Thursday, August 10, 2017


Thrift shop fans may remember the huge roughly carved wooden spoons and forks that showed up in Seventies bins. Apparently the things were used as decorative accents. I was pleasantly surprised to discover in a history of domestic life that Victorian housekeepers tied a ribbon around the handle of a beloved but unusable wooden stirring spoon and retired it to the wall of the kitchen.

In her history of American needlework, Rose Wilder Lane describes the value of nearly any early domestic amenity and recalls that her grandmother used a sewing needle until the eye wore through, then added a wax flower and used it as a lapel pin. Recently my son told me the birch spoon I wheedled out of the family kitchen when I set up house on my own-and later lost to him-is nearing the end of its useful life. He thinks it's worth the full framing treatment, with editorial additions. I call that progress, sort of, though I lean toward a really fine ribbon -30-
More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Precious But Not Valuable, Valuable But Not Precious

Integrating 2017 coffee shop style preferences and legacy flatware is no small matter. In an hour, I can have any tabletop amenity I want. The ease of supply generates a new lamps for old syndrome that is hazardous to valuable inventory already on hand. Lesser inventory drives out good just as bad coinage drives out sound. A wise critic commented that too good to use is not good enough, though.

A recent chat with a young friend whose lifestyle obviates grandmother's graces posed a major challenge to the received wisdom of my domestic training. Fortunately, I can transfuse it with some newly received wisdom from the design and environmental communities.

The Shaker principle of using up what one already owns before acquiring new things is a steadying influence. So is the green hesitation to generate unnecessary carbon. Most effective of all is the stringent economy of saving for a down payment. The restraint is leavened by Ettore Sottsass's point about practicality being an essential quality. Not the least of tabletop considerations is the appeal and emotional support of dining at home under decently supportive conditions. The zen community considers the cook the most valuable member and regards adequate kitchen equipment as essential. The money is never wasted: I'm still using my great-grandmother's skillet and carving fork.

My friend works remotely. During a recent visit, I learned that his laptop is so valuable that he uses a water bottle at his desk rather than risk a spill from a glass. I also learned that he begrudges every second spent away from the desk and that an energy bar is a meal. He maintains that a titanium spork is the ideal eating tool.

All that is worth considering, though I have doubts about a spork for every meal. One of the benefits of traditional flatware is that it supports graceful gestures and fine motor skills. It also has tines that are carefully finished on their inner edges and is likely to be a good buy used. I have long considered providing water bottles for guests at casual parties: now I can just fill the ones that everyone carries. I can see the culture reverting to the medieval practice of toting one's own cutlery. 

I had been musing about ordering a couple of cases of real deal on-shore coffee shop mugs and rimmed soups but couldn't justify the numbers or the clutter. I paid a visit to the Top of the Table at the Market, and they had just what I was looking for to fill a void in my collection. I found shallow utilitarian white bowls that bridge the aesthetics of gray eighteenth century style plates, French bistro glasses, and rococo flatware. The bowls have the same profile as the deep saucers of the gray ware.

Mine feels like a first world problem with a whole world solution, but a PBS documentary about the Sea Dyak people of New Guinea opened my eyes to the universal appreciation of quality porcelain. A French anthropologist visited a village that still lived communally in their lofty houses surrounded by their equally lofty wood sculpture and textiles. He was invited to tea and found himself being served from sixteenth century Ming blue and white cups-not one bit different from grandmother's best efforts, although her dishes were newer -30-
More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Thanks to the comments of a friend who knows her way around a commercial kitchen, I've been testing restaurant table service against the gentle 1910 particulars I learned from my grandmother. Feeding a turn-of-the-twentieth century family three squares at home (papa and the kids all came back for lunch) was probably not much different from running a cafe', but the motives were different. Cost is undoubtedly a consideration in producing meals at home, but cheaping out on the family's nutrition only escalates medical bills. 

My mother pointed out a shot glass that had come from a bar: the bottom was false to short the serving. Perhaps that was a way of protecting a patron at a certain point. I have a sense that there are economic subtleties in the forms of restaurant china that I am not sophisticated enough to appreciate, though I still love the stuff for the longevity of its design.

The accumulated set of vintage restaurant ware I retired recently because I found lead in the glazes is a telling narrative of changes in American lifestyle over the last hundred years. Even a solidly utilitarian table had room for covered oatmeal dishes and two-handled bouillon cups -30-
More after the jump.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Stumbling Toward Harmony

Last week's unwelcome discovery of lead in a mixed set of vintage restaurant ware ended my plan to mix it with my current set of dishes. Over the years, various heirlooms and impulse buys have complicated the tabletop. Now and then it is necessary or advisable to edit, though sometimes I regret having done so.

Out of the bad news emerged some good: I have the perfect excuse to spring for the restaurant ware I hadn't yet been able to rationalize. Happily, the Pillar of the American Coffee Shop assures visitors to his web site that his product of free of lead. The prices rival the cost of a thrift purchase plus the cost of testing it for heavy metal, and it's faster to order on line. 

I'm glad to see the company's quality of design: it's in the same league as Oregon Round-up Blankets and the local outfitter that sent prospectors to the Klondike wearing wool clothing likely to guarantee their return -30-
More after the jump.