The Oregon State Fair draws hundreds of thousands of people to Salem each year. They come for the rides, the shows, the food… and the competitions.
One of the most unusual involves a skill that many of us practice at home every day. Although there is no prize money, reputation is at stake – but how exactly do you judge the table setting?
OPB’s Paul Marshall caught up with The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Samantha Swindler this week to find out. Below are highlights of their conversation.
Paul Marshall: Let’s start with the basics. What is competitive table setting?
Samantha crook: It is exactly what it is. It doesn’t look like a real thing, and I didn’t think it was a real thing. You are competing with other people to have the most accurate, beautiful and thematic table setting for two people. There are different themes. There are judges, they make sure you follow the American standard table setting rules, so they make sure your forks, knives and tablespoons are in the right places and they are all set correctly spaced out. It’s very accurate and very precise and very oddly competitive.
Marshal: You spoke to judges and contestants this year. What kind of person is attracted to this event?
Scammer: All the people I spoke to were women. They came from all different cities. They were just people who grew up with their mothers making really fancy tables or they remembered the table setting contest at the State Fair when they were kids, and they just thought it was really beautiful. It’s not necessarily people making fancy tables at home, so it’s kind of a fun opportunity to play at home.
Marshal: What kind of preparation does a competition table setter do?
Scammer: Well, you have to come up with your menu; they don’t prepare food, but they do create a themed menu. And then you need to gather all your utensils, silverware, and stemware to match that menu. Another big part of this is all the decorations on the table. So, for the “regency” theme, they would gather candelabras and garlands of fake roots. Many of them set their tables at home first to make sure they have all their pieces.
Marshal: What is the attendance at this event?
Scammer: I have been told that it is always like the first competition that fills up with entries at the fair. There are only 20 spots because you bring your own table, and there is only room for 20 tables. It’s like the first thing to complete; like the day people can sign up to do it, it’s sold out. As far as people coming to see it, it’s just part of the Creative Living Pavilion entries at the state fair. It’s just when you first enter. The central placement means it’s a very popular thing for people to come and watch.
Marshal: You note in your story that although this is not a new event at the state fair, social media has played a big part in the growing popularity of setting up competitive tables. How?
Scammer: It’s just a beautiful thing to watch. Strangely, there are table setting groups on Facebook, where people simply share photos and small videos about their tables. You can find like TikToks people doing really elaborate tweaks; they also call it escape table. I also heard there was a documentary on competitive table setting. It’s called “Prepare!” this stuff has drawn people into this world of creating these really beautiful elaborate things just for people to come together.
And you know, we’re coming out of a pandemic, or maybe we’re coming out of a pandemic. People haven’t been entertained, and there may also be this interest in creating a gathering space for something special.
Marshal: Should applicants bring their own silverware?
Scammer: Oh yes, they also had to bring their own tables. Many of them get their stuff from thrift stores and the like.
Marshal: Did you learn anything about setting the table by doing a story about it that you’re going to start doing at home now?
Scammer: I don’t think, these people are so out of my league, like I would never be able to design such a gorgeous table. I know where the knife goes in relation to the plate and the fork. That’s what I learned.
The Oregon State Fair runs through Monday at the Salem State Fairgrounds.