The Disappointment of the Polyester Cloth Napkin

You might not expect Paul Fussell, the literary critic and belles lettrist, to’ve been a source for any useful information regarding running a household, but in fact, his book Class let slip a few related thoughts on the matter that I somehow absorbed (pun intended; you’ll get it later) and have found more and more true as the years have gone by.

We’re going to talk, here, of the polyester napkin, which Fussell abhorred. He hated polyester napkins, I think, because he viewed them as low-class, but also because, as much as you can ascribe a moral quality to napery, I think he felt that they were morally bankrupt. A polyester napkin is a thing that is pretending to be a thing it by definition cannot be. (He felt the same way about polyester towels, by the way, which is completely correct and reasonable.)

You may be asking, “Jeez, Ms. Hausfrau, why are you being such a snob?” A fair question, but one which has a fast answer. The napkin (or towel) has one job: to absorb schmutz and water. Polyester does neither. Hence, a polyester towel or napkin is literally useless. Furthermore, a polyester towel or napkin doesn’t feel as good to use as  cotton napkin (or linen, but who has linen napkins anymore? almost no one) or towel. So there is really nothing gained by using a polyester napkin. On the contrary: it lowers the quality of one’s dining experience. A polyester napkin feels oddly greasy when you hold it, when you press it to your mouth to dab at sauce at the side of your lip, and it inevitably falls from your lap to the floor because the fabric is so slippery. And a napkin that has slipped off your lap and landed on the floor by your feet is something you don’t want to put up to your mouth or try to clean your hands with.

There is no point to these things. People buy them because they are inexpensive, but it is a false economy, because a cheap product that doesn’t perform well is an item you have wasted money on.

Cheryl Mendelson gets this, and as I recall, she explains at some length in one of her home management books why polyester towels and napkins are a farce. I mention it because I realize that some of my readers may not really want to trust Paul Fussell’s opinion on the matter, but would give Mendelson a little more weight. Which would be fair enough.

You are possibly wondering, “Hausfrau, why are you all bent out of shape about polyester napkins? Who cares?” I’ll tell you: I’m all bent out of shape because I occasionally am in a situation where I have to use polyester napkins, and I don’t like it, and it makes me angry sometimes, but it really makes me angry when I’m in a fancy restaurant, paying ludicrous sums of money to dine out, and the restaurant is using polyester napkins. If we’re looking at appetizers in the $10-20 range, and anticipating spending upwards of $100 on dinner (which is a real splurge to the Hausfrau, something I take seriously, because believe me, it doesn’t happen real often), I expect napkins to be absorbent. Seriously. I don’t require cotton or linen napkins, I really don’t. But I expect a napkin that will function. I’d be happy with ‘good’ paper napkins (Paul Fussell may scoff, but I know what people mean when they say that, and it makes sense to me), I really would. But polyester napkins, to me, say: “We wanted it to look fancy here but we weren’t willing to actually think it through.”

My husband and I had occasion to eat at Tarry Lodge a few nights ago. This was a big deal. Tarry Lodge is a restaurant in New Haven (and other places, I gather) owned by Big Star Chef Mario Batali, about whom I know almost nothing except that he’s a Big Star Chef and I’m supposed to pay attention when he does stuff. This Tarry Lodge restaurant opened on Park Street in the fall of 2014, and I was interested in it for a few reasons. One, it was billed as a pizza restaurant, and if there’s something New Haven doesn’t need, it’s some fancy pants chef coming here to open a pizzeria. I mean, New Haven already has a lot invested in pizza, and we don’t need help from Mario Batali or anyone else in that department. Another reason I was interested in this place is that it is located on Park Street, which is not exactly a high-profile location for any restaurant, and certainly not where one might expect a famous chef to open a business. At some level, I thought, “Ok, so, this is interesting. There is a challenge being made here, on more than one front, a dare being taken. I wonder what the place will do.”

I was skeptical, to put it mildly. But since we don’t often eat out, I really had nothing to say on the subject of Tarry Lodge for a very long time. In the meantime, many of my friends went to eat there and came out crowing over how delicious, what service, just amazing. There was also a small group of outliers who said they found it, to be polite, lacking. Poor service; food not cooked properly (one guy said his pasta wasn’t merely al dente but was actually crunchy, a very undesirable quality in a pasta dish); food over salted, too greasy, and on and on. It seemed clear to me that it was a place that inspired strong feelings one way or another. People would either dine there once and never go back, or instantly have it be their Number One Favorite Restaurant in town, and return as often as possible.

Then my husband got to go there with his co-workers for lunch one day. He came home raving about it. “This pizza,” he said. “It sounded weird but it was delicious.” Something about truffle honey and pistachios. “We should really go sometime,” he said. “Yeah, let’s go!” I said cheerily, but we never went. Until last Friday night, when we were trying to think of a place to go before we attended a party at eight o’clock. “Let’s go to Tarry Lodge!” he suggested, and I thought, “Brilliant!” Since Yale is on spring break, it meant we’d have a shot at getting a table at 6.30, which normally, I am sure, is out of the question unless you’ve made a reservation in advance.

We got to the restaurant and while it was busy, there were plenty of empty tables; we were seated immediately. On sitting down, we took our napkins from the table, and my husband and I looked at each other. “Tarry Lodge,” we were thinking, “You have just lost 100 points.”

The napkins were polyester.

Mario Batali’s restaurant — a place where, presumably, the money existed to invest in cotton napkins — uses 100% cheap, sleazy, polyester napkins.

Which means that when I wanted to dab some spicy olive oil from the corner of my mouth, all I could do was use the napkin to massage it into my skin. It meant that when I got my hands dirty eating the pistachio, goat cheese, and truffle honey pizza — which was delicious, and had a crust very different from what we usually think of as pizza crust, here in New Haven — the napkin was utterly useless. My husband, who had tagliatelle bolognese, had to be extra careful with his meal, because, let’s face it, bolognese is the kind of thing you just assume will result in disaster of some kind. (He got lucky.) It meant that when we were served our Valrhona chocolate and olive oil ice creams (with honey on top, no goddamned fennel pollen — why do I want it on ice cream?), we were very, very careful with each spoonful we took from the dish at the center of the table, because if we spilled any on ourselves, there was sure to be no good way to blot it up.

I feel like I should be allowed to expect more from Mario Batali and Tarry Lodge. Tarry Lodge wouldn’t have lost any points with me had they just been forthright and set the tables with heavy paper napkins. Hell, we were once in a restaurant, a casual pizza place, where they avoided the whole napkin issue by simply putting rolls of paper towels at every table, and I thought it was an ingenious solution to the problem of how a pizzeria should deal with napery. Eating pizza is a greasy, messy operation, no matter where you are. Even if you’re the kind of person who insists on using a knife and fork to eat it, you’re going to want a napkin. And we all know those little narrow tri-folded paper napkins are terrible; we tolerate them in inexpensive restaurants and diners, but we all know they don’t work that well. At a place like Tarry Lodge, though, I want a napkin that works, that will not slide off my lap and land on the floor, that will serve me well in my time of need.

So I will dine at Tarry Lodge again, I imagine; I do want to try the ravioli filled with beef short ribs. But if I don’t go back — well, it won’t be the end of the world.

I hope you’ll excuse me while I go fold laundry. I did three loads of laundry this morning, including the kitchen towels and, yes, the cloth (100% cotton, as God intended) napkins. Anyone at my house who needs a napkin will find themselves supplied with something soft, handsome, and effective. At Tarry Lodge? Bring Your Own Napkin.

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