French Napkins

david

Last time I was in the states, because I had a few hours to spend strapped in a seat (on an airplane, folks—it wasn’t Folsom Street Fair weekend), a friend gave me a stack of magazines which track the comings and going of various celebrities. I know they were meant to be entertaining, but I must’ve been away too long, because I had no idea who about eighty percent of the people in the magazine were and if Suri Cruise or Ke$ha was strapped in next to me, I wouldn’t have any clue to how blessed I was to be in their celestial presence.

napkins

There were a lot of women with names like Trista, Jilly, and Bethany, who wanted to win husbands on television programs and were wearing turquoise dresses with remarkably sturdy-looking tetons and well-toned arms, which presumably meant they were ready for battle. I even learned of a crafty woman who was using her uterus to pick up a little extra spending money, even though from the looks of things, she had plenty of other things to already keep her pretty well occupied already.

There were also other stories about people who voluntarily get up in front of a lot of people and sing, then face stinging criticism from cola-swilling panelists and then the subsequent judgment of millions. The magazines seemed to infer that it was their dream. But if you ask me, aside from the classy Ke$ha as a seatmate, that’s my nightmare.

thibaud's napkin

There was only one illuminating magazine that was keeping my brain in its full, upright position, preventing it from melting into an unrecognizable mass. The issue I was leafing through was devoted to celebrities who’ve gone “green”, and various articles extolled the virtues of that lifestyle even though they live in the most polluted cities in America.

In between the articles about how one star would feed their only baby organic raw foods from farms where the soil had been blessed by the Dalai Lama and another who was wearing an awful lot of diamonds and other questionable jewelery, but refused to be seen at an awards ceremonies coming out of anything but a Prius, the rest of the magazine was filled with ads for things like single-use, throw-away plastic toilet cleaner brushes, minivans fitted with trays for eating fast foods and televisions to play video games, and designer strollers so their kids wouldn’t get their fancy shoes dirty walking around those nasty farmer’s markets with who-knows-what on the ground. Plus there were plenty of paper towels and napkins for sale that were decorated with what looked to me to be non-soy ink-printed patterns. But since my eyes were on fire, blinded by all the glossy white teeth—and something they call “bling”, I couldn’t tell for sure.

napking

Lest you think I’m picking on my fellow Americans, I can assure you that the disposable lifestyle is surely creeping into France. And I don’t just mean the piles cigarette butts on the sidewalks after the implementation of the smoking ban. I’ve noticed the French are, thankfully, still very attached to cloth napkins.

If you go into a very old restaurant, such as Chartier, you’ll notice a few rows of small drawers, similar in size to post office boxes, where regular patrons kept their napkins to use on future visits. Which in reflection, seems like a good policy to insure future business. And who says the French don’t know anything about le marketing?

folded napkins

Those linen-lined traditions are still in evidence today, and there’s a certain etiquette I was informed of a while back when it comes to napkins: If invited to someone’s home for a meal, afterward, if you leave the napkin crumpled up, it’s destined for the laundry bin (hopefully!) and means you’re not planning on coming back soon.

It doesn’t mean you won’t get invited back, it just supposedly means you’re not expecting to be so. For all I know, laundry-loathing folks are carefully re-folding and stockpiling guest napkins in a complicated filing system in their apartments. But I doubt it. However, If you fold the napkin nicely, then you intend to pull up to that table again in the future.

napkin rings

Like those restaurants which used to store napkins, which a few I learned still do, if you’re a guest in someone’s home for the weekend, you’re expected to use your napkin again for each meal, which makes sense.

(Wanting to get married via a competition, though, I still haven’t figured out.)

In summer homes, often the host or hostess will provide napkin rings of various shapes to help guests remember which napkin belongs to who. Or guests will fold or tie this napkins in various shapes and knots to indicate temporary ownership of the said serviette.

napking

Another method, of course, is to use napkin rings. The one above is from a restaurant I went to, which was obviously one that Paula and J. Claude planned to return to. I presume they both don’t mind their napkin rings being seen together, unless they’re having lunchtime liasons. Although in their defense, at least they’re not parading their relationship in front of the media for all to gawk at. I don’t know about you, but rolling around in a couple of napkin rings is a little more classy way to hook up.

paula discreet

I’d have to say my favorite napkin minding-method was one I encountered last summer, when we stayed at a farm where most of the food was grown there. There was no indication of his holiness or $3500 baby strollers…but they did have a very ingenious method of napkin stockage.

romain & pascal's napkins

They asked guests when they arrived to write their name on their napkins with indelible ink, so there’d be no mistaking whose napkin was whose. It was a great idea and I also liked the sense of history in each square of colorful cotton. Many diners had faded from view, and from the table, but I was happy to see that Virginie (way up top) and I shared a love of good, farm-fresh food. And a napkin.

romain's napkin

And you can see from Pascal’s napkin that Romain wasn’t the first one he’s messed with. Whoever Titus is, he should be thankful that he’s faded from view—but let this be a warning that it doesn’t necessarily all come out in the wash.

That might be two bad jokes in one paragraph, but I’m starting to take napkin folding and etiquette a little more seriously around here. I want to be a better guest and don’t want to suffer the shame of having to crumple up my napkin after dinner on a regular basis. I suppose I could just carry a few Sharpies around with me, discreetly marking my name on napkins around town. It wouldn’t be very polite, but would ensure repeat visits.

If I carefully folded it afterward, of course.

130 comments

  • Artists coming to our venue for plein air painting holidays enjoy the experience of choosing their personal napkin ring to use during their stay here. Then the predinner cry is:” Has anyone seen my napkin in a duck/pig/moon/lobster napkin ring?” We have also had germphobics who ask for paper,(not wanting to touch others napkins) – and they perplex and amuse the rest of the guests during their time here. They usually relent after a few days,( though continuing to carry their napkin in their germ-free pockets). Vive la difference.

  • Nothing drives me more insance than eating fried chicken and using a paper napkin. The grease of the chicken seems to cut through the paper in such a delightful, and non-symetrical way.
    My Mom used cloth napkins when we were growing up. Being such a small family we had no elaborate way to tie napkins. Ours were laundered randomnly depending on if we had barbeque would make them dirty sooner, and we would be washing them sooner.
    I loved the bit about writing your name on the napkin, this is something I want to start in my house. I think that is a delightful and heart warming tradition.

  • We switched while in France, too, and couldn’t or wouldn’t go back if you paid us. I hate paper napkins–so flimsy and wasteful. People say “we’re not that fancy” when they eat at our house, and I am just agog–this is less fancy than a 1-time use thing! We have a basket of assorted napkins we use, and use them a few times each. Since I have a toddler and a baby due, I do a lot of laundry anyway (and we use dishrags and towels for everything, so we wash linens often), so it isn’t weekly, but they are still reused. I find dark colors, cotton, and busy patterns are best for hiding grease stains that don’t always come out in the wash. I have other, “fancy” versions for big meals with lots of guests, but our family ones are a hodgepodge.

    Now I’m on etsy searching for personalized napkin rings as a family gift when the new baby arrives. Maybe we can stretch them longer. ;-)

  • Lovely post David,
    I grew up in a cloth napkin family (French New Orleans heritage). I loved the fact that my mother had enough cloth napkins for my sister’s wedding for 80 people. It was an act of love that she laundered and ironed all of the napkins for the reception.

  • Similar to Ellen (though I’m a Creole from further up river and raised in NOLA), we’ve always used cloth serviettes, etc. When I married a Peruano who was raised in the northern U.S., I was shocked to learn that his family had subsisted on paper ones, aie. Getting him to switch (and to not use paper products to clean) has been a process going on for six years now.

  • My mother keeps our unique and distinct napkin rings so the children and grandchildren can reuse their napkins. I much prefer cloth napkins but have to admit to having a stack of paper napkins on our kitchen table. May have to investigate getting a nice stack of cloth napkins. Great post.

  • I hate paper napkins, but they show up in some of the most unexpected places! What bothers me is how few people seem to know how to deal with a cloth one. I host strangers as part of Couchsurfing, so they may be at my house for several meals. I ask them to hang on to their own napkin(s) and still have to get a new one every meal. Make me want to throw them out on the curb.

  • Oh, cloth napkins! Only until I spent 9 years in Europe did I “get it”! So beautiful, so nice, so charming, and so EASY! My first experience with “saving” napkins was on a trip to Italy in ’96. Our guide had chosen a quaint but lower-end hotel outside of Venice to save us all $$. And homely and cheap it was as I remember clearly the first “spaghetti” dinner we were served: Enough pasta for 2 men covered with a thin tomato sauce sans meat. But! The fascinating thing was that the large paper napkin was inside a large envelope! And the envelope said: Fold and save for tomorrow! We were all quite horrified, but did as we were bidden and that napkin was utilized for, indeed, 2 whole days.

    Now I have an entire array of flower patterns and most people just love them! I run the French Beach Cooking School here on Vancouver Island in Shirley and I will now use my cloth napkins for the students coming to make and eat Sushi on Saturday. Thanks so much for the tip! I’ve been using a beautiful blue (w/sailboat) paper napkin, but I will now join all you cloth lovers…me too!

    Love to chat with gal running cooking school in Tampa! Use to work in Tampa, but lived in Clearwater and later in Ocala. Have only been going since last fall, but having a ball! How’s it going?

  • My mother is from Spain and we grew up using cloth napkins. I remember each of us (grandchildren) on our tenth birthday received from our Spanish grandmother a silver napkin holder with our names engraved. It seemed a strange gift when you were a ten year old American kid but now I treasure it. I still use cloth napkins and they are still widely used in Spain as well.

  • The other thing about using cloth napkins, which I didn’t mention, is that I’m terrible at ironing and the small, square napkins are pretty easy to get right. So there’s something satisfying about ironing them, folding them into neat squares, and pressing them into their final rectangular shape with the hot iron.

    I remember a few years ago, I wanted to swap out the plastic gearshift knob in my car for a wooden one. I was fretting, because the cost was something like $60. A friend said to me, “David. How many times are you going to touch that knob?” Then I realized, ammortized over time, it was about 0.0000009¢/per use. Same with cloth napkins.

    And really, doesn’t your face deserve to be wiped with a nice, starched cotton cloth, rather than a flimsy piece of paper?

  • What a great post!

    I grew up using cloth napkins, we all had different wooden rings carved into the shape of different birds, mine was a chicken and my brother had a duck. Even now when I go home my mum still gives us the same napkin rings. We bought some beautiful napkins and table cloths when we stayed near Gerardmer, Lorraine – its the city of “Linge du Maison” so there are loads of lovely fabric shops.

    I love the idea of writing your guest’s name on the napkin, I think I need to go out and pick up some more before our friends come round.

  • These French napkins are really making your dining table look good.I love to decorate my dining room because I think you feel more relaxed and your food seems more delicious when you have it in a decorated room. Nice Post!

  • About ironing (linen damask) serviettes (sorry, I’m not American) the best textile conservation tip is to flatten them out when wet (face down) onto a very smooth surface to dry. Glass is ideal but Perspex or Melamine work just as well. The result is a perfectly smooth and lustrous surface and is a tradition originating from before the time of irons. Would work just as well for ordinary cotton plain weave but who would bother!

  • Yes, I do love that you “poked fun” not only at our narcissistic hollywood population, but also our greedy journalistic bottom feeders. On a different level, maybe french people don’t soil their napkins, or perhaps if you’re a french woman you would recognize your color of lipstick. Maybe men would start wearing lipstick as well. Anyway, you are a wonderful story teller and your photos are a great compliment.
    If I ever have the opportunity to come to Paris, at least I will be armed with proper napkin etiquette.
    AmyRuth

  • Very interesting post, and very close to my own beliefs!
    And another thing I ve seen being done in France, once and again, is the use of the toile ciree. On one hand it s so fifties, but on the other it gives the table such a homely touch when combined with the cloth napkins… (when properly dried after cleaning, the toile I mean)
    I didn t know people were air drying their laundry in Paris, in Brittany certainly they can t, what with 300 days of rain per year!
    And, aaargh! I clicked on the 3500 dolars stroller, and it only could have been a Romainian(sic) using it! She is a singer, the husband is buisnessman, they swim in money but their name -Ciorba- literally means borsch soup! And they named the baby so pompously Robin (not AT ALL Romanian) like Pierre-Charles Potaufeu!
    Thanks again for the pleasure your writing gives me every time!

  • David,

    I learned something , moi la française, about the code for folding your napkin at the end of a dinner party. Had never paid attention before.

    Merci, désormais je ferai attention.

    Bisous,

    paule

  • David,

    I didn’t know about the code, moi la française : folding your napkin to signify you want to be back … Olivier confirms. So merci encore une fois

    Bisous,

    Paule

  • Thank you for this nicely written post. I found it very interesting too.

    Of personal note, I am now the proud owner of my mother’s diverse napkin collection, which is getting a bit tattered and torn, but will always hold tremendous sentimental value to me.

    Even though my napkins probably deserve space in a trunk for safe keeping, my family uses them every day. I often set a table with mismatched napkins from whatever was atop the folded piles. To me, that adds to their charm. Each napkin has its own history, which I couldn’t even attempt to imagine. With the many dining visitors through the years, who knows who used the napkin I rest my fork on tonight?

    Thanks again.

  • Have always used cloth napkins… red & blue bandannas, in the country, when the kids were young..to different colors & patterns to match my ‘Indian bedspread’ table cloths… that I use now for my Bed & Breakfast guests..a change each morning. Keeps things fresh and different.

    Over the years I have collected napkins every way mentioned…..Just felt like the natural way to do things !!..One thing I am grateful for.. is that I did not convert the silver napkin ring, with my name on it , from my grandmother, into a bracelet when I was a teenager !!! Now that I think of it. I also have a varied collection of napkin rings…even thou I do change my guest’s napkins every day.

    And I’m not in France, just good old Brooklyn, NY.

    David…LOVE your site !
    Thanks, Marcia

  • I will be in Paris next week. A colleague who studied in Paris is preparing to move into her first adult apartment (you know, the first time you decide nothing will be disposable and everything is bought to last and you finally put out the inherited whatevers). Hearing of my trip she charged me with a very special errand: find her a couple of nice sets of napkins for her table. Any suggestions on where I should look? I am sure the large department stores are easy hits but might you know id there are any smaller mom& pop stores left which might add that special “Frenchness.” I am grateful for anything you might suggest.

    Kind regards,
    Joel

  • This post brings me back to my days in France, specifically visiting my boyfriend’s family in Beaune. They always had cloth napkins and we each had to keep our napkin in a napkin ring, just as you describe. However back then, I did not find it charming or eco-friendly, instead I thought it was unsanitary as I imagined myself wiping chicken grease on the napkin during one meal, and re-using that same greasy napkin for breakfast. Now I love the idea of cloth napkins although I am still not sold on the re-using factor. Does that not disturb at all?

  • Joel: My advice is to hit the flea markets (the Porte de Vanves is on Saturday and Sunday) and the Marche d’Aligre is daily, except Monday.) You can perhaps score some lovely vintage ones, which will cost a lot less than fancy ones.

    There are tons of fabric shops near Montmarte (the largest and most famous is Marché St. Pierre), and that might yield something special.

  • I love using cloth napkins in my home, but your post reminded me of a tradition that I enjoy even more. For the past two summers I have co-taught a college course where students live, learn, play, and work together. On the first day, each student created a napkin ring for him or herself and chose a napkin from a drawer of mismatched linens. Those who are in charge of setting the table simply grabbed the basket holding all of the napkins and placed a napkin at each seat at random. For meals, we found the napkin ring that belonged to us and sat there. We had new table mates at each meal and the conversation was always interesting. When the napkin was soiled, the student tossed it in a basket destined for laundry and chose a new one.

  • This is a great post. The small customs of small everyday objects are fascinating, and little shared across cultures.

    Besides, I think the use of cloth for napkins is just sensible, and you should make it work however it works for you.

    We have always used cloth napkins. My husband and I started this habit many years ago, when we first set up housekeeping in the 1970s. Cloth instead of paper for napkins, kitchen towels and rags, and baby diapers was a choice we made because we could save some money (very short on money, we were) AND feel good about being green (although I don’t think we called it “being green” back then). Our kids’ friends think of us as the hippie parents with the cloth napkins and the homemade bread.

    I hear a strain of “all or none” in some comments here. Sweet as it is to be able to reuse a napkin all week, it’s also pleasant to use it a couple of times and drop in the laundry basket. We go through a few napkins per person per week in our household (more when kids were young), and just drop the napkins in the basket with kitchen towels and washcloths. It’s a personal choice — each diner is best able to determine if the napkin should be reused or consigned to the laundry.

    We’ve got a nice shelf-ful of random napkins, so we don’t run out (restaurant supply stores are a good source; linen services that have an outlet to get rid of inventory they don’t need are good, and yard sales are best). Once a week, a nice big load of linens is washed and hung up to dry (no ironing at my house — because I am even lazier than I am green). Let your family members and guests make their own choices — you, your budget and your planet will still come out ahead.

  • The Chartier restaurant has the little drawers not because of some lovely local tradition, but because it was originally a food kitchen for homeless Parisians.

  • I grew up in Sydney Australia and our family of 7 all used old silver napkin rings.Some were part of a set and others were a rag tag collection from flea markets and antique markets. We rolled our napkins (we too called them serviettes) each night and reused them for a week or so. Like another poster above, we learned to iron by ironing napkins first–napkins, cloth hankies, pillowslips.

    I introduced this tradition to my American family years ago and although they are happy to go along with it, I doubt they will take it from the home when they leave as a family tradition.

    I still use the old rag tag collection of silver rings, but also like to think of interesting ideas for napkin rings……..pretty ribbons, natural grasses or fibers tied up, a very tiny ornament sewn to the end during the Christmas period and so on.

    I have a large box of mismatched everyday napkins that are a little shabby and disreputable. They come from thrift store and garage sales and my own sewing machine. Then I have the good stuff that shows it’s face at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and when the Vicar comes a callin’. :)

  • I love the notion of getting to keep the napkin for future use – the Sharpie is a lovely idea. Also was thrilled to see I’m not the only one who’s completely out of touch w/ modern pop culture.

  • i’ve been hesitant to make the switch for lack of storage and fear of stains, but i should really bite the bullet and just find a nice washable fabric.

    this did remind me though of how i’ve made the switch to carrying my own chopsticks around town. it was partly inspired by a local japanese restaurant that would keep specific chopsticks on hand for regular customers but after a couple days into a trip to japan it was becoming evident that nearly every meal would be eaten with disposables and the amount of waste just couldn’t be ignored. since then i’ve been carrying a pair of chopsticks and am glad to return the often splintery sticks back to proprietors. perhaps i need a whole culinary kit for the purse! including a cloth napkin, of course.

  • I’ve always used cloth napkins and I own a mix of different colours that I’ve picked up over the years.

    On the topic of whether to fold or crumple in a restaurant, my mother always told us to fold when at home (we were definitely reusing!!) but to crumple when in company i.e. someone else’s house or a restaurant. Folding suggested that you thought your host would reuse the napkins and this implied that either you knew nothing about fine dining or even worse you thought your host didn’t!

  • I loved the post. I always use cloth napkins and have been using them since we were married over forty years ago. I have collected them over the years and have a lot. I have to admit I am sometimes offended when I am given a paper napkin at anything more then an outdoor picnic. I even use them when we eat outdoors and at our summer house. I am not certain if they are my little luxury or I am just a snob. Thank god for the French and the little nice things in life.