Saturday, August 5, 2017

Let's Dish, OR, A Brief History of Dinnerware I Have Known

Most nights, the Mr and I eat our evening meal at the dining room table. It's our little ritual effort to elevate midweek meals to the "wine and dine" category; also designed to keep us from noshing out of take-out containers on our laps while watching TV, like characters on "The Big Bang Theory." Conversation is important at dinnertime — much of it along the lines of, "How was your day, dear?" We listen to music. During winter months, I might even light a candle or two. On ordinary days, we use the kitchen dishes — "ordinary" being the operative word here because this is our "everyday" set of serviceable plates and salad bowls. The "good china" is reserved for guests.  

I was "dishing" about this with a good friend recently. It was a Proustian remembrance of things past.  Well, maybe it wasn't THAT brainy a discussion, but it certainly took us both on a nostalgic journey back to childhood — and beyond.

In my mother's generation, a bride received pieces of her chosen — possibly "registered" — china as wedding gifts. They would be displayed at her "Trousseau Tea" so everyone could admire her good taste. Or a newly wed might save up for items in the set, purchasing them one at a time with cash that was left over after all other necessary expenses had been paid. Some families inherited dishes from previous generations. Regardless of acquisition or provenance, fine china was among a family's most valued possessions; showcased in glass-fronted hutches; brought out for Sunday dinners when "company" came over. A dinner table laid with grandma's crocheted tablecloth and "the best set" announced that the folks you invited over mattered enough to get the good dishes down from the curio cabinet. It created a festive air appropriate for family celebrations and major holidays. 

Ours was not a wealthy household — comfortably middle class, maybe — but not rich. Regardless, "good" dishes were important and my mother treasured hers. As a child, I was fascinated with them, exhibited as they were in the china cabinet — a mini, curated museum of plates inserted into little slots that supported vertical displays, cups stacked one into another set upon the saucers, vegetable serving pieces carefully placed as accents, delicate sugar bowl and creamer arranged just-so. 

Sometime during my junior high years, Mum got a new set of china. I have no idea what happened to the old set, or why she made this radical change from the fussy, Olde English maroon floral pattern that I adored in the dining room display. It might have been a style shift for her or perhaps she heard of a good deal at Eaton's. My aunt worked in the Eaton's catalogue "China Re-Buy" department and, although we never had any idea what that meant, I suspect that she came across some robust bargains. In any case the new dishes were Minton, in a pattern called "Blue Symphony." They were oh, so elegant in a light, frothy turquoise with silver rims, a fluted edge, and a delicate leaf pattern laced around the inner circle. These new artifacts took their place in the cabinet to be admired and handled gingerly on Sundays. The way my mother said, "Minton" in hushed tones when asked what lovely new pattern she had bought made me think that they must be pretty high-class — a status symbol beyond our means.

Eventually, it was my turn. My mother and the aunt from Eaton's China Re-buy discussed my "hope chest." At 17, I certainly hoped that one day I'd be endowed with a "chest," but that's not what they meant. And seriously, why would they think that all of a sudden I needed a set of dishes? I had not had a single date throughout my entire high school career, so, I'm not sure why they thought I should be planning a wedding trousseau, but I guess hope springs eternal. Or maybe it was another steal of a deal at Eaton's. In any case, they encouraged me to pick a pattern. Absurd as that was, I did as I was told. It was a nice fantasy. I picked something befitting a modern miss in grade 12. It had white on white embossed flowers around the edge and a gold rim. Classy. Right away I got critique from the aunt about having to get gold flatware to match that rim, and wouldn't that just be a total nuisance?

Before I ever got a chance to use these dishes, I met the future Mr, and also went to Interior Design school. The times they were a'changin'. My modernist, Bauhaus-inspired, architecturally-based design education sent me spinning into a world unknown to a kid from the west end of Winnipeg. Danish, Finnish and German designs appeared on my radar — sleek, undecorated, simple, elegant, functional. I fell in love with the Mr, and almost simultaneously with a glossy white set of china, flatware and stemware from Rosenthal, called "The Plus System." A SYSTEM no less! Be still my modernist, total design heart! I registered these wondrous place settings at Eaton's when we announced our wedding date. My aunt took great exception to this rebellion against traditional bone china. She was incensed with the design, but more to the point for her was that I could put Rosenthal in the dishwasher. "Of course, I'll put them in the dishwasher," I said. "Who ever heard of such a thing," she griped, "truly GOOD dishes are always washed by hand." My mother understood and we sold the white on white florals.

Mum continued to use "Blue Symphony" until she no longer had the energy to wash it all by hand after a family dinner. She bought Corelle dinnerware that accompanied her to her tiny assisted living apartment. I continue to adore my Rosenthal and love bringing it to the table. 

Now that Mum is gone, I have her "Blue Symphony" packed up in a box in the basement. She tried to sell it on two different occasions — she knew it wasn't my taste and never insisted that that I take it. Toward the end of her life, I agreed that I would and that seemed to make her happy. Her good dishes held special meaning for her. 

I understand that the market for fine china has dropped dramatically. Apparently, "young people these days" buy at Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. Serviceable every day dishes. I say, good for them! It's surely an evolutionary thing. And better than eating from take-out containers.  

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