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

  • Great post, David. I love this idea of keeping the history of a place by marking the napkins with names, and keeping tabs on one’s napkin by using a signature fold or knot. Great solutions for a common problem, and you are quite right for calling out the hypocrites.

  • I own a cooking school in Tampa, Florida and I think this is such a charming idea. I do use cloth napkins for service at all of our classes but they are adorned with bowls of pasta, fruits, stripes, floral patterns, etc. I can’t wait to go out and buy a stash of solid colored napkins and a box of magic markers. What a novel idea for conversation among a group of strangers. Thanks for the great post!

  • David, Great article on cloth napkins……..reminded me of years ago visiting a (now ex)boyfriend’s family in Canada…and his mother assigned one napkin for each of the guests to be used over & over over the weekend…..” I love the idea of writing guests names on the napkins…think I’ll borrow that idea for this summer’s entertaining at the beach! Thanks for the memories!

  • Truly.Hilarious.And.Superb.

  • When I was an exchange student in Germany in ’92, I’d have lunch every Monday with my wonderful English teacher’s family. His wife’s cooking seemed eccentric, but was always delicious. I looked forward to it so much. They kept their (cloth) napkins in a drawer in a cupboard next to the dining table and my hostess let me know, a little sheepishly, that she only washed them once a week. But that made perfect sense to me, and just made me feel closer to the family. In fact, that was a very poignant feeling, then and now.
    When I came home to the US, my host family (who also used cloth napkins, as I believe most Germans do) sent some home with me, and I have always used cloth napkins, ever since.
    This story about napkins brings back a lot of sweet memories.

  • Immediately brought to mind the use of tortillas as napkin, fork, spoon, plate, container and favorite food!

  • I love this. When I was a student living in Blois, we had assigned napkins (and places) at the table. I don’t know how often the napkins were washed and hung to dry. In my family’s effort to be more “green”, we switched to cloth napkins a few years ago. Just fold ‘em, and use them again. Originally, we each used different napkin rings, too. Don’t know why we stopped! We also put bandanas in the kids lunch boxes to use as napkins. As for fame, you’d better watch out – with all of your books, the blog, the appearances, the food blogger vacations – you may show up in the gossip mags someday!

  • This is so wonderful. It reminds me of the Germans who store their steins at their local pub. It gives a feeling of immediate belonging…lovely idea.

  • David this post brought a lot of memories back for me. My mother is French (from Amiens north of Paris) and has always used linen napkins for family meals, which now sadly are few and far between since the three of us boys all moved away to do our thing.

    When I was about 10yrs of age my mother was going through a caligraphy course and decided to make us personalised napkin rings that were the same shape as the ones in your post. Hers were made of oak and were sanded and unfinished. My mother went through about 10 of them until she got the knack of doing the calligraphy on the dual curved surface, and when she did they were awesome.

    She vanished them up and we used them for years until they one day disappeared as a new style ring arrived. I guarantee I will see them again when rumaging through her loft looking for something!

  • Touching story. Reminds me that I abandoned paper napkins after spending a summer in France, honest to God, 30 years ago. I’d rather use my jeans than a paper napkin. Now, we have our family members’ names embroidered on our napkins here at home!

  • During my year of studies in France in the early 90s, I lived with a retired widow. She maintained personal cloth napkins for me and the other student living in the house, with each person’s napkin designated by a unique napkin ring. I found it fascinatingly simple and smart, but didn’t incorporate it into my life back in the States for years after.

    When I met my husband 10 years ago, I explained the reusable, personally-marked napkin process to him and he was all for it. Ever since, we’ve maintained our separate napkin rings and only wash the napkins when it gets all-too-apparent that they need a wash. And, we’ve passed along the idea to our daughter, who is now approaching five years old. It’s probably been over 5 years since we’ve purchased a pack of paper napkins, thankfully!

    If only we could figure out a way to keep track of which glass of water belongs to whom…

  • Cloth napkins? Got ‘em. Three kids? Got ‘em. Waiting to be able to use one cloth napkin per week because they won’t be completely obliterated with almond paste, tomatoes, and, dare I say it – Nutella, within the hour? Yup.

    But the thought of having so many loving, returning guests that I can add their names to a long list of faded acquaintances and loves? What a wonderful sense of community, shared life, and devotion.

    The simple cloth napkin. Not so simple after all. Powerful, even.

  • Thank you, David, for the wonderful post! It made me
    1.) laugh, and
    2.) feel a little righteous because I am 22 and have resisted finding out who Ke$ha is, while also
    3.) giving me valuable knowledge for when I go to Paris next month (first time ever! Squee!)

    Hurrah for you and your words!

  • We had proper napkins with our evening meals when I was a kid growing up in the UK – I think my schoolfriends who came round probably thought we were rather posh, but to us, it was just what we did.
    Each member of the family had their own napkin ring, and at the end of the meal, the napkins were rolled up, inserted into their rings and placed in a drawer in the Welsh dresser. All the napkin rings had some history or family story attached to them, and even now, as a 41-year-old, when I visit my mum in France, she puts my napkin in the same ring I used when I was 10 years old!
    I live on my own at the moment, but I still use a napkin every evening. I’m quite tempted to get some rings too, after reading this.

  • Wonderful post! It reminded me a bit of the way my husband speaks/writes: cramming as many good (or bad) jokes/puns as he can into a conversation.

    We have a standing open-house supper every Tuesday night and are never sure of just how many people will attend. We end up using lots of paper napkins or paper towels. I’ve tried to avoid it often, but once someone locates and breaks out the paper products, it seems everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

    I love the idea of having cloth napkins available, at least for our most regular guests! And I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t think of it earlier. Thanks for the good idea.

    Now, I wonder where to find bunches of inexpensive cloth napkins to stock…?

  • I’d never thought this was so unusual (well Chartier is a little, but more for historical reasons).

  • Hi Annie: If you scope out cookware stores, which have sales, I bought a nice set of napkins at one a few years back. And places like Target and outlet-style stores have some nice ones, too. Nowadays I scout around flea markets and anytime I see a French linen tea towel or napkin, I snag it.

    Hannah: I’m really sorry to introduce you to Ke$ha. Any woman that refers to her privates as “my junk”…well, let’s just say I know that we’re all God’s wonderful creatures. But I think he (or she) might have goofed a bit on that one.

  • We always used cloth napkins growing up, and I have a whole drawer full as an adult (plus a stash of beautiful vintage linen ones that belonged to my great grandmother). My sweetie made fun of me for being posh when we first started going out, but they’re so easy. And now that the weather is warming up — I love hanging them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. They’re not expensive to buy — Williams Sonoma sells 12 packs of nice white ones. I’m also a big fan of cheap white washcloths instead of paper towels. You can also buy them in packs of 12 at any discount store, and they’ll clean up any spill. I have a special laundry hamper on the mudroom porch just off the kitchen for napkins and kitchen towels. Easy. Green. Homey.

  • Gossip mags have always intrigued me. How can one be famous for being a celebrity? What is a celebrity anyway?
    Back to the napkins. We just moved over to using linen napkins instead of paper. It good for the environment, but linen napkins also feel nicer and are generally larger than their paper counterparts. I went to a local restaurant wholesale place and got a bunch napkins (various colours) dirt cheap.
    David, btw, love your blog.

  • My mother-in-law, who has only ever visited France a half dozen times, is this way. We are all used to folding and placing our napkins a certain way so we know which one is ours at lunch tomorrow. We’ve started doing the same thing with our daughters now. And I’ve never been to France!

  • I have a bit of a thing for etiquette, and the fine points of napkins in particular. Using them as code for what’s going on (are you returning to the table? slipping politely away? in need of something particular from the server or butler etc?). And that’s to say nothing of hanky codes, haha. But this piece has utterly charmed me. Leaving your napkin at the restaurant for next time? Houseguests using the same one through a weekend stay? I detect a whole new field of manners and habits I need to explore!

  • I remember visiting friends in May of 1990 in Frejus. We were instructed to knot our napkins around the top slat of our dining chair. We sure enjoyed our meals at that table in France! I tried to adopt that tradition at home,but had little success.

  • Ahh this made me feel better. I am always re-using my cloth napkins, since it seemed counterproductive to wash them each time while I was trying to waste less. Now I will return those “used” cloth napkins to their bin with pride (instead of sneaking them back, like I do now…)

  • Belly laughs! That’s what you gave me this morning. Thank you.

  • I love those napkin related traditions, it reminds me the old tales where a cloth napkin or un mouchoir was involved to hide or to carry something precious.

    In french families, where nobody’s looking, for everyday meals, the cloth napkin tends to be replaced by the disposable Sopalin, but since I have my sewing machine I fight around me for the use of charming personnal napkins made from cute, elegant or funny cotton fabrics. It’s not hard to make or to wash, and so pretty to use it would be a shame not to :).

    I love those ronds de serviette too.
    I have two of them, wooden, pyro-engraved with my first name. One is coming from my early childhood and the other has been offered to me as a party gift during the wedding of some friends. 30 years between les ronds and they are truly identical including the typography ! I’m always amazed that in the country of ADSL (except for some people, hahem… how is Free btw ? :D), in the country of TGV and with all the other technologies we have, this little tradition of the wooden rond is still unchanged.

  • David, what a wonderful post….brought a smile to me today! Gorgeous photos and story!

  • Loved this post! It reminds me of reading A Moveable Feast–Hemingway and Hadley had their napkins waiting for them in their neighborhood restaurant. So cozy. And thanks for the new French slang vocabulary term: Tetons! Love it!

  • I suddenly have the urge to go buy a set of cute cloth napkins and use them at every meal. Thanks! Now I know what I’m doing this weekend. :)

  • David,

    For whatever reason, this has become one of my favorite posts of yours. It made for a pleasant distraction from writing my own post.

    Cheers,

    Michael

  • How charming ~ too bad we can’t do this here. The fact that everyone I know carries around their own hand sanitizer prolly means no one I know would be cool w unwashed napkins especially folded on top of other people’s napkins. germophobia:the epidemic continues!

  • ANOTHER reason why I just love the French!

  • I have always loved cloth napkins and over the years I’ve learned many different ways to fold and tie them after meals. Everyone seems to have their signature tie so that whoever sets the table (usually me when we’re in France), knows which serviette goes where.
    It’s also an exciting event (for me at least, even though this makes me a huge nerd), when at the end of the week they get washed and we get to choose a new set of napkins.
    Thanks for this post David, it’s funny/scary to see the contrasts between your lovely napkin photos and the scary looking celebrities. And for the record, I live in North America and have no idea who Ke$ha is (is she really allowed to spell her name with a symbol?)! And I hope never to sit next to her on an airplane….

  • you are very funny… starting to sound a little “grumpy old man” ish, but love these kinds of posts at least as much as your latest delicious recipe you wanted to share.

    thank you!

  • This reminded me when I and a bunch of actors from my first summer theatre job were invited to an Amish family’s home for dinner. Naturally the food was homey and delicious. The way we knew where to sit–or rather, where not to sit–was from the napkins. “Don’t sit at the place with the striped napkins,” our hostess told us, “because those are the family’s and we use them all week.” Or something like that. It just made an impression on me about how practical and cool that was.

    Totally going to my local market and buying napkins now! Great post, David!

  • Great post! I will be biting on the idea of writing names/dates on napkins creating a layered but faded archive. I am usually in the habit of washing cloth napkins after a single use for my guests (I would reuse again) but am now encouraged to have them re-use. I do something similar with water glasses to minimize loads of dishes. I have a hodgepodge of drinking glasses – short, tall, different colors, styles, etc. So folks just pick a distinct one and leave it on the counter to re-use the next time they get thirsty. Maybe I’m pushing the edge, but I feel better not running the dishwasher as much.

  • It’s time to start churning out Prius limousines so Chantellapalooza and Olivalula can be squired around in style.

  • …and if you fold the napkin and put it in the back pocket of your Levis? a dining fetish? My cloth napkins are all white linen, but now i want coloured ones. Maybe some nice woad/pastel dyed ones when the garden is growing again, the faded red is nice too. American popular culture, oh man.

  • so much love for this post, David. A lovely slice of ordinary French life. It’s charming and I wish we could adopt it in America.

  • Thank you David for another insightful and fun post. From Northern California to Paris, I find living here “different” and your blog posts and books have nailed my experiences precisely! C’est vrai mon amis! And, Chowgirl- have you ever heard of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming? Oh, yeah, those three “mountains” were named by Frenchmen!

  • Growing up, cloth napkins were only for very special occasions. We had them stored in an antique buffet, but I can count on one hand the number of times I actually used them.

    Then in my 20s, I married a French man and could not understand why his mother kept buying us cloth napkins. I would put them away for a special occasion like my mother, and my mother in law would buy me another set. Eventually I got the hint and started using cloth napkins when my in laws visited and after a couple visits I decided I liked the cloth napkins and did not at all mind the extra laundry/ironing. This was before I knew what it was to be green even, but now of course I understand the many benefits of using cloth napkins….and I am happy to have a persistent, French mother in law. And for Christmas this year, I bought her some very fancy linen napkins :)

  • I’ve always used white cloth napkins,and we use engraved silver napkins rings given to us, as a gift by my parents in law. I wash the napkins weekly. Most of mine are white and have a story behind them. I do keep a packet of the large white Ikea napkins for bbqs where we might have a lot of guests. For picnics I pack a tupperware container with rolled up (brown) facetowels dampened in hot water (does it show I’m ex cabin crew?). Funny moment when I opened the container after a meal of bbq’d prawns at the beach and a friend looked so disappointed as she thought the container held a chocolate cake.

  • I love this. My mother-in-law always used cloth napkins..and I accused her (to myself, of course) of pretending to be too good (read: uppity) for paper. Come to find out later that her family had been poor imigrant (Norwegian) tenant farmers in North Dakota and everyday paper napkins were never an option. They reused the cloth ones until wash day, as well. I learned of this when I was bundling some old faded cotten everyday tablecloths for a garage sale. (hmmm..did my in-laws think I’m uppity?) She snagged them all and made piles of napkins and dish towels from them and used them until her death in December. Now, I have them all back. I’ll take them out of the new garage sale pile now that I’ve found the romance and charm (and shame). Thanks for this, David!

  • I love napkins, and tea towels and faded old table cloths. I love this post for making me feel semi-stylish. I have huge stacks of these things that I’ve bought at yard sales over the years even though my husband makes fun of me for it. I really enjoy them for their patterns and embroideries of homey things. Love your charming pictures, David.

  • David, I love your site and visit it many times during the week. My father is French Canadian, he grew up using only cloth napkins and so did I. We had special ones (white linen) for holidays/ birthdays and multitudes of coloured ones for everyday. I make my own out of 100% cotton…..the colours and patterns available at your local fabric shop can be mind blowing. So quick to make, I’ve been know to make some just before a dinner party to fit a theme!
    Thank you for this post, I’ll share it with my Dad tonight over dinner.

  • Last year, I lived for 6 months with a Provencal family, and they used a color-coded napkin ring system. When I arrived, they asked for my favorite color. The green ring was mine for my entire stay! Wonderful post; it brought back many memories!!

  • Okay, I’ll take a swing at it. Cloth napkins…I have some but they seem to be like socks you know? I don’t know where they go. I’m going to give it a try.
    Anyway, I’d just like to say for the record, the other day I was looking at the mags on the checkout and I only recognized half of the people on them and I thought maybe it was because I was getting old…and then I thought maybe it’s because of reality TV.

  • David-

    This made gave me a chuckle, and reminded me of my mom, who insists on a cupboard full of dinner napkins (paper of course) and doesn’t understand why my sister and I go to all the trouble of cloth.

    She is coming this weekend and I have decided to take out the sharpie just for her!

  • Reminds me of my childhood days in India (US Diplomatic Corps), where we always had cloth napkins and had them for days at our designated places at the family table. Much better than paper napkins always! I still try to do this with my own family in the US . . . but, David, you’re sounding a little grumpy. We love you. My family dies over and over for your Dulce de Leche Brownies recipe.

  • I love cloth napkins. After visiting France several times as a child, I fell in love with the allocated cloth napkin (in named napkin rings) sytem and it’s travelled with me from the UK to Australia.

    My children grumble about it a bit occasionally because it makes laying and clearing the table take a little longer! But I am undeterred!

    I love the idea of names on napkins in pen – so homely.

  • Great piece!

    I learned these napkin tricks while living in Europe as a student. My hosts were urbane diplomatic-types and we used the same napkins for a week. Each had a specific napkin ring. No paper and less laundry for the house maids! (They were very urbane diplomatic types with servants…)

    Upon returning home and starting a family of my own, my family began using the same napkin etiquette I learned abroad. My daughter and husband think nothing of this and we each have our own color of napkin and our own place at table. Works wonderfully. I haven’t purchased paper napkins in twenty years! Makes me feel like I’ve done what I could to save a tree or two!

  • Merci for the post! My grand-parents used to have their own pliage… and until we were able to make our own, we were assigned a rond de serviette. Some were in Silver with our names on it; some just plain wood…..
    I have always wondered why Americans were so much into paper napkin instead of cloth napkins. We only use cloth napkins for us and use paper with guests (unless we are using the nicer tablecloth with matching napkins).
    Did you ask your hosts (or French friends) if they have a collection of ronds de serviette. Most families have some beautiful forgotten ronds de serviette in their drawers somewhere!

  • …and, I purchase different colored cotton or linen or sustainable bamboo dish towels when I find them. Same pattern different colors. I have quite a collection of them.They are larger than napkins so takes a little longer to get them really good and laundry worthy. My color is yellow — everyone knows my color is yellow! :)

  • Fabulous post!

    David – I’ve been fighting off a nasty bug for over a week, laid up in bed. I’ve been looking forward to your posts and tweets which always entertain me… I’ve also re-read “The Sweet Life.”

    Thank you for making my life so sweet, despite being sick.

    Cheers!

    ~Annalynn

  • My grandmother and my great-aunt always used white linen napkins and table cloths every day, and they were just farm folks from middle Illinois who probably never traveled farther from home than Chicago once or twice. Now I have those big soft billowy napkins, and love them. I do hoard them a bit, and use others that I’ve bought at local estate auctions. Every sale seems to have a pile of beautiful linen pieces that sell for practically nothing. It guess there were many ladies who had fine table linens, and no great grand daughters who want them now. I think that’s just sad. Even the Haviland china dishes go cheaply here.

  • I love this idea. I read somethng about it before we went to Paris this summer, but it didn;’t really click until I read your blog, David.

    So how soiled do the napkins get before they are washed?

    And do the napkins match or is it a kind of mix-and-match at the table?

  • Thank you David for bringing up a fine old European custom which really is a whole culture.
    I grew up in Sweden where each one of us in the family had our names engraved on silver napkin rings, napkins were always white linen with hand embroidered family monograms, used for about a week and as I remember never particularly soiled.
    We were taught table manners from a very early age.
    For dinner parties the napkins were artfully folded in various very lovely patterns
    and made to stand on the plate, I still use some three models of folding and believe me it makes a dinner table look lovely.
    The things one were taught!,
    Since I moved to Paris some ten years ago Í discovered those gorgeous French embroidered linen napkins at “les puces” or flea markets or I buy them at auctions at the city auction house Druout in Paris which you must visit if you have not discovered the extraordinary fun.
    I have now a collection of the most beautiful napkins you can find very large and always coming with the most extraordinary embroideries of family monograms and crests, some napkins even dating from around 1840.
    Some come with large table napkins equally finely embroidered and as table linen even if quite old can be trusted with the professional laundries in Paris that are not very expensive either. Waking up in Paris is having Christmas every day,

  • You’ve taken my name in vain. When I was 23, I was excited to meet someone who knew of another Bethany. She turned out to be the woman I was named for. Bummer. My name was so odd back then that I wished to be called Elizabeth. Now you’ve consigned it – and its individuality – to the rubbish bin! Luckily I’m too old now to care.

  • The story goes that in the mid 19’th century, when explained the function of the napkin ring, an English nobleman exclaimed “My dear, does anyone use the napkin more than once!”
    I grew up with, at first, damask napkins and napkin rings. For a child there is also a special charm in a pretty napkin ring- I inherited my mother’s porcelain clown. Later my mother got the brilliant idea of making cheerful seersucker (ie cotton, bur doesn’t require ironing as it has a charming crinkled look.) These could be washed with the dishes after lunch and simply folded when dry. Damask remained the choice for entertaining.
    Thanks for reminding me of my stash of beautiful napkins. I will simply find the time to use, wash and starch from now on! Incidentally, how many younger readers know that starching makes your linen stain-repellent and therefore worth the effort?

    I

  • Years ago, my mom had a white cotton tablecloth that she would have visiting friends autograph in pencil.

    Then she’d go back and carefully embroider over every signature, keeping a lifelong memory of all who’d shared our table.

    The napkins with the faded names made me think of that cloth — I know she’s still got it somewhere, but I haven’t seen it in years.

  • I love that you bring up the fact that the disposable lifestyle has seeped into France however there are certain things, napkins included, that have remained sustainable and traditional. The other that comes to mind is la boulangerie! Yes there is McDo everywhere, and poor-excuses-for-bread in supermarkets, but the French will never give up their fresh bread and pastries from the bakery and I love that about them. I live across the street from 2 bakeries, down the street from another, and 2 minutes from 2 others that are excellent. I don’t know that I could ever move back to the States for this reason – people just don’t hold these kinds of artisan bakeries dear. Quel dommage.

  • Sarina: I didn’t know that about starch. I’m going to give it a try next time it’s time to iron ‘em!

    bwilson: You, and every Brittany I’ve met has bemoaned the unfortunate connotations that now come along with their names. I guess you can just be glad you’re named isn’t Ke$ha. Like, really. glad.
    ; )

    jutyangsah: I refuse to use those hand sanitizers on principle. When my hands are dirty, I simply wash them.

    kitty: That’s why I fit right in around here. I’m a râleur, too!

    Lindsey: One unfortunate thing that happening in France, which I was talking about with a food writer friend that’s lived here 20+ years, is the proliferation of Subway sandwich shops…which at mealtimes, are sadly, packed.

    I ate at one a few years back when I was trapped at an airport in Chicago and until then, I didn’t realize how it was possible to screw up something so simple as a sandwich. Everything was individually wrapped in plastic and the “freshly baked bread” was indeed warm, but it was like a sponge, and tasteless. How friggin’ hard it is to make a sandwich?? Let’s hope it’s just a passing fancy amongst the locals here, since the bakeries are what makes France so great.

  • I agree with my fellow commenters above, what a lovely idea to write your guests name on the napkins :-) Would that work in the US though, where everyone seems so obsessed with hygiene?

  • David, This post had me feeling so nostalgic . I lived in France for ten years with my French husband and our family and we definitely had our own napkins, and special napkin rings. The best napkin storage was at my mother in laws , knotted and thrown into a rattan basket in the kitchen. It all seemed so natural. My mother in law is a real stickler with her kitchen towels ,as well as all other linens which are all ironed to perfection ,one for hands the other for drying all the dishes , cause honestly there is no other way to clean up dishes for 14 people but by hand, and yes its only the girls who do the washing and drying. But the kitchen is the place to find out many secrets of the French way of life , like you never wash your Champagne glasses with soap, this will only prevent the formation of lots of bubbles. Ahhh the French I love them .
    Thanks

  • I am going straight away to write the names of everyone who is coming to supper this Friday night on the white cotton napkins that I got at Ikea. I do not use the damask ones that I got from my mother as I am keeping them for my granddaughters. I have piles of napkins but do not use those that need ironing and especially not those that require starching.

    My old, undated, copy of ”Mrs. Beeton’s All About Cookery” has a wonderful section on the French tradition of napkin folding. In the past few years I have seen all of these diagrams in new books about napkin folding. I stopped making the effort of intricately folding napkins once we bought 20 silver napkin rings, my husband’s dream of elegance – tomorrow morning I shall ask him if he considers we bought them prematurely as our grandchildren are still at the stage of inventing table games based on the rollability of napkin rings.

    I am a new visitor to your site which I found when I was looking for a recipe for upside-down cake. I had no time to write out my own recipe and yours was the same (except I never cooked the butter and sugar first) written much better and with gorgeous pictures.

  • Hi David,
    I laughed at your Napkin post. My Dad who is 85 lived through the Great Depression. When he visits my house, he carefully folds even a paper napkin, readying it for the next meal. I always thought it was his frugal tendencies. Now I know, all along he’s been a trend setter here in the States. I emailed your post to him. He’ll get a kick out of it.

    Sue

  • David, thank you for the napkin revival. I am sitting on piles of them inherited from across my family ! I love using them, along with cotton table cloths too – nothing like it to make you feel warm, welcome, human.
    Just to let you know that over here in Portugal we did not quite go for napkin rings – although wealthy families usually had them, in silver. We used to have cloth envelopes made with the name of the family member embroidered on top, or just the initial letter of the name. The envelopes would be washed once a month and napkins once a week.
    Lower down, poor people wiped their mouth to kitchen rags or to their sleeves – am not joking. Not sure when they washed either…
    Fond memories your post brought back to me.

  • Hi David,

    Just in time! Tomorrow I’m receiving 8 very dear friends for dinner and since I’m crazy about textiles too, I’m going to sew some new cotton napkins and write their names on it. I like this idea to keep a souvenir of who came home and ate with us.

    Thanks again.
    CG

  • Ha! You said tetons! Well written, very entertaining and quite a statement on our disposable culture here in the States.

  • Ack! Germs! Wash those napkins right now!

  • David,

    Full disclosure…I’ve been a lurker/stalker on your blog foor sometime…thankyou for helping me to stay connected to all of the things I love about France. While traveling in Provence last year with my sister, we stopped into Les Olivades fabric outlet near St. Remy and each bought a bag full of linen in bulk ( they sell it by the kilo but you have to ask to be let into the “cheap” room in the back) and our mother graciously turned the fabric into napkins for each of us. My children tease me about the napkins, but the are very important to me…every time I use them I am trnasported back to that beautiful region and believe me when you live in New Jersey in February it is a life saver. However, I think I would cry if anyone wrote on any of them with a sharpie….sacriledge .

    P.S. I am also addicted to reuseable shopping bags from France….I get many strange looks and sometimes an enviable nod from people who’ve been and failed to bring some back for themselves..my favorite are from Carrefour!!

  • For very inexpensive treasure troves of cloth napkins, try thrift stores. I buy them for about 50 cents each–and they’re always plentiful at the thrift store where I shop.

  • When we were very young my California bought us each a couple of washcloths in our favorite color to be used as napkins, one for the table and one for the wash. She thought that children could use the extra absorption a washcloth would offer. Mom was green before green but then again, it was Marin County in the 70’s. ;-) Now I use clothe napkins in my home. Napkins rings didn’t work too well everyone has a different color instead.

  • Great post – My french host family did this the summer I stayed with them and I thought it was such a great, green idea. However when I tired explaining to friends and family upon returning to the states they looked at me like I had two heads. So glad you wrote this!

  • I loved this post. It was so entertaining to read. We always use cloth napkins and have a drawer to store them until the next meal. I did not know that it was such a French thing!

  • Phenomenal David!

  • I first learned of this practice while living in Corsica with a French family in the Summer of 1986.

    Your story brought back some great memories!

    Thank you.

  • What an interesting post (I have also refused to look into this Ke$ha :)) and the comments are equally fun to read since it is bringing back memories for so many. This post made me think of reading up on a Charleston, SC B&B that had very good reviews, but one reviewer was not happy with their experience and complained about the inn keepers not washing their napkins in disgust. The owners very kindly responded to the nasty review by explaining that they give you your own napkin for your stay in the European tradition.

  • Thanks -I feel vindicated! again. My two older grandchildren come to visit us in Germany in the summer and have become quite used to our old-fashioned ways – hanging the clothes out to dry, recycling everything we can, and using – and re-using – cloth napkins. They do it willingly here but can’t quite manage to take it home – though the recycling bit is really taking hold! (Another reason to reuse them is of course that since the wash is usually hung to dry, it takes longer to get them back to the table and is more effort and you might run out too soon!)

  • David you make me laugh…. and I can’t help but to keep coming back for more. Your posts are a treat to read – thank you for brightening my day (a little more) here in sunny Queensland. I’m planning yet another rendezvous with Paris in June this year. Until then, your posts will keep me entertained with interesting and amusing observations of all things French.

  • What a great, sweet way to go green, but I have to wonder: if I fold my napkin, will my hosts feel obligated to invite me back?

  • The lovely couple I stayed with in Montpelier last year during a 3 week French intensive also used linen napkins which we each kept in a special envelope made of old linen napkins next to our place at the table! There are so many rituals of French life designed to avoid waste, this is just another example…and I find them both sensible and endearing. My host family had a larder of fruits and veggies put up from their garden; they carefully composted scraps; last night’s leftovers were todays quiche or salad or fritatta for lunch. Yet everything was done with care…not just as a means of using leftovers any old way. Not in the room? turn off the light. Big dryer rack in the back hall for clothes ( 2 days to dry jeans, it was a cold winter). These were comfortably well-off people, and no different from many of our French friends. It is not a wasteful culture. The French are nothing if not practical. Can’t wait to get back there this summer for the wedding of one of our former exchange students outside of St. Tropez! Thanks for another lovely post David. Life is too short to waste time reading about people who use dollar signs to spell their name.

  • A great post David! Growing up in rural Australia in the 70s we always used cloth napkins and I remember we all learned how to iron by practising on the serviettes and pillow cases before moving to more complicated items! We still use cloth – bright cotton checks and prints for picnics and barbeques, something to look good with the tablecloth for entertaining, plump white damask for formal dining and whatever we can lay our hands on for family dinners on the verandah! Paper serviettes are only used for childrens parties or where there are great crowds of people. My daughter still has the white linen napkin folded into an elf boot for her by an attentive waiter when she was four years old, and I’m sure when she has children they will receive the engraved silver napkin ring from my grandmother that has long been a standard gift for a newborn. Thanks for reminding me how special some traditions are, and why I only ever buy food magazines!!
    Kirsten (with a conventional s)

  • My best friend in high school was French and her family re-used their napkins like this. I had my own special one as a regular at their table, and remember being a bit grossed out at first, thinking of bacteria growing during the week and then I just let it go. It seemed to be just fine, they were all super healthy and they lived in an impeccably clean home. And it did give me a warm family feeling to be included in their family ritual – so different from my family, where we used paper napkins and cloth only for formal meals like birthdays and holidays.

  • Lovely post, David, but I’m puzzled. The patrons at the restaurant left their dirty napkins in a drawer for next time, or were they washed and then kept in the drawer for them? You know, I’d be inclined to just take my own napkin with me…

  • I love the idea of writing my name on a napkin to “dibs” it. I have always used napkin rings. I started collecting antique napkin rings 25 years ago. Most of them have wonderful, unusual women’s names- Zita, Clarice, Judith, etc., but the ones my husband and I use are “Dick” and “Bun”. I found them together at the Berkeley Flea Market over 20 years ago. If we use them upside down we become “Kid” and “Nub”, also good names.

  • Nicole and June2: It is interesting that folks who likely wear the same jeans for several days, without washing them, are concerned about using the same napkin multiple times. I’m not sure what kind of germs one can transmit back to themselves by re-using the same napkin a couple of times, but I’ve been doing it for years and haven’t suffered any ill effects from it.

    Celia: Yes, they would store their own napkins in the drawers, to re-use on subsequent visits. Each patron would be assigned their own drawer so they could store their own in there.

    Interestingly, I was talking to someone about the serious health risks posed by sharing manicure and pedicure implements, unless they’re properly sterilized or autoclaved between uses, which seems pretty rampant in the states with all those nail care salons on every corner. (Unlike napkins, their tools both come into contact with other people and are shared.) They told me that manicure salons in some cities are holding the tool kits for patrons, in a similar fashion as these napkin drawers, which seems like a pretty good idea.

    hillaryn: I’ve gotten used to hanging my clothes to dry (and waiting a couple of days to wear them) but I do miss having a real dryer. A good portion of my life is spent washing and hanging up my clothes to dry and although I feel better saving the planet, I do miss the time I saved by just loading everything into my big ol’ American machine and hitting the ‘Dry’ button.

    Julie: I love the reusable shopping bags in France, the ones available at grocery stores and other places. I give them as gives when I go back to the states, because they’re lightweight and easy to pack, plus they have French slogans on them and cute designs. (And they’re cheap, too! Usually under a euro.)

    My favorite at the shopping bags from hardware store Leroy Merlin. They’re HUGE, have wide bottoms (great for carrying cakes!), and have both regular handles for lifting the bags with your hands, and long shoulder straps.

  • How wonderful this post! As an historic textile lover (and ex-textile conservator) I applaud any discussion on household textiles and their social history. Keeps the knowledge and use alive. More serviette lore….

    I am a messy eater and really need a bib, so am always grateful for large serviettes. However, it seems that ladies are expected to lay them discreetly in their lap whereas I need them up around my neck. The solution in the past was to use two clips separated by a chain which would go around the neck to support the serviette at a practical height. At a restaurant in Berne, Switzerland, I was delighted to find that the serviettes had a buttonhole in one corner so that they could be attached to a shirt button. Not much help for women not wearing buttoned attire however.

    A French friend in his 70s has the charming habit of deftly slinging his serviette over his shoulder when he gets up to serve the wine.

    Oh yes, and salt is poured over fresh wine strains on linen to keep them moist until they can de treated after the meal. Once dried out, stains are more difficult to remove and salt is hygroscopic – attracts and holds moisture.

  • Thanks you for spreading the serviette gospel, DL. Here, I introduce my mostly American guests gently, to the morning breakfast napkin presented in a lovely antique linen envelope, hand embroidered by young French girls learning their stitches and later abandoned to be found by the dozens at Emmaus stores for a euro or two. At first they are surprised by the concept, then they learn to like the little duck, or hand-stitched raspberry set on their morning place. Next, if they would only learn not to ball up wet dishcloths and hide them under pot lids!

  • Hallo David,
    thats a great post… so true and so real… When i grew up in Germany – my step-grandma used to have little pouches with your personal napkin – so whenever you visited that was your little bag made from linen or cotton – my grandparents had the deluxe version -lol as they were frequents they had their initials embroidered on the napkin and had a collection of colors or seasonal patterns… i always wondered where they went after they passed away.. i have a stack of cotton napkins.. i will take them out – Thanks for bringing this up… love it

  • Thanks; it brings back memories of growing up with many people visiting the house every Sunday for brunch. My friend Bill left me his napkin ring when he died, and I use it for special friends.

  • I’m moving a Sharpie to my napkin drawer! ~LeslieMichele

  • Long time advocate of cloth napkins here. We have them in all stages from pristine for fancy dinners to faded and nearly see through from family meals including a rain bow set of 10. Pier One is another great source for cheap but fun napkins.

    I started last year trying to create a mismatched set of distinctive silver napkin rings by scouring at the flea markets in Paris. Surprisingly, there are very few napkin rings to be found but a shocking amount of silver cutlery and linens. I’m curious about the mismatch. I am coveting a pair that say “madame” and “monsieur.” The few I have seen have been way outside my price range.

  • This was too-too funny commentary about U.S. culture. Yes, we’re way too absorbed by celebrities. But I especially love the discussion on cloth napkins. I have always loved cloth napkins and have a bit of a fetish about it–always looking for and admiring lovely table linens. And my big splurge when in France a couple of summers ago was a beautiful taupe and white and blue tablecloth. But practicality always prevails and my husband knows to keep his napkin from meal to meal. It makes those weeknight dinners taken in front of the TV (shocking) just a bit more civilized. Thanks so much for this discussion! I adore your blog!

  • I like you blog a lot, especially the food recommendations in France. I’m going there in three weeks, so thanks!

  • We grew up spending summers at my grandparents beach cottage, where everyone had their own colour of gingham cloth napkin, which I think my grandmother must have made just by hemming the squares of fabric. There was a stack in the cupboard of 2-3 spares of each colour (in case you needed a clean one before wash day).
    The cottage at the beach was sold long ago, but I still have a stack of those napkins which my family now uses for everyday meals. We keep an extra hamper in the laundry for napkins, dishcloths, etc, so they can just be replaced when they get too messy (a necessity with a food-flinging toddler in the house!) and then added to the wash when I’m doing a load of sheets or towels.
    We also use tablecloths on the kitchen table (where we eat most meals), mostly because it’s easier to change the tablecloth and pop it in the hamper than to have to scrub dried-on food spills off a wooden table. (See the toddler reference above!)

  • When I was young my mother told me to leave your napkin crumpled at the side of your plate so the hostess knew that you had enjoyed your meal. We used napkin holders all the time at home and I have a sterling silver one that was given to me as a child that I still use. I also use my mothers damask table napkins which are enormous and have stood the test of time. They are wonderful and easy and so much nicer than paper. Enjoying your blogs, keep up the good work. Regards Robyn

  • I’d not actually realized I’d been stewing over this same problem for weeks! Trying to make the switch to linen napkins with three kids is a laundry quandry — wanted to find a way to keep them straight and re-use them through the day. Obviously, I just need to hand them all sharpies ;) Brilliant, fun.

  • Wow, this article bought back some long-forgotten memories of eating at the home of my 3 maiden Great Aunts who had a very strict napkin etiquette. However, as kids, we all loved having a special napkin ring for our exclusive use each time we were there!

  • Personally, being strapped to a chair at Folsom sounds much more satisfying any lumbar torture device, aka. the economy class seat. One, it’s our summer time of the year. B) The omnipresent “12 Galaxies” man, and 3. There’s a saucissonfest in every window and balcony. No eyes go hungry.

    Do sharpies exist in France? I’ve had to import them due to ink withdrawals.

  • jess: I was surprised when I moved here and couldn’t find my beloved Sharpies anywhere. As a professional cook, a knife, apron, and a Sharpie were pretty much standard issue. I don’t know how people survived without them. And I handed them out to French friends who loved them as much as the rest of us. Then one day I was in a Monoprix out in the 15th and saw some on the shelf! But I’ve never, ever seen them anywhere else. (And there even is a French Sharpie website, so they must exist elsewhere.)

    I bring them back from the states. And in fact, I have a huge drawer of them because friends tend to bring them by the caseload. Note: Please don’t bring me any more Sharpies, folks. I’m pretty well-stocked–at least until 2016! -Thanks