Eating on the Good China
By Lois Rubin Gross
When I was growing up, our “good” dishes came from dozens of soap boxes and from savings and loan incentive programs. Someone other than me must remember when banks wanted your business so much that they incentivized you with small appliances and china, right? My mother collected Fields of Wheat china. She also managed to have a set of Fields of Wheat flatware and matching glasses. She divvied up the bank deposits and bought the laundry detergent in large boxes so that she could pull out the buried prize, like a ceramic “whistle” in a box of Cracker Jacks.
Our house was like a scene from Woody Allen’s early movie, Love and Death. Everywhere you looked in our china cabinet was nothing but Fields of Wheat.
When I got married, I had some mustard brown stoneware that was very relevant to the late sixties and early seventies, but I wanted real china. I didn’t understand that Mikasa was not top of the line. When you come from a soap box china background, Mikasa seems pretty impressive. The dishes I chose were in a pattern called Ebony. The pattern had a white center with a broad black rim and gold edging. I remember choosing another pattern and then returning it because it didn’t go as well with our “mid-century” Danish modern dining room table. My husband, still in the honeymoon phase of our marriage, put up with my tangent and lugged the original set back to the store so that I could have the black and gold china that I coveted.
We put it in the Danish modern rosewood china hutch that stood in our dining room and there it pretty much sat for forty years, all twelve place settings of it. I really don’t know what I was thinking. I’m not sure if I pictured myself at the head of a fancy salon leading sparkling dinner conversation for twelve invited guests, or whether I figured – being my mother’s daughter – that if any of the pieces got broken, I’d have lots of back-up pieces. I suspect the second more pragmatic plan was what I was thinking about because I tend to be just a tad OCD and a set of mismatched china would have driven me absolutely crazy.
The problem was we were not a social couple. Our respective families lived almost two thousand miles away and no one ever came to visit for the holidays. Instead, we packed our bags, went to the airport and watched the Macy’s Parade in New York with my in-laws while my dishes stayed unused in Denver. We never did have the big family dinners or the extensive network of pseudo family that I visualized, so the Father Knows Best lifestyle that I envisioned was basically a figment of my imagination. Still, each year on birthdays, our anniversary, Thanksgiving and Passover, I would pull out service for three – my husband, my daughter, and myself – and serve our embarrassingly small meal on the beautiful china that I still loved and couldn’t part with.
Over the course of our last two moves the china, carefully cosseted in padded sleeves, was put into a storage shed because there was no room in our apartment for it and we had long before gotten rid of the rosewood dining room set from our home in Colorado. The china service, still beautiful if only middle range good as I now understood, stayed packed up for six years while I tried to convince my daughter to take her ceramic legacy to her own small apartment in NYC. Truth be told, I don’t think her husband likes the gold-edged pattern and, city dwellers that they are, there is little room for “nice” anything that just sits and is not workhorse sturdy for meals eaten on coffee tables in front of the TV. Anyway, they and their friends eat out a lot.
Before our last move, I got the word out that I was willing to sell the china for a pittance, but none of the young people I knew wanted it and the Boomers I knew were trying to get rid of their own good china as they, like us, downsized to more compact spaces. While I closed my eyes and gave away many, many beloved things in this last move, neither my husband nor I could bring ourselves to hand the china over to the Salvation Army or the Junktique store that took so many of our other once prized, now irrelevant, possessions.
And that is when I had the epiphany. What the hell am I saving this china for? My daughter doesn’t want it. It isn’t a classic pattern that should be handed down through the generations. It’s simply an obscenely big set of very nice dishes that should be used on a daily basis because haven’t I earned one small luxury in our lives?
So, this past week, as we unpacked what remains of our possessions that used to fill a big house and is now winnowed down to another apartment with a very small kitchen, we took the dishes out of their sleeves and put them in the kitchen cabinets. We are now eating on the good china. Granted, it is not microwave safe. That’s a problem. It is edged in gold and I once almost blew up the microwave by unthinkingly putting a serving platter in the oven. Sparks flew everywhere, but who thought about microwaves, forty years ago, when gold edged china was, for me, the height of elegance?
In the much barer existence that we are now living, the china is a reminder of a small excess on my part; a desire for finer things than my mother had and a fantasy life of social grace that really only existed in my head. The truth is that the few dinner parties we had over the years were best served by Chinette plates that could be gathered in a trash bag when all the guests were gone. It didn’t happen that often, but I can tell you the time frame because Trivial Pursuit was a new party activity at the time.
One dish broke in the last move and I am proud to say that I did not go crazy, as I am prone to do, over minor mishaps and loss of possessions. The dish is gone. So be it.
We now sit down, each night, just the two of us, at our small apartment sized table and enjoy the nicety of eating on the good stuff. As we wind down, give away, and consolidate our lives for retirement, the dishes are the Japanese china equivalent of Prufrock’s coffee spoons. We are measuring out our lives in white, black and gold china that, at long last, is being used on a daily basis by two people with an excess of crockery.
Lois Rubin Gross is a librarian, storyteller and book reviewer.