Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dinner Party Series: Guidelines and Tips

A thousand points of light: What to say about candles that hasn’t already been said? A while ago, I whinged about the poor quality of tea lights imported from China (see my Dinner Party Guidelines and Tips blog dated Oct. 12, 2012. I’ve written several other blogs offering Guidelines and Tips. You'll find them in the Index under Dinner Party).

I feel I haven’t said enough about light. Who possibly could? Light is essential to our physical and psychological well-being, not only outside but inside our homes. I once saw photos of a professionally lit New York dining room that featured white walls, white tablecloths, white candles, and white flowers. White-on-white is a beautiful and elegant combination, but what really set the scene were hidden pink up-lights, trained softly on the walls. The place glowed. It was gorgeous.

While you may not own a mansion to allow such scope in design and decor, light remains a critical part of your everyday life - and of your life as host who welcomes others to your home. Light is like the little black dress of fashion fame. You can jazz it up - or down. Light is one of a homes most important elements, helping to create a mood, a feeling of well being, or a feeling of unease. 

Would you rather sit in a room with fluorescent lighting, or bask in  the glow of a fireplace? Okay, I’ve biased the question, but which would you rather have? I’d rather sit under fluorescents at the laundromat, but give me a fireplace and warm lighting anytime, at home.

I’m writing these words the night before you read them. Even as I write, I have a lit candle beside me, providing the comfort and psychological warmth I’m missing by not watching TV with Ron. Just as candles are important in our lives, so is adjustable lighting. 

I’m a huge fan of lowering the lights when we entertain, and jacking them up when I cook or set the table or read or write a recipe - in other words, I’m a huge fan of dimmer switches.

Lighting dimmers work brilliantly with halogen lights in the ceiling, creating a mood of intimacy after the lights go down low (I feel a song coming on!), and one of efficiency when there’s no one around (Another song! I’d better jump in the shower and start singing!). Dimmer switches are a major element in setting the mood for any dinner party - as well as setting the mood in your home.

As you probably know, dimmers can be easily retrofitted on most light-switch plates. They can be pricey, but - if your electrical system allows it - buy the best one you can, starting with one or two rooms. A dimmer switch in the dining room will make an immediate difference in how you, your family, and your guests perceive the time they spend around your table.

Although it became a political phrase, one cannot ignore the effect a thousand points of light creates. Whether candles on the table, on the sideboard, or in the window, candles draw attention when the lights are dimmed. Menorahs, Christmas trees, Ramadan lanterns, and Diwali candles are all more beautiful when they’re lit. Each focuses the attention. Each makes us think. Each is a gathering point for those we love and those who love us back.

Indistinguishable from the real thing -
with battery-operated "flames"
The number one rule for candles at the dinner table? No scents! That rule is fixed and unbreakable. Everything else is optional, though I do hope you’ll consider some of these ideas.

Candles can be dangerous. Courtesy of the old “flame + Christmas decoration trick,” I once set fire to the foyer table during a holiday dinner party. The 21st Century answer to that are the battery-operated candles that glow so beautifully on a mantel or wall sconce - just high enough that no one seated can tell that there’s no lit wick. This year’s improvement on that good idea are incredibly beautiful pillar candles with a flickering flame that is indistinguishable from the real thing. 

They’re still not widely available, but because they operate on a battery with a flickering disc of opaque plastic, these candles will never cause a fire. A bonus: Both types of battery-operated candles operate on a five-hour internal timer - set it and forget it.

They're expensive - roughly $170 for three of the flickering kind - but the safety factor and their realism make them a good value. Moreover, there’s no messy wax clean-up and the batteries seem to last forever. Mine go on at 5 each afternoon and turn themselves off at 10. Guests can never believe that these candles with their flickering “flames aren’t real; the technology is amazing!

Hurricane lamps (with candles) are also an excellent idea, and are safer than towering candleholders or candelabras. A simple, charming oil lamp or oil lantern can provide exactly the right touch to make a dinner party cozy.

I once kept candles from toppling with melted candle wax or with bunched foil or rubber bands at their base. I now secure candles with a soft, waxy product specifically made for that purpose. It comes in a little tin and is available in discerning gift and card stores - the same sort of places you’ll find glass discs that slip over candles to catch wax drips and keep your table or cloth pristine. Michaels, the craft store, also sells these.

A thousand points of light? I hope you use light in the best possible way during the holiday season! It always makes me a little sad when hosts don’t light the dinner-party candles at the table. Why save them? Every day is special - not just the holidays!



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