For the first time in my life, I've become the owner of an entire set of dishes that match. I’m ridiculously happy.
Until I turned 60, I didn’t even realize I missed having nice dishes. Knowing I was supposed to have only disdain for such bourgeois and burdensome domesticities, late in life I nevertheless found myself gazing at my friends’ place settings with an unhealthy hankering.
While many of my friends were beginning to downsize and purge their possessions, I was beginning to look at their dainty sugar bowls. I wondered, “Why have I never paid more than $8 for anything in our kitchen? ... And since she’s gone all Marie Kondo, would she care if I put that sugar bowl directly into my purse?”
And that’s when I started looking for a set of my own. I didn’t want to jeopardize my dignity, my relationships or my ability to move freely without an ankle monitor.
I didn’t care if my new dishes were used, as long as they were coherent. My sudden yearning to have the soup bowls match the bread plates mildly surprised my husband, Michael, but he didn’t seem deeply affected. I mean, it’s not as if we’d been eating off roof shingles. The transition was uneventful for him.
For me, getting a set of china has been transformational.
I bought them from a consignment website, and the dishes are — think about the complexity inherent in this phrase — real china, from Denmark.
I know their pedigree, which is more reliable and more respectable than my own.
My particular dishes were made in the late 1950s by a company called Bing & Grøndahl. Versions of the classic blue-and-white pattern became popular as early as the 1600s when porcelain from the East was first exported and copied in Europe. (I’m also persuaded that my friend Laura Abrahamsen’s theory is correct: food looks more appealing on such dishes because there is no truly blue food.)
For the next 400 years, table settings were a way of the increasingly powerful middle class to establish their own standing — or seating — in the world. A clean and consistent eating ceremony, where you washed what you ate from and kept it, meant you had class.
By the time I was growing up, even working-class folks could acquire sets of dishes by going to the movie houses or gas stations, the way Lynne Ferrigno’s grandmother’s did: “At Dish Nights at the Newtown Theater on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst, Queens, my grandmother would collect ivory colored bowls with daisies in the center. She’d encourage me to finish soup by saying, ‘I want to see those daisies.’"
Or you could get dishes, as Lisa Backus’s mother did, by filling books of Green Stamps. In dishing about her dishes, Lisa’s was one of hundreds of stories I’ve heard over the last 10 days surrounding dinnerware and what it signifies.
Not everybody was matchy-matchy.
"We had mismatched things when I was a kid, which correlated with our mismatched family," explained Lisa Burrell Molnar. “We didn’t exactly go together in the traditional sense, but instead were a melting pot of leftover pieces of several fractured families. But we made it work.”
Maureen Sullivan has blended different dish patterns because parts of her life have changed: “I do love my china because the scalloped edges remind me of sea shells. I still have a few pieces of Pfaltzgraff left over from the divorce, however. You’ve inspired me to let them go. It’s time.”
Barbara Cooley also experienced a dish-revelation when she realized she “hadn’t chosen dishes” because she was “waiting … not consciously, but waiting. I decided then and there that I could and should, as a single woman, buy my own set of dishes and not wait for a man to give me permission to have nice things. So I bought a house and I bought a set of dishes and I never looked back.” Barbara is, for the record, happily married.
Whether they are assembled bit by bit, created one by one, inherited, stolen, beautiful or broken, dishes are as fragile and as durable as our own stories. They hold importance for us, a space for food and memories, turning tasks into pleasures and needs into celebration.
Gina Barreca is an author and English professor at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this column for The Hartford Courant. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.