Competitive Tablescaping is Real, and it is a Delight to Behold

Humans have competitions for all kinds of strange things: holding beer steins, racing lawn mowers, chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill. But these all seem positively mainstream compared to a competition that is held annually at the L.A. County Fair, where participants attempt to outdo each other in setting the table.

But these aren’t just any tables. These are the most elaborate (and occasionally absurd) tablescapes you have ever seen. Did you once put together a few gourds to make a centerpiece for your Thanksgiving table? That is nothing. These tablescapers coordinate linens, and plates, and glasses, and silverware, and even faux menus (there is no actual food) with their theme. They employ every bit of decorative ephemera you can possibly imagine being on a table, and some that you can’t. This year’s winning entry included faux chickens and, puzzlingly, pillows.

Other entries from this year’s competition (which was limited to 20 tables; there’s a wait list) included things like faux seagulls and draped fishing nets, wands at every place setting (for a Harry Potter-themed table), and an entire table built to resemble a piano. A Mardi Gras-themed entry featured a giant mask overlooking diners, with almost every available surface covered in beads. It’s difficult to imagine a human eating, much less serving, a meal at one of these tables, but that’s really beside the point. What these tablescapes lack in practicality they make up in sheer dedication. Everything, even down to the salt and pepper shakers, is considered, and participants spend months planning. Bonnie Overman, who has entered the competition every year since 1997, has accumulated enough materials to fill two sheds in her backyard.

Besides the decor and the menu, participants are also judged for how well their table is set, by a team of judges who appear to be particularly concerned about things like silverware placement. Reporting for the Hairpin in 2012, writer Jane Marie stumbled across the competition, and shared some of the judges’ more interesting notes. One table was dinged because “Dessert fork is too large and facing the wrong way.” Another table, with a nautical theme, got a nod for rope-wrapped legs but also a note that “Tea spoon should be on saucer and the tablecloth should be rectangular, not oval.”

At some level, it may all seem a little bit silly. But consider that just a few weeks ago, the nation held its collective breath over which set of men could do a better job of hitting a small ball with a stick. In trying times, it can be helpful to have pastimes, whether national or personal, that provide a moment of absorption, a place to escape. So what’s wrong with a little fuss over a table?

For further reading, check out this behind-the-scenes look into the world of tablescaping from Atlas Obscura, and also this article from Mother Nature Network that features photos of many of this year’s entries. The rules for the 2017 competition are here: the information for the 2018 competition has not yet been announced, but you can check back on their website periodically for details. And if you do decide to enter, please let us know, because we’d love to follow along.

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