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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

As I was making my second batch of butternut squash rolls today, I was pondering how lovely they are and how they deserve to be served, at a minimum, on a Very Nice Plate. Which got me thinking about plates, which got me thinking about tables, which got me thinking about setting the table, which got me thinking about how I don’t have a matched set of anything at all.

I suppose this isn’t a terrible thing if you’re going for an eclectic look.

My table has always been very, very eclectic. The problem is that I can’t not break things.

When we first moved into the apartment here we had no dinner plates so we went to Target and picked up a box of four. Four red plates with four matching bowls. Then we got a set of four glasses. Four rocks glasses, four highballs. That seemed sufficient, until I broke a glass. And then another. And then a plate.

Of that initial purchase, I currently have two dinner plates, three bowls, one rocks glass and zero highballs. Which makes it kind of hard to have a dinner party, so I bought more dishes. I bought a set of six colorful dinner plates, which are quite cheerful but also make a table look a bit riotous. They’re also oval, compared to the round red ones, which only adds to the discordance.

I did not buy any new glasses because my sister-in-law bought me two Hello Kitty water glasses, and I have enough empty candle jars to serve beverages to an entire wedding party.

A riotous one, of course.

The other part of the problem is that I like colorful things. So instead of buying some nice, normal white dinner plates I buy the red and yellow and orange ones. Instead of buying some nice, normal matching soup bowls I buy the ones that come in six completely different patterns.

On their own they’re adorable. But when you’re cooking an $85 filet mignon, say, and you serve it to one person on a round red plate and another on an oval yellow one, it makes one wonder about the sanity of the chef.

A probably expensive piece of filet mignon with probably expensive scallops. Somehow it doesn’t look as good as it tasted.

And when your salad bowl is a green and red diamond pattern and your pasta bowl is blue and your dessert plate has a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it… well, it starts to feel a little unrefined. Especially if you’re serving a $95 side of lamb chops, say.

Lamb chops with mint and roasted root vegetables. So delicious! But that plate…

White dinner plates are philosophically boring, but food really does look quite striking when served on them.

See? A definitely more delicious looking filet with a definitely more expensive crab Oscar and lobster tail.

It’s nearly impossible to match your food to a plate. Trust me, I’ve tried. Occasionally you get lucky and the butternut squash soup will look great in the orange bowl, and pasta looks pretty great on red, but that is rare. Besides, pasta looks best on a plain, boring white plate because the red sauce pops rather nicely.

Food match success! It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s so satisfying.

You see the dilemma, don’t you?

Fill my cabinets with plates anathema to my very being, but ones that will make food look more delicious and beautiful, or keep adding to the eclectic collection that I love and serve dinner like we’re living in a refugee camp.

That’s all to say nothing of the red placemats and the plaid placemats and the mismatched silverware.

As I pondered this seemingly insolvable dilemma, I couldn’t help think about my mother’s table. My mother has a matching set of EVERYTHING, in large quantities so that even if something breaks there is inevitably something to replace it. The bowls match the dishes match the glasses match the salt-and-pepper shakers.

Her water pitchers are a nice clear glass that match everything. Mine are plastic buckets I got at Amazon, one with a red lid and one purple.

Her candle holders not only match the dinnerware but the candles, too.

She sets ten perfect place settings and I frantically look for another empty candle jar. She places ten elegant glasses and I make people drink water out of empty beer bottles.

This is a rather old photo and I would like to point out the one plastic orange bowl in the top corner, clearly a place setting for a younger child. Even mom had limits.

It’s sometimes both shocking and hilarious that a woman so orderly and intentional could have spawned someone who exists in utter chaos. I suppose it was the universe’s way of balancing things out.

To be fair, her everyday table is a bit more eclectic. Our family used to eat off paper plates and drink out of jelly jars, and sometimes still do. But when she sets a table, she Sets A Table. I have never been as dignified.

Every holiday table I’ve ever sat at in her house has been carefully and lovingly prepared. Plates, glasses, cloth napkins, tablecloth, centerpiece. Nary a mismatched serving utensil in sight.

Mom’s Christmas table. I’ll say this much – I do have a matching set of Christmas dishes thanks to my grandmother, who acquired every conceivable piece for me, in quantities of 12.

Her tables are a work of art. The Renaissance painting of family dinners. Mine are a work of art, too. But more Jackson Pollock meets Picasso and had a deformed child.

Now that it’s November and there are holiday things happening and it’s an excellent time of year to decorate and be domestic while the cold and dark swirl outside your window, I’ve been thinking about how I can set a table to be… not quite like my mother’s, because I just don’t think I have it in me… but maybe a tad more… pretty.

It’s hard to know where to start when you literally don’t have a single matching glass but I suppose I could start by removing my laptop and the ten cables, possibly relocating the puzzle to a floor somewhere. My bowl of pinecones would make a lovely centerpiece and even though the rest would be an explosion of whatever is still unbroken, I’d have to find a way to embrace the chaos.

It seems like an inevitable part of my life at this point.

I wouldn’t say I’ve solved the dilemma but it’s definitely got me thinking. I love my mother’s tables so much, and I think I’m content to let them be my mother’s tables. It’s something I can look forward to joining and enjoying. As for what “my” table looks like… after quite a few years that has yet to be determined. But butternut squash rolls deserve something better. And after a day of cooking things and washing things and fortunately not breaking things, I want to sit down to a nice table and spend a minute there. No laptops or cables allowed.

Photo: tapas night. A total mess, but quite delicious.