All said and done we're just so very fortunate in the modern world that formal dining has been reduced and streamlined into the most basic five-or-six course meal, with only eight-or-ten pieces of silverware required to get through a stuffy sit-down dinner.
In Victoria times there might have been twenty-to-thirty eating utensils at each and every place setting, all laid out for a sixteen or twenty-one course meal! Even the Titanic offered a ten-course menu in the first class section.
If you're a hostess or caterer you simply must take a peek at the following link - although personally it gives me a migraine to see all those utensils at just one place setting! Try to imagine if there were twenty or thirty guests coming for dinner! Here's the horrifying picture!
But again, modern formal tables are much more manageable for hostesses and caterers alike, not to mention the poor guests trapped at the dining table. After all, the Victorians had no television or computers, and certainly no iPhone's or digital streaming. So what better to way to spend an idle evening with rich friends than sitting down to full-course dinner for five or six hours? This was the era of chamber music, of course, so no doubt they had a pianist or string quartet on hand to disrupt the monotony. (I might also mention this was the era when gout was rampant among the rich and upper classes!)
Anyhow, this post is not so much about proper table setting or manners (which you can get from Emily Post) but more about what to do if you suddenly find yourself plunked down at a formal dining table. Maybe you're engaged to someone rich and your fiance's family invites you to dinner? Or perhaps you've been promoted and your boss invites you to a fine restaurant to celebrate? The first rule, even though confronted with ten pieces of silverware, is don't freak out!
You don't really need to know ANYTHING about formal dining to get through this meal, I promise. The table is set according to the menu, with each piece of silverware laid out in the order of what's being served, starting from the outside in.
For example, in America (unlike in Europe) salad is often the first course served. So the waiter brings out the salad on a small plate, sets it down on the large charger plate in front of you, and you pick up the small salad fork on your outside left - simple enough, right? When finished, he takes both the salad plate and fork away, leaving the charger in place for the next course.
Now, while forks always go on the left side of the plate, the exception is a small shrimp fork which goes on the right, next to the soup spoon. So if you see a tiny little three-prong fork on the extreme right of your plate, that means the waiter will bring out a shrimp cocktail next. He sets it down on the charger plate, and you pick up the little fork. When you're finished with that, he takes the cocktail dish and fork away, which leaves you with a big soup spoon on the right - meaning he'll bring soup out next. Getting the picture?
After the soup you'll probably be left with a fish knife on the outside right and a fish fork on the outside left. Then after the fish course you'll only have a dinner knife on the right and a dinner fork on the left, for the main course. And finally the only utensil left on the table is a dessert fork or spoon, probably laid horizontally above the charger plate.
So whatever you do, don't freak out or feel intimidated. If there's other utensils on the table I haven't mentioned, you can always pause (as you should anyway) to wait for your host to begin and see what piece of silverware he/she picks up first, then follow the lead.
A few pointers:
1) Once a piece of silverware is picked up, you never lay it back down on the table cloth. For example, when you're finished with the salad you leave the fork on the salad plate and the waiter will whisk it away.
2) The butter knife won't be on the right side of your plate along with the other knives, but laid on the small bread plate, set on the upper left of the charger plate.
3) If there's unfamiliar and bizarre utensils required, like a lobster cracker or escargot tongs, they'll most likely not be laid out on the table, but brought out when the lobster or snails are served. If you don't know how to use these, again just follow the lead of your host. (And if the first snail you pick up flies across the room because you squeezed the tongs too hard, don't even worry about it! You might get a good laugh - but everyone, including the rich, had to learn this at one point or another, and will love you for the effort.)
4) Right above the dinner knife on your right you'll probably find three different stemware; a white-wine goblet for the fish course, a red-wine goblet for the main course, and a water goblet. In extremely formal affairs there might even be a fourth glass - a champagne flute. But again not to worry; the waiter will bring out the appropriate wine with each course, indicating which glass you use first. (All you really have to worry about is knocking all the rest of them over when you pick one up.)
5) If you're nervous or sloppy and drop food on the charger plate, you'll probably get a frown from the waiter. But he'll politely whisk it away, replace it with a clean one, and no one will even notice during all the chatter and gossip.
6) As your mother taught you, no elbows on the table, ever. (Unless perhaps you're in a sports bar with a plate full of chicken wings and French fries in front of you.)
This has turned out to be way too long, but there's really no reason to be intimidated by a formal table. Just keep an eye on your host, go with the flow and above all, try to pretend you're enjoying it. Personally I'm satisfied with the blue plate special down at the diner - with a fork, spoon, and knife all rolled up together in a paper napkin.
Thanks for stopping by, and please forgive the ramble.
PS: The post right before this one has a more detailed explanation of how formal tables are laid out, if you think it would be helpful. Just don't let the diagrams frighten you.