Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 24, 2007

Throw out tradition, make formal dining room fun

The crystal glassware is individually wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a wooden box in the back of the attic. The sterling silver is in the felt-lined monogrammed mahogany box, or in the dining room sideboard, or in the clothes dryer during out-of-town vacations. The fine china is on permanent display in the glass-fronted china cabinet.

That’s the way it is.

We receive all of these non-essential niceties for wedding gifts and through inheritance, yet we show our appreciation by only bringing them out twice a year— at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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If your home has a formal dining room, odds are it’s the least-used room in the house. My formal dining room is the second least-used room in the house, coming in just behind the formal living room.

For years my family only went into the dining room during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was then that we would pull out all of the china and crystal and set the table for one of our two formal meals of the year.

That was then.

Several summers ago I changed my thinking about the formal dining room. I started going to the local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and loading up on foods that had come in fresh that week— sweet corn, pink-eye purple-hull peas, butter beans, peaches. I would take these fresh foods home and spend the rest of the morning cooking summer vegetables.

Around noon I would set the table with all of the china, silver, and crystal and serve friends and family down-home country cooking in an upscale and refined way. We are usually clothed in t-shirts and shorts, the food is casual, but we treat the food— our heritage cuisine— with the respect that it deserves.

Until those summer lunches, I always felt that a family should be dressed up, or that a special occasion/holiday was needed before one could use the dining room and all of its accouterments. Not so.

Sharing a meal is special. The food doesn’t have to be formal, upscale, white-tablecloth food. Neckties and cocktail dresses are never necessary dress for the formal dining room.

Treat food with the respect that it deserves. Throw tradition and long-held rituals to the wind. Start a trend. Do it your way.

Once Thanksgiving is over, keep the crystal out of the tissue paper, leave the china out of the cabinet, and stop putting the silver in the dryer. Use your dining room. Share a meal with friends and family. Treat simple uncomplicated foods as if they are special— they are. Invite your neighbors, invite your grandchildren, and invite your neighbor’s grandchildren. Create memories.

(Robert St. John is the author of six books including the newly released Southern Seasons. He can be reached at