Martha Stewart: Dinner parties of eight or more need a seating plan

  • By Martha Stewart
  • Thursday, December 3, 2009 12:01am
  • Life

Q Is it necessary to set places for a holiday meal? If so, how should I plan the seating arrangement?

A: While not required for an intimate family gathering, assigned seating helps any large dinner party run more smoothly. Plus, place cards can serve as a pretty table decoration.

They don’t have to be formal; you could write names on small note cards or on colorful paper ribbon. Or go beyond the traditional and get a little whimsical.

In general, a host should create a seating plan for parties of eight or more. Whenever possible, alternate men and women, with the hosts stationed at opposite ends of the table (unless you have a distinguished guest, in which case he or she may be placed at the head of the table).

Couples and close friends should not be seated next to one another; after all, they talk all the time.

To come up with a suitable arrangement, think about guests’ personalities and mutual interests, as this will help ensure lively conversation during the meal.

You may also want to allow time for mingling before and after dinner, so that those who aren’t seated near one another have the opportunity to socialize.

Q: What can I add to a wood-burning fireplace to create a festive fragrance?

A: One way to build an aromatic fire is to choose wood that is naturally fragrant. For a subtle effect, use a long-burning wood, such as hickory or cherry. Ash, which has a less assertive smell, is also a good selection.

As with any wood, make sure the logs are dry and have been aged at least six months. Freshly cut wood burns unevenly and produces smoke as well as an unpleasant odor.

Wood chips from hickory or fruitwood trees smell delightful as well. They are often available wherever firewood is sold.

Scented pinecones can also be an attractive addition. To make them, preheat the oven to 200 F or the lowest setting. Place a handful of pinecones (available at crafts stores) in a single layer, about a half inch apart, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for about 25 minutes or until the pinecones are dry to the touch. Because the pitch on pinecones can ignite at high temperatures, monitor them closely.

Let the pinecones cool completely, and then sprinkle them with a few drops of essential oil, such as cinnamon, balsam or clove (available at health food stores).

Put them in an airtight storage bin or plastic bag. Gently shake the container to distribute the oil evenly, and keep it sealed until you are ready to light a fire. Then arrange the pinecones in a basket by the fireplace, and toss them in one or two at a time.

Q: It’s wonderful to be with family during the holidays, but air travel can be so difficult this time of year. Any suggestions on how to make it easier?

A: Forewarned is forearmed. To avoid luggage complications and delays at the airport, first do some research at home. Read the airline’s Web site for baggage restrictions — policies vary from carrier to carrier — as well as the Transportation Security Administration’s ( to confirm what you can and can’t take onto the plane. (Homemade cider, alas, must remain at home.)

Booking an e-ticket can save time and means one less piece of paper of which to keep track. You can check in to your flight, confirm your seat assignment and print your boarding pass from your computer. When you get to the airport, you may be able to avoid some lines altogether.

Enter the airline’s customer service phone number, as well as your reservation and flight numbers, into your cell phone so you can check the status of your flight en route.

If your flight is canceled, call the service number immediately to rebook, rather than standing in long lines at the service desk. Be sure your phone is charged before you leave for the airport, and don’t forget to pack the charger in your carry-on bag in case of delays. Most airports have outlets that you can use to recharge the battery.

Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 601 W. 26th St., Ninth floor, New York, NY 10001. Send e-mail to

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