. That's what I understand the meaning of formal to be as well. It's the way I was "brought up."

            2. re: JayVaBeach

              I've been in places where they move them down right before dessert- it just helps facilitate getting the fork to the left side and the spoon to the right side by sliding them instead of having to pick them up off the table.

              1. re: queencru

                OkieDokie - your answer is best so far...