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Simply Entertaining: Napkins' purpose goes beyond decorative

Thursday, October 18, 2001

By Mary Miller

My husband's neckties often serve as his dinner napkins. No, he doesn't wipe crumbs from his mouth with them, but his ties catch drips of pasta sauce and drops of vinaigrette that never make it to the napkin on his lap.

Napkins have been used since the days of the ancient Romans. But in medieval times, folks thought the invention of the fork would be enough to keep eaters from being messy and napkins fell from use.

During the 18th century, diners realized that venison pie or mutton stew were tricky to eat even with a fork, and the napkin returned to society dinners. The size of the napkin increased with the wealth of the family. In the dining rooms of the upper class, napkins were sometimes as large as the entire table.

Napkin sizes and uses have changed over the years. Today, in general, the larger the napkin, the more dinner courses offered. Large napkins are also used at buffets where a dinner plate is balanced on the lap. Smaller napkins are best for luncheons, teas or cocktail parties.

Use a napkin to blot lips and wipe fingertips and keep food off of clothing. Not to scrub your face, clean out fingernails or rub a scuff from your shoe. It shouldn't be used as a handkerchief unless a real emergency arises.

A few centuries ago, it was correct to tuck the napkin into the shirt and even to wrap it around the neck and tie it. In homes that were budget-conscious, the napkins were barely long enough to reach around the neck to tie, thus the origin of the phrase "to make ends meet." Today, it's considered OK to follow your host's lead and tuck in at a casual dinner with messy food.

The placement of the napkin is left up to the host. In Europe, it's generally placed to the right of the spoon. In the United States, it's usually to the left of the plate. Many placements are acceptable -- on the side of the plate, above the plate, or carefully placed in the empty water glass. One rule about napkin placement is that the fold should be in the same place at each table setting. Most dining experts recommend folding, not ironing the napkin into its folds.

Cloth napkins are great but can be a pain to launder. If you use them, make sure they are cleaned and stain free after each meal. There's nothing worse than sitting down to dinner, unfolding the napkin and seeing a pink lip print on it. Napkin rings originally were used so each family member, with his or her own napkin ring, conserved soap and water by reusing the same napkin for many meals. These days, they are purely decorative.

What about using paper napkins? Certainly a timesaver and available in many colors and patterns to match your dishes or decorations, they are best-used at large buffets, cocktail parties or casual events. Just remember to purchase the thicker two-ply variety.

When it's time to be seated for dinner, the napkin should be unfolded -- not snapped -- and placed on the lap. If you must get up during dinner, place the soiled napkin -- soiled part up -- on you chair. At the end of the meal, leave the crumpled napkin on the table. If using rings, the used napkin is pulled back through the ring after the meal has ended.

Get out the napkins for this one!


16 chicken wings
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup sake, mirin, or dry white wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed

Rinse the chicken wings in cold water and pat dry. Place them in a shallow glass dish. Combine remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and pour over the chicken. Let chicken marinate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken in a roasting pan and brush with the marinade. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 30 minutes or until they are browned and cooked through. Can be eaten hot or cold. Serves 8.

"Picnic, 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menu"

Mary Miller is a Fox Chapel-based registered dietitian and food writer. Her column appears twice monthly. For questions or comments, she can be reached at marymar333@home.com

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