TidBits 052: The table napkin

Whether cloth or paper, the table napkin must be – per force – square, with 40-centimeter sides (minimum). But it has not always been that way.

Once, when people used to eat using three or all five fingers, napkins as large as hand towels were required, together with a finger bowl containing water perfumed with flowers and herbs. Egyptians chose essences based on what type of food was served: almond, cinnamon, myrrh, orange blossoms.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, seventh king of Rome, extended the functions of the table napkin. Under his reign, guests at his banquets used them to wrap leftovers that they would take home as a sign of appreciation for the food served.

Not doing so was considered a grave offense! And it was customary that, between one course and the next, a slave brought in freshly perfumed water with which the guests could wash their hands, drying them using napkins that the slave held under his arm.

Reduction in the size of table napkins took place half way through the 16th century, when the introduction of the fork eliminated the risk of getting one’s hands and fingers greasy. And napkins continued to be present at the table to cleanone’s mouth, or to be kept on one’s lap to protect clothing. In the 17th century, in Italy, 26 different ways of folding napkins existed. Some of these were especially created according to the guest’s rank: in the shape of Noah’s Arc forclergymen, of a chicken for noblemen, of a baby chick for ladies. 18th century books on etiquette established the differentuses for a large napkin: “To clean one’s mouth and fingers when they are greasy. To clean the knife before cuttingbread. To clean the spoon and the fork after having used them.”

Doubts on where its place should be at the table? To the right or to the left of the plate? Folded in a rectangle or a triangle? Etiquette sets precise rules (but it’s no problem if these are not respected!) The napkin should be used withthe left hand only to wipe one’s lips before and after drinking. Hence, the correct position is on the left-hand side ofthe plate, and never underneath the cutlery. For a formal dinner, fold the napkin in the shape of a rectangle with theopen side facing away from the plate, so that it can be opened with ease. For lunch, fold the napkin into a triangle andplace it with the wide angle and the opening facing left. The central position, on top of the plate, is to be preferredwhen presenting a napkin that has been artistically folded.

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