First come the tablecloths, fine china, cutlery and stemware, then come the rulers.
At the Oregon State Fair table setting contest, precision is everything.
On August 24, two days before the fair opened, table dressers gathered their entries inside the Creative Living pavilion at the Salem fairgrounds.
Barbara Leone from Portland used a tape measure when laying out her tablecloth. She pinned a needle halfway to each table edge, wrapped a piece of yarn around each needle and stretched the yarn across the table to create temporary guidelines so that her floral centerpiece and presentation plates are perfectly centered. She used a measuring stick to confirm that her utensils were placed an inch from the edge of the table.
Leone said she found out about the table dressing contest entries several years ago at the State Fair and was “delighted”.
“What I found most interesting were all the rules and the judging,” she said. “They were ruthless. One of the (judge’s) cards said, ‘Her roses don’t match. She had two different colors of rose, and they didn’t match. And I thought, ‘Man, can I I can match my roses. And it just snowballed from there.
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Table dressing is one of the long-running contests of the Creative Living section of the Oregon State Fair. Oregon residents can submit their crafts, quilts, baked goods, Lego sculptures and more in 1,113 competition classes to judge at the fair.
There are 20 places in the table dressing contest. Nanci Keatley, culinary and entertainment coordinator for the Oregon State Fair’s Creative Living department, said that’s always the first category to fill out.
“I think they’re very competitive,” she said of the table dressers. “They are very serious in what they do.”
No cash prizes are awarded, just blue ribbons.
“But it’s not just a ribbon,” Keatley said. “It is the honor and the glory that you receive from this ribbon.”
Table setters are judged on adherence to theme, creativity and accuracy. They bring their own tables, no larger than 36 inches in diameter. They create a menu card – although they don’t prepare the food – and lay out the appropriate settings and utensils for that meal.
There are competition classes for youth and adults, and a variety of themes to choose from. This year, the tables were themed for a Route 66 brunch, an Oregon Coast lunch, a fairytale picnic, or the formal category: a Regency-era holiday dinner.
“Regency is so hot this year,” Keatley said. “I’d like to say it’s because of Jane Austen, but I think it’s because of ‘Bridgerton’.”
Formal dinner contestants are judged on a 20-point set of American Standard Table Settings rules, meticulously detailed in the Oregon State Fair’s Decorated Table Handbook.
Bread knives, for example, “should be placed on the bread plate, parallel to the edge of the table with the handle pointing to the right, or at a 45 degree angle, the handle to the right, the blade facing towards the center of the plate.”
Despite all these constraints, table dressers demonstrate a wide range of creativity.
“It’s really exciting,” said Eleanor Arnett of Silverton, who created table decor for a Regency-era wedding. “It’s something you can get really creative with. It’s a bit like art, but using physical elements that already exist and putting them together.
Sheridan’s Lena Morrow adjusted a gold candelabrum in the center of her table, decorated with strings of red berries and Christmas greenery. The edges of her table runner were tied with sprigs of eucalyptus leaves and berries.
“It’s kind of like my creative outlet,” she said. “I do a lot of other things. I do sewing, baking and canning. I’m a teacher during the school year, and then I have the summer to explore some of those hobbies a bit.
Morrow’s table won blue ribbon in the Regency category, as well as best in division.
Leone took second place for his table, themed ‘A Christmas Dinner at Enscombe’, named after the Yorkshire estate in the novel ‘Emma’. Jane Austen fans will have noticed another easter egg from the book: the place settings were for Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Jane Fairfax.
Third place in the formal category went to longtime friends Melody Miller of Harrisburg and Melissa Newell of Springfield — aka the Mels — who created a Thanksgiving table for two.
Newell had previously won several blue ribbons at the Lane County Fair in table setting, but this was her first competition at the Oregon State Fair.
“It’s house play, an adult version,” she said. “Does that sound silly? It’s about setting up a dollhouse, but for normal-sized people.
Portland’s Cathy Bennett discovered the table dressing contest about 10 years ago and won a blue ribbon on her first try. Since then, his results at the Oregon State Fair have been mixed. She recalled the tragic “rubber band incident” about five years ago, in which she accidentally left a small rubber band on her table.
“I got screwed over that,” she said.
This year, his Route 66 entrance was filled with vintage items purchased by his family during a 1958 road trip.
“Sometimes you have good ideas. Sometimes you have bad ideas. Sometimes you’re just in awe of the competition,” she said. “You have to be clean first. The glasses must be clean. Everything should be shiny, clean and neatly tuned.
She adjusted a knife that was a little too close to her plate.
This year, his table took second place.
“It’s a kind of artistic expression where I don’t have to master using a brush or sculpting tools or anything like that,” said Lisa Black of Troutdale, who won the category. Oregon coast. A float glass centerpiece was the ‘piece de resistance’ at its entrance. “I just take pieces that are already done, and just try to make them aesthetically pleasing.”
Keatley credits social media for the resurgence in table setting’s popularity. Beautiful “tablescapes” make popular posts on Instagram and TikTok. She also wonders if years of pandemic isolation have more people interested in hosting formal dinners.
“I think actually young people are starting to come back to it now,” said Leone, who runs an entertainment website and blog called Mantel and Table. She gets most of her cutlery from thrift stores. “For years no one wanted any of this, and now it’s a little harder to get, but the main thing is for people to come together and have fun.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
The Oregon State Fair runs through September 5 at the Oregon State Fair & Exposition Center in Salem. Entries for all Creative Living categories will be on display throughout the show. For a calendar of events, visit oregonstatefair.org.
— Samantha the Trickster