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Grazing Tables Are Everywhere

Grazing Tables Are Suddenly Everywhere

And Nobody Knows How to Use Them

The dramatic food displays are popular at parties, but can cause guests to pause;

‘nobody really wanted to dive in the middle’

When Jacob Holland recently attended a fundraiser, he faced a table covered with heaps of food. Not on separate dishes. Not on dishes at all.

He balked after seeing school-age children taking cheese directly off the table. “In 2019, we are all a little cautious of everybody’s personal hygiene,” he says.

The newest cocktail-party setup could send the etiquette police running away screaming. Some caterers are forgoing traditional appetizer spreads—and the trays that come with them. Instead, they’re artfully piling all kinds of different food directly on tables and countertops to create “grazing tables.” The idea has become popular with those who want to serve up a dramatic dining display, even though it may give pause to guests. “If I’m at an event with kids and there’s a large grazing table, there’s no way I’m going near that,” says Mr. Holland, who owns an event space in Cleveland. Guests gather around grazing tables to pick at cheese, cured meats and other snacks from what look like charcuterie boards on steroids. Most of the time, parchment paper is on the table, under the food. While caterers often provide tiny forks, others encourage guests to use fingers to pile food on napkins or plates.

The carefully arranged displays help create a more social atmosphere, fans say, and offer variety that can satisfy even the pickiest eaters. Grazing tables are popular abroad, especially in Australia. Since guests serve themselves, labor costs are kept to a minimum.

“It’s less formal and encourages people to gather around one big table,” says Stephanie Blair, a caterer in Abilene, Texas, who started offering grazing tables last year. Since most ingredients aren’t labeled, discussing what’s on the table becomes “a great conversation piece,” she says.

“It’s not the stuffy intimidating catering of the past where you have to get in a single-file line,” says Monica Nino, co-founder of San Antonio caterer the Board Couple who started offering grazing tables last year.

Still, grazing tables “have all sorts of etiquette challenges,” especially with an office crowd, says Arden Clise, a Seattle-based business-etiquette consultant. When eating around co-workers, she advises staying diligent about using any provided utensils and grazing slowly. “Putting fingers directly into your mouth is a recipe for disaster,” she says.

Kate Allan encountered a grazing table where guests ate with and without the provided bamboo forks at a recent event. For her, some guests using their fingers to pick at snacks isn’t a deal-breaker. “I’m not very fussy, it’s good for us to eat dirt sometimes,” says Ms. Allan, a Vail, Colo.-based medical concierge.

Kristi Brock was happy to see a grazing table with nearly a dozen varieties of her favorite food when she attended her 25th high-school reunion in Abilene. “I love cheese more than life,” she says.

But she found dipping bread and chips while grazing tricky. Being careful not to pick up a little bowl of oil so it didn’t drip across the grazing table, she took several pieces of bread to dip into the oil ahead of time. “Standing over the table and dipping might have caused a little bit more discomfort,” says the 43-year-old respiratory therapist.

One downside: It can be difficult to entice guests to dig in, says marketing consultant Jessica Prutzman, who set up a grazing table on her kitchen counter during a housewarming party where she also invited clients.

Guests were hesitant because they didn’t want to be the first ones to wreck perfectly aligned crackers, dip vegetables into carefully arranged dips or mess up the dried-fruit garnishes. “Everybody was trying to be dainty at first,” recalls Ms. Prutzman, who lives in Shillington, Pa. “People ate around the outskirts and nobody really wanted to dive in the middle.”

Some guests feel like they are breaking unspoken rules by eating directly off the counter. “I kind of looked around and everyone is like, ‘This is normal,’ so I tried to play it off and act like I’m OK with it too,” says Andi Kurzweg, a morning radio-show host, who attended Ms. Prutzman’s party. “When you’ve had a couple glasses of wine, you start caring less about it.”

A vegetarian for 20 years, Ms. Kurzweg says she had to poke around with a fork to find items that weren’t touching carefully rolled pieces of meat. “Some of it was prettier to look at than eat,” says Ms. Kurzweg, who stuck to fresh vegetables and cheese. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t get too close to that.’ ”

As the evening wears on, initial niceties and vigilant utensil use can go by the wayside. “You see people pick at first, and maybe form a line. And 10 minutes into the table, it’s surrounded and people are eating and using their fingers,” says Pamela Davis, a Vail, Colo., caterer who launched a company called Grazing Fox two years ago.

Pricier proteins, including fancy meats and fresh burrata cheese, disappear within minutes, while crackers remain until the end, says Natasha Matallana, creative director at What’s the Kitch?, a New York caterer. “We say it feels like ‘Lord of the Flies’—it’s like kill or be killed,” she says.

For outdoor events, picking a shady location that can be covered before the event is key. Entire tables can turn into magnets for flying insects but can’t easily be moved once setup is complete, says Ms. Davis. “I learned that the hard way,” she says. “I was standing over the table swatting off flies and holding things.”

Without dishes to wash, cleanup is a breeze.

Credit - The Wall Street Journal

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