You’ve eyed the bushels of bright-orange mini pumpkins and charmingly lumpy decorative gourds at the farmers’ market. You’re thinking you’ll buy a dozen to strew artfully along your Thanksgiving table this weekend. Throw in a few deep-red dried cobs of corn, some red and orange table napkins and you’ll be done.
But, then, something feels a little off, doesn’t it?
All the cookbooks you’re poring over for menu updates feature well-worn wood tables, and mismatched plates to match their artisanal-looking breads, rustic roast birds and homey, flaky pastry. (Think Nigel Slater, Noma, anything spare and Scandinavian, really.)
Then there is that 2009 expletive-filled McSweeney’s essay “It’s Decorative Gourd Season…” that resurfaces every year on Facebook to haunt us about the annual clarion call of the squash family.
(The opening lines: “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some f-ing gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That … is going to look so seasonal.” And: “Guess what season it is – … fall. There’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant …squash.”)
It’s funny because it’s true. Tradition – with all its trappings – is too easy to fall into.
So maybe this could be the year to try a dialled-down approach. But where to begin?
Ask a minimalist.
“I don’t keep a bowl of gourds on hand,” deadpans John Baker, the owner of Toronto lifestyle shop and art gallery Mjolk, which specializes in Japanese and Scandinavian design and art.
That’s not to say Baker and his wife Juli can’t set a mean Thanksgiving table. He admits it can be challenging, but they rely on layering their favourite wares to keep it welcoming and festive.
“The recurring theme is family, so there has to be a warmth to the table,” John says. “It doesn’t have to be super-slick modern.”
For the Bakers, that can mean dishes with an earthy brown rim that has been applied by hand and shows it, glowing copper lamps and a handmade, crafty aesthetic.
“Using items like copper and brass that develop a patina are warm and inviting because they get more beautiful with age. When people come over for a gathering, the table setting might be the same, but the gentle patination of these materials is always changing,” he says.
Likewise, modern-decor aficionado Arren Williams says that, if anything, an increased interest in what’s on the plate – the best local, handmade foods, wines and beer – demands an equally well-considered table.
“There is a whole younger, design-driven generation,” he says. “They want to come up with a totally ace pumpkin-pie recipe and serve that to their friends, with the perfect coffee. Served in the perfect cup.”
As the Toronto-based creative director of Home at Hudson’s Bay Co., Williams sees this type of customer as still planning a holiday table, but “in an edited way to create an eclectic tabletop that speaks to their personality.”
Madi Cash, the Casegood Project Manager for Canadian design company EQ3, says her company’s focus is on enduring tables and dinnerware that act as clean backdrops for food.
In addition to pulling out your award-winning turkey or Brussels sprouts dish, Cash suggests signalling the season by adding more textures, textiles and wood to the table. “Or think about adding some throws to the chairs where your guests will be sitting,” she says on the phone from Winnipeg.
Indeed, this mindset might actually be about having fewer boxes in the basement filled with ceramic tchotchkes labelled Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or Easter, for that matter) and instead enjoying your treasures year-round.
And when the holiday does arrive, there’s also no shortage of leafy foliage, rich fall flowers and other natural elements to replace the reigning pumpkin (and yes, also the white “ghost” variety). For the Bakers, that means foraged branches – and if a leaf falls to the table, let it be – thistles and the like. “You can still be true to the spirit of the season,” John says.
And what of all those poor gourds and pumpkins?
“Maybe you can cook with them instead of putting them on your table,” Cash says.
Use your gourd instead of buying them
John and Juli Baker take an anti-gourd foraged approach to decorating the Thanksgiving table: “For the flower arrangement we took a walk and used things all found in our neighbourhood. From alleys, parks, fences and along the Toronto rail path. These included Chinese lanterns, maple leaves, fallen branches and wild berries.”
Collect things you love
Design company EQ3 has a reclaimed teak tabletop that is “such beautiful material you don’t want to be covering it up with an elaborate lacy tablecloth,” says the firm’s Madi Cash. Kendall Custom Dining Table – Teak Top – from $1,099.00, EQ3 (www.EQ3.com)
Think, too, about using overscaled wood boards as platters. “It’s more about sharing and family-style serving,” says Arren Williams. Lucca Round Cutting Board, $79.99, Available at Hudson’s Bay, thebay.com.
Copper and brass keep it warm
There’s such a push around beer now – and beer being paired with food. “From a Danish firm called Menu we have a craft ale frother in copper. Craft ale isn’t terribly fizzy, so the idea is you can froth up the ale,” says Arren Williams. MENU Beer Foamer, $32.95, Available at Hudson’s Bay, thebay.com
If you use familiar motifs, keep it simple
If you look carefully, there are turkey feathers festooning this line of West Elm dishes. But they’re subtle, so they don’t need to be stored after Thanksgiving is over. “The collection is inspired by the farm-to-table lifestyle,” says West Elm’s Kendall Coleman. “The pieces take entertaining essentials like a pie dish or serving bowls and update them with modern lines, interesting profiles and a texture that plays tribute to a rural landscape. The pieces can be dressed up for the holidays or dressed down for everyday entertaining.” West Elm Farmhouse Pottery Collection, $24 - $49 at West Elm, westelm.com
Or try new ones
These feather-adorned plates are a low-key alternative to more in-your-face holiday tropes. Pottery Barn head designer Tony Leo says the ivory and earth-toned hand-painted plates were created to signal fall. “I love how the natural beauty in the feather design pops against a natural dark-wood table.” Feather Grand Plates, $45 each (sold individually) at Pottery Barn, potterybarn.com