Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Etiquette Challenge Question: Counting and Recounting

Above, the inventory of silver lent by the royal Jewel House (the keeping department of thousands of pieces of silver used by the monarchy from the time of Henry VIII forward) for a royal dinner in 1768. The Jewel House was long respected as the most advanced convention and accurate method of cataloging a large collection of dining and decorative objects and slipped only in times when overseers of the collections wished not to be held accountable for lost items. The inventory above conclusively identifies the loss of three spoons. Credit: Silver, History and Design, edited by Philippa Glanville.

It was a habit of Kay Gottsegan, who gratefully taught me a lifetime worth of gracious things in what seemed like a few short moments, to count the silver when it was washed and the kitchen was settled after the evening. The first time I worked with her, she told me she would be into the kitchen at the end of the evening to "look at the silver." She was referring to her flatware.

We were just kids, working for her through high school or college during parties. She was a friend of my parents, our neighbor and also quite renown for her career, as was her Husband for his but that is another story: I gasped a little when she said that, my Mother took a cursory glance at the silver after parties but not so anyone would notice and certainly she would never say such a thing in front of caterer's or any other living human being, most especially not the guests.

Kay and my Mom came from two different schools of thought on this same issue: Be sure none of the silver went out in the trash when the plates were scraped, or (ghastly but not uncommon lately at all) were stolen by the service staff. It was my job to see to the tempo of her event and to look the kitchen over at the end of the evening. This included the silver which I lined up by type on the service buffet just before we threw the towel in, literally. She counted. Always twice, sometimes in front of her still lingering guests. I found this appalling at first because in my upbringing, this was a brazen implied accusation of staff or guest, both being unacceptable.

Do not misunderstand, my Mother or Father carried on the same process of counting. If something was missing, the garbage would have to be searched. If it did not turn up, my Mother would shrug it off, making a note to replace the utensil and counting it as a cost of entertaining.

In all the years I knew and worked happily (if somewhat apprehensively), for the Westchester entertaining legend that was the mighty and intimidating Mrs. Gottsegan, not one piece got away from her (us, that is). But I often wondered what she would have done if a piece of the Christofle had gone missing and not turned up after accidentally ending up in the kitchen garbage. We'll never know. She left this world, but caused me to love fashion as she did and in turn made me a hostess, but I still turn this over in my head late in the evening, a little memory-flooded from the second glass of wine (the one I have alone when looking after the last things in the service cabinets) of the night.

The counting has to be done. It has always been done because silver and vermeil have reached stratospheric prices in some patterns, become that much more difficult to find replacement pieces of, and are, most importantly, nearly always a thing to which much more value than just money applies. Those who do not count, in my experience, soon learn the value of doing so.

But what of this scenario, when it does appear a piece has been lifted?

I am of in my Mother's school: It is not worth an unfounded accusation or an unfair implication towards a friend or valued staff member. And you? Please tell us: What would you do?

This is a great prelude to the Thursday Etiquette Challange Workshop which will be starting next week. See you right back here then for your first challenge...

Reminders: Do not forget that you have a little time left to enter the reader giveaway for Taste, Acquiring What Money Can't Buy, by Letita Baldridge, here. And the ChillinJoy giveaway here.


little augury said...

This is another thought provoking post-I have seen this done a number of times by different hosts(friends or family, and professionals) and never seen a scene. But that said, there were missing pieces that never turned up. la

pve design said...

Oh dear, reminds me "Gosford Park" and the missing knife.
I think if a piece were to go missing, rest assured I think I would be flattered, but mostly wanting to solve the mystery and to up-end every trash can~

An Aesthete's Lament said...

This reminds of the case of the missing silver. During a renovation of our house spoons from a particular antique set would vanish. We suspected the contractor but were loathe to say anything, but we instantly began scanning eBay on the off chance the missing pieces turned up there. Never did, and I still miss those spoons.

LPC said...

Eek. My mother so didn't do this. To the point that I, at 52, never even thought to count my silver. Oh god. I don't want to count my silver.

Blushing hostess said...

PVE - upended is right! But I caution myself against using some pieces in some situations incase they might go into the trash...

LPC - you are right, this is no time to find out what is in the box. When you hand it to your daughter, remind her to count though so she does not lose any! :)

teaorwine said...

A post-entertaining regimen at my home, always: Never take the trash out until the silver has been counted.

Husband,children...everyone is aware of this!

Gwennie said...

I always count the silver, before the trash goes out. A few years ago, as our dinner group was leaving the table, my husbands aunt started frisking her husband (he was starting to show the signs of advanced Alzheimers), and found a napkin and miniature salt shaker in his pockets. She was mortified, and I just laughed. I told her I was flattered I had such great stuff that he didn't want to part with it!

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

Both my mother and I have lost spoons in the trash. But as for counting the silver before guests leave, I can't. I do not wash one dish or utensil until all guests have left. Most of my repeat guests know I like to do it myself and now only offer to help half-heartedly (if at all). After the last car had driven away I wash all the silver by hand, dry it and leave it out to air overnight. I fix myself one last drink and settle in to talk the evening over with my husband. You'll be aghast: everything else waits til morning.

Newlywed Hostess said...

I strongly believe in you should never count the silver in front of anyone else. First of all, you offend any guests or staff that may linger. Second of all, there is no way to prove that anyone stole the silver without frisking them...and that is another issue that I will never approach.

My MIL used to host a supper club regularly. Everytime that paticular group met, a place setting would disappear. She ruled out the trash immeadiately and tried to get everyone to leave their plates and silverware on the table when they retired to another room but some people always moved their dishes to the kitchen. She gave up figuring out who was stealing the silver.
My Great-Uncle's wife stole my grandmother's silverplate because she thought my grandmother had taken it from her parents house. How I do not understand, but after every visit my grandmother got a shipment of her silverplate returned from my great-uncle.