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Diary of a Place Setting

In T.S. Eliot’s first-ever published poem in 1915, he introduced the world to measuring out one’s life in coffee spoons. Eight decades later, Jonathan Larsen, an original “voice of a generation,” brought us Rent on Broadway, and riffed on measuring time in daylight, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.


So: why not measure out a particular weekend in the plates, spoons, bowls, and complications that arise in an only somewhat fictional Manhattan apartment? We start our diary on Friday evening, deep in thought and deep in the process of dinner prep...





place setting featuring a contemporary salad



Friday, 7:17pm

Five minutes until the chicken thighs and orzo comes out of the oven at 430˚F – or is it 340˚? The meat’s been nestled and sprinkled and tossed with golden-cooked leeks and charred fennel, the coarse salt I brought back from Spain what feels like months ago, but was actually three days ago. It’s baking, soaking up the dry white wine and rich broth, preparing to impress my first guest, post jetlag.

The table’s all set, of course. First course is a salad dressed up in edible flowers and plated like I’m a contestant on a cooking show (which to be clear, I’d never do). I’m usually a bagged-salad kind of guy, but I’m hosting Elise tonight – Elise of the hair that smells like rosemary and smile that’s slightly uneven but all the more alluring. I’m dressed in pants I bought four hours earlier, I shaved yesterday, not today, to serve up the right amount of “I’m casual” stubble. Super casual.

So yes, tonight instead of regular salad, it’s fancy salad. I had a chef friend show me how to arrange the lettuce leaves for maximum impact on the salad plate. Otherwise kept the setting simple – rumpled linen napkin, skipping the placemat, and a generous pour of red wine I downed half of while cooking. Elise is sipping hers, sideways smile in full force, then suddenly not; scrunching her nose and asking: “Do you smell something...burning?”


ice cream in a mug



Saturday, 12:09am

Our first date lasted 8 hours, and we’re about 6 hours into date 2. Should I be embarrassed or relieved he fell asleep during the movie? It’s one he’s seen a thousand times, one he “can’t believe” I’d never seen. I believe it just fine; it’s absurd and over-the-top, and yet I find it somehow adorable that he, a grown man, still holds his favorite childhood movie in his top 5. Is he deeply-enough asleep that he won’t notice me shutting this off and putting on something with substance? Can’t risk it. Don’t want to insult him. That’s a date 4 move.

And so, I sit. I watch the slight snores, which also seem, inconsequently, adorable. Is he always this stubbly? I don’t remember that from last time but I’m into it. After the oven disaster we laughed, we ate the over-charred meat and gummy orzo, and we settled in with this bowl of pretzels. Not sure why we’re sharing a bowl, which makes me feel self-conscious about polishing off the final layer. I opt for leaving them there to show some restraint, and instead surreptitiously scoop myself a second serving of the little mug-sundae he prepared us. How do I feel that this grown man has chocolate syrup and Maraschino cherries in his fridge? I text a girlfriend: “Maraschino cherries at 34: manchild or just young at heart?”

“Cherries of little consequence,” she writes back. “Question is, is he serving ice cream straight from pint or from actual dishware?”

“Mug, actually atop small plate.”

The dots blink as she writes back.


I kind of knew it already.


french toast with berries on a plate



Saturday, 9:23am

You’d think I’d feel proud of myself for waking up this morning to find Elise in my bed. That might have been more exciting if I’d slept in bed; I woke up at 4am on the sofa, clutching my throw blanket like a kid. Not such hot stuff now.

I’d had that big plan for dinner that went… ok, if you count her taking seconds of my scorched dinner. She’s either massively polite or has dulled taste buds. I guess she could also pity me. But then why choose to stay over? Whatever it is, I have never, in my life, been so grateful I put clean sheets down yesterday.

My fridge seemed suddenly empty – wait, didn’t I have a full jar of maraschino cherries? – but luckily the farmer’s market down the street had the makings for some easy French Toast. I cut the challah extra thick to soak up the syrup, and last night’s fourth glass of red wine that I’m blaming for my current headache and too-early crashing.

I have the brilliant idea to bring it to her in bed, but realize I… don’t have a tray. Great. Instead I spread out a placemat on the floor next to the bed with the plated toast and a cappuccino. (Pretty sure that’s what she ordered when we first met for coffee? Here’s hoping).

Also hoping she finds this charming. The proper place setting offsets the fact that it’s on the floor, right?


ribs and cucumber salad on a plate



Sunday, 3:47pm

I should really go now.

But I’ve also said that at least four different times already, and neither of us has believed me.

I canceled my girls’ brunch yesterday, and rescheduled spin class this morning. I’ve changed from Friday night’s jumpsuit (that I SLEPT in. Not super comfortable) into one of Diego’s old camp tee-shirts. It smells like his sheets – kind of ginger-y, a little lavender. It might actually be that candle… yep. It’s the candle.

He made me breakfast again this morning – he put it on the floor again and we cracked up, again, because when he tried that yesterday I nearly stepped on it.

But it’s hours until dinner and we were on a walk around his neighborhood, and the smell from this BBQ place hit us at the same time. It’s not lunch or dinner time, and somehow, all the tables are taken – this stuff must be good. We ordered way too much food, to go, and made up stories about the people chowing down on their ribs and potato salad in the middle of the afternoon. Not that we have any more legitimate excuse.

Back at his apartment, he gets a call from his mom and heads into the bedroom to talk. He’s speaking Spanish, so I can’t understand, save for a few words I recognize. Why would he be talking about romero, rosemary?

I feel a little weird going through his kitchen cabinets to plate things up but I feel like I’ve been here long enough to earn the right. I set it all up on the coffee table, carrying two large but surprisingly lightweight dinner plates to the living room. Sides get dumped right into the bowls. I head back to the kitchen to sniff out the booze situation with all those decanters when he emerges from the bedroom.

“Our goodbye lunch. I mean, dinner. Pre-dinner,” I say.

“You shouldn’t have,” he says. And for a minute I panic. Should I not have? Should I have left any of those times I suggested it? Was I reading him wrong? His eyebrow is arched, and I don’t know his facial expressions well enough to tell if it’s in jest or not.

A smile spreads. “I’m calling in sick tomorrow,” he says. “We can have our goodbye pre-dinner then.”

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