Stepford wives, hair shellac and gingham, oh my!
I talked my best friend into entering photography at the state fair with me. In a fit of inspiration and ambition, she went online the day registration opened and saw all the many, many other competitions at the fair. One category said it had limited space, first come first serve and only 8 entries would be accepted. She grabbed a spot for us in the ‘Fanciful, Adult’ category. For table setting. Ok, why not? I’m in.
I grew up going to county and state fairs, and I have vague memories of beautiful tables covered with vibrant table cloths, stacks of dishes, rows of sparkling crystal and elaborate centerpieces of dried flowers. I remember the tables being the brightest, shiniest things in the enormous hall that all competitions are displayed in. Every memory has the the top of the tables right at eye level for me, so I must have been 6 or 7 years old the last time I looked at those entries. Based on my fuzzy memories, I thought we’d be setting a pretty table for 4-6 people and that it was a whimsical fun sort of thing to do. The experience was so much stranger than we expected. Putting fancy dresses and bowler hats on your pet lizard and thinking it’s serious business kind of strange.
First there are the rules to the table setting. You must supply a table no more than 3ft square and the table must be set for 2-4 people. That’s a tiny table to put 2 people at much less 4. But fine, we measured all the tables in both our houses and found one that qualified. Next, you must construct a detailed menu for the meal. Mind you, you won’t ever have to make any of the food or drinks on that menu. Absolutely no food is allowed on any of the table settings. So we decided on a princess’ tea theme and BF came up with a mouth watering menu complete with wine pairings supplied by Google. Thankfully there’s no oral portion to the competition, because we still don’t know how to pronounce on of the wines. It comes from Spain, and I think they export it to get rid of all the X’s in their language in one shipment.
The imaginary menu has to be displayed as part of the setting and it must be legible to the public from several feet away. So we picked a fancy swirly font that was still easy to read, put a tiara on top and printed it out on irridescent gold paper. It looked swanky and whimsical all in one go, so I thought we’d done pretty well.
Next came the settings. All the dishes that would be necessary for the menu you created need to be on the table. I’d been at an estate sale a few weeks before and found a box of pink rose dishes for $5. If we sort of shuggled things around, we could use those as the dishes, complete with tea cups and saucers. We spent an evening trying out loads of combinations, and settled on something so over the top girly, I was sure we couldn’t have been the ones who made it. Looking through the rules for what order wine glasses get set in, we found a layout of proper table setting for the formal category and decided we were quite happy not being in it. There is (no kidding) an international standard for plate, silverware and glass placement that the formal entries are judged by. We can’t agree across national borders on anything important, but we totally have international agreement on which fork goes where on a well set table. When everything looked good, we took some pictures so we could do it again, and packed it all up into boxes for transporting.
A week before the fair, there are two 4 hour spots available for entrants to set up their tables in Salem. Since I was camping that weekend, I raced off site at 8am, met BF and her husband at a parking lot halfway and we all raced down to the fairgrounds.
We walked into the cavernous hall and up to the volunteers doing sign in. They checked BF in, but because their online form didn’t allow multiple names, they didn’t have my name. They directed us to where our table would be and we headed back out to the car to get the boxes and table. With all three of us laden with stuff, the volunteer led us over to our spot and gave us the admonition that only BF could set up. Her husband and I could only supervise. A little startled, we explained to her that we’d done it as a 2 person team which the posted rules allowed. She tried to assure us that only one person could enter, but arguing rules with BF, BFs husband and me is maybe the most futile thing anyone on the planet could do. BF had a copy of the rules in the box with all our gear that we handed over to the volunteer. She reviewed the rules, checked in with someone else, then came back and told us we were right, we could have 2 people on the team, but the third person absolutely could not touch anything. So BFs husband stood about 15 feet away watching us with some bemusement. I have to give the volunteer credit, she was cheerful and working hard at being helpful the whole time. Faced with the three of us early on a Saturday morning, that’s noteworthy.
We set up our pretty table next to the others that were taking shape. I felt pretty good about it right up until a woman and her daughter came over to lend us their ruler. They were setting up the little girl’s entry when they (I think it was the little girl) noticed that we’d forgotten our ruler and were very generously offering to lend theirs to us. Because without a ruler, the plates and silverware can’t be exactly an inch from the edge of the table. I had one of those grown up moments where I smiled at the kid and said “thank you” when what I wanted to say was: “What the hell kind of competition is this?! I didn’t forget a ruler! Why would I need a ruler to set a table! Who makes rules like that?”
The kid and mom were awesome for noticing we’d “Forgotten” something and offering to help. But the feminist in my head keeps squinting through the aether at the mom and wondering whose idea it was to teach a little girl crazy formal table setting rules. Why isn’t she in a science club on a Saturday morning? And the rational part of my brain responds: “Kids are weird and maybe it really is what makes her happy. God knows I did weirder things as a kid and none of those got me shiny ribbons”. We finished adjusting the table, gave the ruler back and headed out through the smoke haze covering the Willamette Valley.
A week later, we came back to the fairgrounds to see how we’d done. The rain and wind were so strong tents were being blown over, which made the population of the fair deliciously low. We headed straight for the table settings and were disappointed there were no shiny ribbons on our pretty table. I was irritated that someone had propped the menu up and knocked over the salt & pepper in the process, then I noticed our judging card and my eye started to twitch.
Every other competition at the fair has a plain, tiny white card next to the entries with the entrants name, the category and maybe the name of their entry. Any feedback the judges choose to give the entrants is concealed behind the item. Most of the time, there isn’t any feedback, but after talking with a friend of mine who’s a judge at a different fair, they’re careful to make the feedback encouraging and supportive because they genuinely want people to enter next year.
Table setting is whole different beast. It’s so different, it may be a three headed marsupial from another planet. In front of every table was a museum style display podium with an 8½ x 11” sheet in it. Generally when I see podiums like these, they’re displaying a page that says something like “Leather coat worn by Flight Commander Yevgeniya Zhigulenko. On loan from the Hermitage Museum”. This time, however, it had BFs name in bold pink script at the top, followed by a bulleted list of errors we’d made. Honestly, I could hear the woman who made sheet saying ‘Bless your heart’ after every statement. It was somehow worse that she’d taken hours to beautify the judging cards. Every single corner of paper had a butterfly hand punched out and another butterfly glued somewhere on the center page as an accent.
I came back a few minutes later and looked at the entries that had won. Which left me conflicted – were they actually as ugly as I thought or was I just mad I hadn’t won? First place, well, it was weird and unappealing, but ok, I can see that everything was very precise and with a really simple menu, there’s fewer pieces to put on the table. Second place just baffled and irritated me though. For highlights: There was a hand stitched quilt as the tablecloth, the menu was mostly stew and the centerpiece was a cast resin pheasant. The kind of statue people put in their west hills garden to make it look rustic. After a little more forensics at the other tables, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the judge
- Disapproves of purple. It’s a bad color. Maybe a naughty color depending on how you read the comments.
- Approves of dusty blues and thin line plaids.
- Approves of anything that looks like it would fit into a swanky forest lodge that’s been decorated to be “rustic”. I’m pretty sure their version of rustic comes from Perry Mason reruns.
- Took the time to put category signs with more butterfly cutouts over every single table. In addition to the judging sheets.
- Wears starched blue gingham dresses and high heels at 5pm every night while sipping a martini garnished with olives on chilled silver toothpicks. On further thought, I think this is true regardless of the judges gender.
- Loves table settings in a way that may require an intervention from friends and family. Step away from the Martha Stewart books.
- Probably throws epic dinner parties when it’s not fair season.
We’re entering again next year of course. It was just too weird to not do it again. And I’ll take table setting over quilting any day – those people are crazy!