Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Culture Wars: Tablescape vs. Set Table

I watch a lot of Food Network: Not because I particularly like the Food Network, not for a particular love of cooking shows, but because it's the only network (well, the only one aside from CBS and occaision foreign-language programming) that comes in.

Now, Who Wants to Be the Next Food Network Star? is scary enough (although I do wish they'd do an entire series of Morimoto mocking the cooking abilities of mere mortals... I see it now... Morimoto Makes Your Italian Grandmother Cry...mmmmm), but it does not even begin to compare with their mid-afternoon delight, "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee."

Sandra Lee always finishes her show with a presentation of "tablescapes," what otherwise sane Americans might refer to as a table arrangement. Since watching the Foot Network, I have learned the value of "plating" (although silverware always gets short shrift... yes, it is nice when food is pretty and appetizing on the plate, but let's not underestimate the value of the silverware that plays such an integral role in the eating process). Given how much that term is thrown around [Iron Chef America and even the deps on the Who Wants to Be... show got graded on it (after being sliced and diced by Morimoto)], it is apparently a real term with some validity.

Tablescape is not. It is a sign of the decline of civilization (more or less).

A chapter of my dissertation was, in fact, about table settings (specifically, those made for a 1906 exhibition in Vienna). The chapter title also lent the title to this blog (I had extremely good chapter titles, and I am proud to say that there was no punctuation in my title, which was a glorious six words long). I know of what I speak.

At any rate, the proper term for an artfully designed table is "set table," alternately known as a "laid table." (These terms are quite common in German-- particularly etiquette literature-- in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as "gedeckter Tisch" or "gedeckter Tafel").

Now, Sandra Lee's designs are inane and it's rather questionable if she can cook (there's too much Cool Whip and frozen strawberry action, but she does occasionally make tasty-looking, trashy cocktails), but at least in the stupid idea of the tablescape, she draws attention to the importance of properly decorating the table.

In many blogs, she is rightly mocked for her tablescapes. But by even featuring tablescapes, Sandra has drawn attention to the enormous weight issues of design and decorating assume in today's culture. This renewed interest in design has been attributed to many factors: an oversatiated consumer base looking for ways to distinguish itself and a turn to domesticity are two oft-cited factors. This is not new.

The early twentieth-century, particularly in central Europe, was the glory days of the artfully decorated table. It was taken extremely seriously across all levels of society (for upper-class women, it was a diversion like needle-pointing, the lower middle-class used it to express their class aspirations. Reformers emphasized the proper table as useful for imparting proper bourgeois morals and upholding culture).

“The art of decking the table is not so small, as some suppose, and also not generally so widespread, as many would like to claim," Ludwig Hevesi wrote for the Fremden-Blatt, the Viennese newspaper for which he was the art critic. The Fremden-Blatt, moreover, was the official paper of the Habsburg bureaucracy, and as such was read by Emperor Franz Josef and his ministers on a daily basis.

Design mattered very much in Vienna. Yes, there are persuasive arguments that this emphasis on superficial and minor aspects masked the society's inability to tackle monumental issues or produce an art for the ages. But, despite the critics decrying the fact that architecture had been reduced to napkin folding, these objects have endured (and command serious prices on the art market and are appreciated in major museum collections). The Food Network's tablescapes, however, fail to inspire and fail to last.

The difference between the tablescapes of Sandra Lee and the turn-of-the-twentieth-century "set tables" in Vienna is, to my mind, no better, very visible indictment of how low our culture has sunk.

get a life...can't you find something better to do with your time?? if you don't like...don't watch it...isn't that easy enough!?!?
Hey hey! Non-friends read this! Whoo hoo!

But, considering I am analyzing Sandra Lee through the lens of 1906 Viennese table settings, I think our gentle visitor's comment is a bit off base. Now, if someone wishes to undertake a proper deconstruction of my arguments, that would be exciting. (After all, I'm actually thinking of revising the diss into a book, so the whole table setting thing does need to be worked over once again).
I have to agree with the author. Sandra Lee's tablescapes are "over the top". They are way too busy and they look cheap. Sorry. I have other things to do too, but I am looking for ideas for my Oktoberfest Buffet table, so I ran across this site. Anyway, I would love to see someone else try this on food network, or just any network. Maybe Henrietta Spencer Churchill....now she knows what she is doing with table settings and decorating! Beautiful!
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