In the back of the buffet at home, nestled safely in the farthest corner, lies an entire set of Noritake dishes that my grandmother received as a wedding gift in 1923, the plates cushioned by pieces of felt. This weekend I will set them on the tablecloth she had embroidered (white with baby-blue finely crocheted lace on the edges, French knots galore making up the embellished flowers at each corner). Danish Princess flatware from Holmes & Edwards will finish off the plate setting.
Before we pick up so much as a salad fork, I will let my guests know — as I always do — that the tableware, now more than 90 years old, was hers.
I am not alone in this reverence for family heirlooms, especially those used at the table. Many of us who do so are of a particular age, one that need only be described as “with adult children.”
We hang onto this tableware through one move or the next, whether or not it holds monetary value. For us, the inherent meaning of crystal, china and silverware lies in those who dined off the dishes before — or perhaps with — us. Some might consider this to be simply “clinging to the past.” For those of us who reach for the lovely patterns of yesteryear, it’s more like reliving fond memories.
Rebecca Jorgenson Sundquist of Deephaven is one such cook who is beguiled by beautiful dishes and, not surprisingly, entertains often and with great exuberance. She admits she has the “dish bug.” In her cupboards, Sundquist has accumulated at least one complete set of dishes for each decade of her adult life: Dansk White and Royal Copenhagen blue half lace for her 20s, Mary Hadley pottery for her 30s, Simon Pearce Belmont crackle celadon for her 40s, Atticus Blue Pacific for her 50s, and now Juliska Pewter stoneware for her 60s. Then there are the other collections of dishes — a set from Salzburg, Austria, another of Peter Rabbit Wedgewood and her mother’s best dishes.
“When my parents passed away, Mother had 20 place settings of china in a Yellow Rose pattern. She used that china almost every week. No one else wanted them, except one brother who wanted a single place setting as a memory. So I have the dishes and take them out when they all come over. They love it.”
As she has moved from one home to another, storage for those dishes was always a priority. “I keep them handy so I can use them,” Sundquist said.
“They are meant to be used. We create wonderful family memories with them. It’s an anchor of home.”
Her two adult children and their families just laugh when she adds to her collection.
“Just as we have food memories, we have memories of place settings,” said Sundquist. “My kids grew up with Royal Copenhagen for festivities and the Mary Hadley dishes. It’s just a wonderful reminder of home for them. I’ve heard them tell their children about these dishes.”
But times change. And so do storage options, as younger generations move often and live in smaller spaces or without dining rooms. Finer tableware also requires some effort, whether it’s hand-washing or polishing.
“The market is graying,” said Kimberly Thompson, estate buyer for J.B. Hudson Jewelers of Minneapolis, about the interest in fine tableware. She spent eight years working with crystal, china, flatware and giftware for J.B.Hudson, before moving on to estate jewelry.
“I call it the Ikea-ization of America,” she said. “A younger generation lives with china and flatware until they tire of it, and then they replace it. If it’s too much work, they won’t buy it. There’s not a lot of hope for dishes you can’t put in the dishwasher.”
Today she finds whole china settings for 12 for $200 at estate sales. “It’s rare for our younger clients to be interested in full sets of fine tableware. Some are out there buying sterling silver flatware at estate sales or secondhand goods. But they are not [bridal] registering for it.”
Nor are they always stepping up to lay claim to their parents’ fine dishware. “There’s much to be said about the tactile and physical continuation of tradition,” said Thompson. “How extra special is a picnic table with Grandma’s salt and pepper shakers on it?”
For some families, that tradition can result in battles. “I know of a family where everyone went to war over a pickle dish. When Grandma died, everyone wanted that dish,” she said. For years, Thompson has searched estate sales for a duplicate of a favorite jelly bowl her grandmother had, now in the possession of her uncle. “He will never give it up,” she said with a laugh.
For Thompson and Sundquist, the dishes on the table matter, whatever meals they hold. And it’s not only about tradition. Consider the difference of a sip of wine when served in a heavy juice glass instead of even an inexpensive wine glass.
“Great food tastes better with great utensils. Just look at what’s going on at a nice restaurant. They are not serving food with beat-up flatware,” Thompson said.
“Even really great takeout tastes better on great china.”
What’s on your table when you’re entertaining? Let us know at startribune.com/tabletalk.
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