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The Long Road to China

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The Long Road to China

I’ve never felt 100% comfortable with my fine dishes.  I’m more of a paper-plate kinda gal.  (I make that admission at great personal risk—one of my brothers was with the EPA and, when he hears I’ve developed a paper-dependency, he’s liable to dispatch a team of Navy Seals to kidnap and de-program me.  If this article ends abruptly, you’ll know I’ve been whisked off to the Tree-Hugger version of Guantanamo.)

My mother had four sets of china.  We displayed these delicate dishes in a graceful wooden cabinet with glass doors.  Even during the most spirited fights, my brothers and I were careful not to hurl each other into this treasured piece of furniture.  It was a masterpiece of domesticity.  It represented civilized behavior and all that was good and classy in the world.  There was a calming air about it.  In other words, it was the anti-me.

Much to my mom’s chagrin, I spent High School in khakis and denim.  My mother was of the generation that mystically coordinated their every outfit with matching hat, shoes and gloves.  Mom was prim, proper and well-put-together—she was the personification of fine china.  I was more like a plastic plate decorated with cartoons—lots of fun but not exactly elegant.

When my dream-guy and I got engaged we took the traditional trip to Marshall Field’s department store and registered for our own china and silver service.  After minimal debate, (my hubby, like most men, is more concerned with the grub than the plate) we settled on a modern black-and-white Mikasa pattern—not quite funky, but somewhat less-traditional.  It was sophisticated without being classic and light-weight without being dainty.  It was a good match for our casual personalities and we took great pride in owning it.  We also found an effortless, stylish silver pattern similar to my mother’s—knives, forks and spoons that curved slightly to one side at the handle and looked like gentle, shimmering waves.

My mother-in-law soon presented us with a gorgeous, contemporary china cabinet that perfectly complemented the dishes: six feet of black lacquer and slender glass, each shelf accented by subtle lighting.  It was our second piece of new furniture and tangible evidence of our status as grown-ups.  When I inserted our dishes, they shone like violinists on a concert-hall stage.  

One of my hubby’s cousins generously gave us a set of cut-glass stemware to enhance our fine-dining accoutrements.  The seriously chic crystal she bestowed upon us was far beyond anything we would ever have been able to afford on our own.  These weren’t your average drinking vessels—they bore a closer resemblance to dazzling diamonds than lowly mugs.  I was instantly possessed by a paralyzing fear of chipping or breaking them.  

These acquisitions marked the onset of my “Dinnerware-Dysfunction” and my “Fancy-Phobia.”

I proudly debuted my serving goods in our china cabinet as soon as we were wed but exercised obsessive caution when cleaning them or setting the table.  Still, I managed to overcome my trepidation and display them for three years… until the day we moved to California.

It was my life’s dream to relocate to Los Angeles.  As a result, I’d eagerly anticipated every aspect of life on the Coast—everything except what that move would mean for those refined plates and balletic goblets.  I weighed the pros of exhibiting our treasures against the cons of a devastating earthquake.  After much contemplation, I opted to leave our dishes and glassware beneath the sink, in their original boxes, rather than unpacking them.  For the next two years, whenever we had company I performed the time-consuming ritual of unwrapping, dusting and washing every piece.  I became a busboy in my own home.

January 17th, 1994, at 4:30 AM my husband and I awoke to a holocaust of noise and motion.  The Northridge earthquake proceeded to lift and smash every item in our apartment like a two-thousand-pound toddler angrily hurling toys.  For countless hours, that afternoon, I swept crunchy, shattered glass off of our counters, carpets and tiles.  Against all odds, our formal dishes and stemware remained safe and intact within their cardboard cocoons.

Our lovely display-case suffered a different, heartbreaking fate.  It crashed onto the front-room couch.  Once the worst of aftershocks had passed and we began reorganizing our apartment and reassembling our lives, I asked to remove it from our living space.  The prospect of hiding such a beautiful, sentimental piece made my spouse sad.  It was a symbol of his mother’s love and a mark of our maturity.  However, I couldn’t shake the thought of my husband or future children being hit by that lovely but lethally heavy cupboard.   Following some very emotional discussions, my husband allowed me to move the tragically damaged furniture to the storage shed.  

Years passed.  We moved from our apartment to a small house and welcomed two bundles of joy.  The arrival of our bouncing baby boys heralded the Age of the Plastic Plate.  As any parent knows, children are to fine dinnerware as elephants are to Swarovski Crystal.  The two things are mutually exclusive.  For reasons that sometimes escape me, we opted for the kids.  

Fast forward a million meals later… We moved to a bigger house.  Our infants grew into toddlers.  We plopped finger foods directly onto their high-chair trays, foregoing pesky platters.  Our toddlers grew into school-kids.  We served them with colorful plastic bowls and Scooby-Doo plates.  Our grade-schoolers stretched into hungry pre-teens.  We invested in sturdy, attractive Corelle and fed them sandwich after sandwich.  By the dawn of their teenage years, our boys had bypassed the need for dinner service of any kind.  The time that elapsed between my serving the food and their ingesting it was too miniscule for even a dedicated physicist to measure.  Only propriety kept me from pouring the contents of my frying-pans directly into their upturned mouths.

Yet, even as the family’s dining style evolved from chaotic to casual, I experienced a nagging urge to use the fine dishes.  Maybe I was being subconsciously influenced by the paper-plate-averse ghosts of my mother and mother-in-law.  

I found myself pulling out the china each Passover and Thanksgiving.  I occasionally set the table with my “good stuff” when relatives or friends came to dinner.  I eventually unpacked my dishes and stacked them in a conspicuously empty cabinet.  (I never could bring myself to unpack the crystal, despite the earthquake-latches affixed to every cabinet-door.)  

I try to remember the purpose of this elegant service.  It is not meant to intimidate or frighten informal geeks like myself.  It’s created to support and cultivate the joy and ritual of dining.  It is therefore intended to nurture, in the purest sense of the word.  

I know that I’ll never be as comfortable with formal dishes as my mother—despite her quiet nature, she was a warm and gracious hostess.  I know that I will never lay gold-and-silver utensils besides gold-rimmed porcelain platters with the straightforward confidence of my mother-in-law—she was a gregarious “people person” who loved to entertain.  But, for them, I will use my fine dishes with pride whenever I can muster the courage.  I will honor the memory of my mother and mother-in-law with my progress on the long road to china.

Denise Koek is a happily married actress, writer and mom, who currently produces “The Chef’s Wife”and “Uncle Chef.”