Skip the Floral Centerpiece — Make Food the Focus
While floral and evergreen centerpieces are the standard when it comes to entertaining, using edible tablescapes is a great alternative. They can be way more creative than simply plopping a pretty relish tray or a gingerbread house and its environs in the center of your table.
Edible centerpieces have a rich history that span hundreds of years. Since ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably before), decorating your table with greens, fruits, olives, nuts and assorted other victuals in decorative bowls, vases and trays were a way to show off your status while feeding your guests.
Aristocrats enjoyed edible arrangements with over-the-top pyramids that included molded puddings, sugar sculptures, jellies and other decorative sweets.
A great example of this art form is detailed in the book, Cooking for Kings, by Ian Kelly. He describes the painstaking work of the first celebrity chef Marie-Antonin Careme and how his edible table sculptures in the early 1800’s launch his career and reputation into the stratosphere.
With this incredible storied history, why would you bother making due with mundane flowers and candles?
We’ve always felt like food is something to be celebrated. For the holidays, food should be front and center — breaking bread together is a great way to enjoy each other. Make your table less about bespoke floral arrangements and the candle sticks you got as a wedding gift ages ago. This is your chance to make something that starts conversations, feeds your friends and family and complements the decor of your home.
Creating an edible centerpiece is a way to share something that’s beautiful and encourages people to interact. It’s also a great strategy to get people out of the kitchen. Rather than shuttling hors d’oeuvres in and out of the oven and freaking out over the crab dip, you can be with your guests, sit at the table, have a drink and enjoy yourself before dinner is served.
At our own wedding, we had the tops of wine casks in the center of the tables. They were loaded with cheeses, honeycomb, spiced nuts, flat breads, grisini, fresh and dried fruits, chutneys and relishes — you name it — and the platter revolved on a lazy susan. It was an amazing thing to look at, but more importantly, as soon as as guests sat down, they could all break bread together and share it. The interaction created a great atmosphere and had the guests sharing and talking with one another immediately.
One of our favorite centerpieces is an edible crudités garden. When we first created it, we used a 6-foot by 30-inch lucite terrarium we had fabricated. We filled it with edible ”dirt” made of black olives, bread crumbs, lemon and herbs. And in the “dirt,” we placed little baby vegetables, pieces of lettuce and edible flowers. We had our servers use gardening tools to scoop up the vegetables for the guests and then offer them dressing from a watering can.
It really looks like the vegetables are planted in the soil, and it is such a surprise for guests that they can scoop up the dirt and eat it.
On a smaller scale you could do this on a tray and serve it all with a gardening shovel. It’s a super fun way to do a crudité. And it’s super easy. You make the dirt a week in advance and freeze it. On the day of, all you have to do is line up your little baby vegetables, lettuce and edible flowers and fill your mini watering cans. It’s a total showstopper.
One of the things that make these types of centerpieces interesting are the vessels and the containers. Rather using the usual bowls and ramekins, use little galvanized buckets, a series of terra cotta pots or planters. Hardware stores, plant nurseries, Ikea and online sites offer tons of options. The general rule of thumb is to make sure that it’s food safe and not treated by any kind of chemical.
Since you invested time in creating the “look,” save time by doctoring up pre-made options. You can make mezze with a series of galvanized buckets down the middle of your table in different sizes. Fill them with breadsticks, olives, hummus, crostini and lots of fun things for people to nosh on.
Make it easier on yourself by buying marinated olives and add a little orange zest and some chili flakes. Cube up plain feta cheese, add olive oil, mint, chili flakes and lemon zest and you have a whole different thing — marinated feta. Purchase hummus and stir in some toasted pine nuts and chopped cilantro. Buy the perfect spiced nuts and put them in a beautiful little vessel on your table.
The biggest takeaway is to prep these items in advance and make a gorgeous display on your table before your guests arrive. When your guests see the presentation, they’ll be delighted by your efforts and it will give you a chance to interact with them rather than slave in the kitchen heating up hors d’oeuvres. It’s an opportunity to be a guest at your own party!