When I was in college, one of my literature professors invited her classes to her home for a potluck and evening discussion of a book we were assigned to read. Professor B, as I’ll call her, struck me as a thoughtful, sensible person, and when I entered her home the impression was confirmed. The house was built partially underground- into a hillside, actually- fronted by a very high wall of south-facing windows. The front door opened into an enormous room, part conservatory in the English tradition; part kitchen and dining room; part living and family room. Hallways led in two directions to bedrooms and bathrooms, and interior walls stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Professor B explained this allowed heat, which of course rises, to flow from room to room, warming parts of the house nestled beneath the hill of earth.
As impressive as the house was itself, there is one image I’ve kept from that evening that has forever changed an aspect of how I dine. On a kitchen counter was a beautiful copper bowl filled with an assortment of folded cloth napkins. As we students filled our potluck plates and looked around for a roll of paper towels to tear from, Professor B casually said, “Oh- take a napkin from the bowl… that’s what our family uses.” She added that she made a point of purchasing cloth napkins while traveling; “Lovely for memories of places I’ve visited each time I bring one to my lips,” she said. She also told us she would cut napkins from yardage bought on sale or suitable items of worn out clothing, and hem them with her sewing machine. When questioned about the regular maintenance of using cloth napkins, she said it was no big deal to include a couple dozen napkins in weekly loads of laundry, and she would rather reuse cloth than throw away paper after every meal.
I decided to follow her example. I don’t have a copper bowl (though I should be on the lookout!) but I have three small drawers of napkins I’ve amassed over the years. I think of my friend Ellen, who gave me a set printed with colorful daisies, when we use those; I remember India when we use the two-toned orange paisley napkins, which are also great for camouflaging stains when tomato-sauced food is on the menu. I have a set of dainty blue linen napkins with white stitched borders that look lovely on the table, bright spring mornings.
When the napkins start to show wear (argh- char marks from grilling! I now use dark blue or black with those foods), or too many grease stains, they’re relegated to the ragbag. I recently read that soaking cloth in a solution of water and ammonia can take out the grease, and I want to spend a couple of weekend hours bringing back into circulation some of napkins that I don’t use often due to the grease marks.
As for regular maintenance, I usually launder the napkins with same-weight material, such as sheets. I put them in the dryer for just a few minutes and then stack them like pancakes and hang with a couple of clothespins to finish drying. Folding them takes just a few minutes later on. Yes, it’s a bit of time and effort, but worth the trouble when a lovely table is set at mealtime. It’s also nice to know that a couple decades worth of our used paper napkins aren’t languishing somewhere in a landfill.