Setting a holiday table that's all glitter and elegance won't cost you a penny - if you still have the silver serving pieces handed down from Great-Grandma.
It may not ever have occurred to you to actually use it.
"People who inherit, if they don't know its story and purpose, they shove it away in a drawer where it turns black, or they give it to Goodwill," says Anne Garrison, Tampa's own Miss Manners and a woman completely infatuated with silver tableware.
"When the family gets together for the holidays, then we drag out all the pieces. It's really very festive looking," she says.
The talk at these Garrison get-togethers inevitably turns to who used this piece, or the purpose of that one. It's conversation Miss Manners relishes; she knows her pieces will be handed down with their stories intact.
Many of her pieces were given to her parents as wedding gifts; others she received when she married in 1955. They're reminiscent of the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901, when the silversmith business boomed and the long list of social etiquette rules included exacting table manners. No. 1: "Never touch the food." And perhaps right under that: "Present each food in its proper vessel with the proper serving utensil."
Translation: Berries are served with a berry spoon; wilted lettuce with a wilted lettuce fork; toast on a toast rack.
It suits Garrison, who knows etiquette. She's been teaching manners to children and adults at Palma Ceia Country Club since 1991. Before that, she taught a generation of slouchy debutantes how to walk tall and write thank-you notes. That said, Miss Manners-Tampa is a very sweet woman who accepts with superior humor all manner of sloth unless it threatens to give her the vapors, at which time she'll offer firm but polite remonstration in hopes of helping the offending individual improve his or her chances of future success.
She's pretty funny, too. She doesn't know what vapors are, but when she warns her students she's on the verge of getting them, the kids always straighten up.
In hopes of resurrecting others' old silver, whether it's in the family or a thrift-store find, Garrison pulled out her most unusual pieces, and asked her friends to do the same. She and friend Betsy Best, another silver lover, went through everything and did their educated best to identify the purpose and age of each.
Joyce Mansell of Tampa answered a separate call for the same. Many of her pieces came to her from her great-aunt through her parents.
The result is a glorious collection of sometimes ingenious tableware, and, perhaps, inspiration for you to polish up that old silver and put it on the table for your holiday feast.
Get a plethora of ideas for elegant tabletop decorating from "Tablescapes: Setting The Table With Style" by Kimberly Schlegel Whitman (Gibbs Smith; 2008). Its almost 200 pages include plenty of full-color photos of fine silver tableware, along with china and crystal. Whitman, who owns a high-end events company, offers ideas for decorating themes, tips on designing invitations and a refresher on etiquette, among other tips.
"Tablescapes" sells for $44 in major bookstores.
Anne Garrison's Tips For Silver Care
•Wash and dry everything immediately after use. Normal dishwashing soap and warm water is fine. Put it in the dishwasher, if you want (she doesn't, but it's OK as long as you remove it before the dry cycle.) Keep the sterling separate from the stainless.
•Use a polish with tarnish retardant. Garrison likes Ellanar Silver Polish & Tarnish Barrier, but she has a heck of a time finding it. It's selling for $12.80 for a 12-ounce bottle on eBay, at the moment.
•For deep storage, Garrison wraps each piece in acid-free paper and puts it in a sturdy plastic bag with either silica packets saved from shoe purchases or a bit of white school chalk. Stored this way, pieces have been unpacked years later looking ready for the table.
•You can put most foods in silver bowls, but cheese and salt will damage them, which is why salt cellars and cheese platters have glass inserts.
•Silver conducts heat, so don't stick a serving spoon in a piping hot casserole or your memories will be more painful than joyful. Instead, place the spoon on a small plate or spoon rest next to the dish.
•This isn't the Victorian era, so there's no reason to adhere to its rules. Garrison displays holiday cards in her toast racks. That might have made Victorians shudder, but if Garrison does it ...