All in Good Taste: Vera Stewart on Etiquette, Entertaining, and the Life Lessons They Carry

All in Good Taste: Vera Stewart on Etiquette, Entertaining, and the Life Lessons They Carry
Vera Stewart is an entrepreneur, caterer, TV show host, and cookbook writer. (Peter Frank Edwards)
Vera Stewart has a motto: “Whatever you do, do it in good taste.”

For the Augusta, Georgia, entrepreneur, caterer, TV host, and cookbook writer, that applies to considerations from the palate to presentation, serving, and behavior. Stewart’s personal life and business model are based upon this rule, one that she began cultivating in herself from a young age.

Stewart is the host of the popular Southern cooking show “The VeryVera Show,” which has aired across the South for 11 seasons since 2012. Twenty years ago, she founded a summer cooking camp for kids, where they spend five days learning not only how to cook, but also how to set a table, fold a napkin, hold their silverware, present a meal, and greet and serve guests.

“My life’s mission has been to introduce these things to a child who might not have had access to them,” Stewart said.

She knows first-hand the importance of teaching these skills to children so they need never feel anxious in an unfamiliar situation and are able to demonstrate good taste.

Childhood Mentors

When Stewart was 7, her dad died. “Nobody aged 7 has a dead dad,” she said. She would see the flash of shock in the eyes of other mothers when they learned she had lost her father, and, perhaps unconsciously, she began to develop skills, manners, and a form of self-presentation that would ward off their questions.

“If you know how to use your silverware, they’re not going to ask you questions,” she said. “They already know you’re from a great background because you know how to use your knife and fork.”

Stewart instinctively sought mentors who could teach her about good taste. One of the earliest was her grandmother, Vera. Although she lost her grandmother when she was 10, the memories run deep.

Vera Stewart's mother and grandmother. (Courtesy of Vera Stewart)
Vera Stewart's mother and grandmother. (Courtesy of Vera Stewart)

Stewart remembers that her grandmother was always well put together. When she visited, the breakfast table was always set before she woke up, with half a grapefruit ready with a cherry in the center and a sterling silver grapefruit spoon. Lunch sandwiches were served with the crusts cut off and a toothpick stuck through the center. Stewart observed that little details matter.

While her mother was busy working and raising five children by herself, Stewart’s older sister stepped into the role of second mother. After graduating college and marrying her high school sweetheart, she often hosted Stewart in her new home.

“Losing my dad, I don’t have memories of doing things as a family,” Stewart said. “I saw those things being emphasized by my older sister.”

As a newlywed, Stewart’s sister set the table for every meal, made everything from scratch, picked flowers from the garden to put in a vase, and showed Stewart how to pay attention to niceties.

“Neither one of us knew it, but I really needed that,” Stewart reflected.

Becoming a Mentor

When Stewart was in high school, she discovered her great love for home economics. Ironically, it was a class she was not permitted to take: “If you were on the college track, home economics was not considered an appropriate elective,” she explained.

However, in her senior year, her home room happened to be the home economics department. Arriving at school in the morning, she would see the teacher preparing the classroom for the day, setting up the vignettes and activities. Stewart began arriving at school earlier and earlier so that she could help. The teacher said to her, “You should go to the University of Georgia and study home economics, because this is what you love.” So she did, and she received a degree in home economics education.

“The education part of my degree has been the foundation of my business model,” Stewart said. Every Friday, employees send in their “lesson plans” for the coming week, laying out short-term and long-term goals in accordance with company objectives.

It’s the cornerstone of her passion project, the VeryVera Cooking Summer Camp. Thirty-two children attend camp each week, where they receive one-on-one attention.

Vera Stewart with campers at her VeryVera Cooking Summer Camp, where they learn how to cook, set a table, fold a napkin, hold their silverware, present a meal, and greet and serve guests. (Wier/Stewart)
Vera Stewart with campers at her VeryVera Cooking Summer Camp, where they learn how to cook, set a table, fold a napkin, hold their silverware, present a meal, and greet and serve guests. (Wier/Stewart)

The etiquette portion of the program is as important as the cooking, and as beloved. The campers love learning to set a table and, especially, to fold a napkin; “It’s like origami!” Stewart said with a laugh.

Stewart’s own favorite part of a dinner party is setting the table.

“For me, polishing the silver is never a chore,” she said. “There’s something about presentation that sets the tone, that represents a wider value system.”

When a child learns to set the table properly, sit up straight, and use a napkin and silverware confidently, these things translate into the preparation of a science project, then a college application, and then a job interview.

The highlight of the week is a final banquet, to which campers are allowed to invite one guest. They serve a four-course meal, and the guests are always blown away by the food, presentation, delivery, and deportment.

Lifelong Lessons

Many campers return each summer, finally graduating camp at age 14 and often applying thereafter to become counselors. Stewart noted one such child, who first attended camp at age 11 in the “Advanced Beginner” class. She was terribly shy. “But she had that sparkle in her eye and I knew she absolutely loved what we were doing,” Stewart said.

In her first year as a counselor, Stewart observed that the girl was still very shy, but the next year, a dramatic change happened. In a feedback session, she stood up and began, clearly and confidently, to voice her opinions.

“I thought I was going to bust out crying,” recalled Stewart. “That girl was given an opportunity, and look how far she came. She now runs the entire registration program for the camp, and she’s a high school senior. Her emails are so beautiful and the parents have no idea they’re corresponding with a high school student.”

Stewart said she loves every part of her business, from the corporate entertaining to the recipe developing to the magic and buzz of the television show—but her chief passion is teaching, mentoring, and leading by example.

“Everything that I do in this company, I feel like I’ve given good instruction,” she said. “I’m hoping that the epitaph will read one day: ‘She was a great teacher.’”

For Vera Stewart, the merits of setting a table go far beyond the meal at hand. (Peter Frank Edwards)
For Vera Stewart, the merits of setting a table go far beyond the meal at hand. (Peter Frank Edwards)

Setting the Table

Follow Vera Stewart’s guidelines to master the art of setting a table.
  1. Where to Start: “Use your chair as a guide.” The edges of the chair should align with the knife and fork.
  2. Silverware: “Place the silverware in order of use,” depending on the meal being served. For regular family meals, place the fork to the left of the plate and the knife’s blade facing inward to the right. Dinner forks should be nearest to the plate and salad forks the farthest from it. Dessert silverware should be placed at the top of the plate, with the fork’s handle facing left and the spoon’s handle facing right.
  3. Glasses: The primary glass, used for water—“or in the South, iced tea”—should be placed at the tip of the knife. A secondary beverage can be placed to its right.

Kids at the Table

Vera Stewart shares her top dining etiquette rules to teach young children.
  1. Proper Poise: Begin by sitting up straight with both feet on the floor.
  2. ‘Grip, Flip, and Point’: To hold silverware correctly, grip the knife and fork in each hand, then flip them so your fingers are out of sight. Point your index fingers, placing one on top of the knife and the other on the fork.
  3. One at a Time: When drinking during a meal, don’t hold your silverware at the same time. Instead, place whatever silverware you’re holding at 4 o’clock on your plate and lift your glass with your right hand.
  4. An Elegant End: When finished with your meal, align the handles of your silverware with 4 o’clock on your plate to indicate that you’re finished, and return your napkin to the left of your plate.
Hazel Atkins loved teaching English literature to undergraduate students at the University of Ottawa before becoming a stay-at-home mom, enthusiastic gardener, and freelance writer.