I was born into a family that did not hold dining traditions dear. We were six kids, an overwhelmed mother, and a father who travelled during the week and was only home for dinner on the weekends. The love was there, and dinner was important, but dinner finery, not so much. But kids grow up and discover new ways of doing things, and so did I. When I started my own family, I discovered a lovely French tradition that I embraced as my own. When a baby is born in France, one of the traditional baby gifts is a silver napkin ring. The initials or name of the child is engraved on the silver treasure, and the napkin ring is customarily used at mealtimes throughout his or her family life. A cloth napkin rolled into a napkin ring is as much a part of the table setting as is a knife, fork, or spoon. When the meal is over, one’s napkin is folded back into the napkin ring for the following day. After a few meals, the cloth napkins are exchanged for fresh ones. When my first child Alexander was born, a dear friend with whom I had studied French all throughout high school, college, and abroad in Dijon sent my baby Alexander a silver napkin ring from France with his very long first name engraved on it. I was delighted with such a gift. Three years later, Elliot was born, and a second napkin ring arrived from France. By then, I realized my husband and I needed our own to complete the table so on our first trip to France together, we chose two Christofle silver napkin rings and had them engraved. On went the tradition and the children. Two more babies, Harrison and Camille, and two more napkin rings. There was never a thought that it wasn’t normal to have children setting the table every night with silver napkin rings and cloth napkins next to their plates. It was so taken for granted that one of the children saw his first paper napkin at age five at a neighbor’s dinner table, and asked me what he was supposed to do with it at the end of the meal. He’d never heard of throwing away a napkin!
Some may think the tradition is a bit formal, but we continue to add to our collection. We brought back one for our Brazilian exchange student when it became apparent she would always be part of our family. And our daughter-in-law Cynthia observed the tradition early on before she married our son. She decided she wanted to form napkin rings out of vintage silver forks and spoons for each of their wedding dinner guests, and Elliot stamped each guest’s initials on them. Here was a girl after my own heart!
Of course, I soon sought out a very special antique silver napkin ring in France for my new daughter! And soon after I found a second one for Chef Elliot to use at family meal, one with cooks in the kitchen all around it. It even had an E on it!
Traditions in a family are connecting points, and this tradition is a cherished one of ours, one that started with a French custom and took root in our own family history. We are fortunate that six of the seven of us live in the same neighborhood. We gather for family meal every Sunday, one that chef Elliot now prepares for us, and we are still setting the table with our silver napkin rings.