Life, Love, Death, Soup

It isn't just meals that get dished up on plates

Recently, I've been thinking about plates, and how--in their mostly quiet, domestic way--they mark significant way stations in our lives. The plates of our youth are usually not those which service us in later years, and those handed down as sets or as solitary, rescued pieces carry a history which helps define our journeys.

Being a true and faithful grandchild of my mother's parents, I have place settings at my farm which belonged to my great-great-grandparents, and bowls here and there that are even older. Rosenthal nestles beside saucers that came out of soap-flake boxes, alongside plates that bear the spidery handwriting of my grandmother or a great-aunt on a piece of tape, noting its place in family history. They all mix nicely with a dinner service Barbara Grygutis made for me 25 years ago in exchange for an armoire. The shelves back there also hold the silver-rimmed and wheat-patterned dishes my brother and I ate from on "special" occasions, and one or two pieces of vintage Melmac that we routinely used when we were young and prone to destruction and clumsiness.

Most was already there, but much has emigrated from Tucson to Indiana in the course of various life-cycle events. A few words about the farm: It is a family legacy, a working business and the other physical center of my life. (Geminis can have two, sometimes many more, such centers.) An acquaintance made the observation that organic farms are a liberal plot, whatever that means. My farm is not yet organic, and is a lived-in museum as much as anything else.

Back to plates. What has stayed with me in Tucson is a motley collection that is a actually slice of my layered life:

· One red plate, all that remains from a set of dishes my first ex- and I had. How that one dish survived, I don't know: The night my friend Micheline Keating died, I threw and smashed the plates and cups from that set against a brick wall in our backyard.

· A single Royal Copenhagen cup and saucer, a gift from my friend Jefferson and a memento of a great friendship.

· An impossibly heavy set of plates carved out of the fossilized mud beds off the coast of Morocco. My second ex- saw and liked them at a Gem & Mineral Show, and I almost herniated myself lugging them home to surprise him. How heavy are they? Well, they didn't fly out of here with him.

· A large salad bowl of translucent jadeite.

· A serviceable collection of brilliantly glazed, traditionally designed plates hand-carried from Israel in the course of a handful of trips there.

· A solitary Persian plate of fantastic blue, and an ancient Chinese bowl discovered years ago in a dusty stack on a visit to Chicago with Lennart and Harry.

The reason I've been thinking about plates is that I decided last month to get rid of the dinner service that had survived thousands of meals with dozens of friends and family and two long relationships. Often, when I pulled one from the cupboard, I found myself recalling one of those meals in a previous cycle, and I decided it was past time for change. Too, the fine-china-Lisboa-White is too ... hmmm ... refined for my mood at this time of my life. And I could cut down on cabinet space, since I don't really have many people over for meals these days. (For most of my meals, I'd been using another survivor--a plain, glazed earthenware plate that I had liberated from the dining hall and used in my back-to-the-earth, conscientious-objecting, consciousness-raising anti-war days at Colorado College.)

What I wanted was something more basic, something that would frame good food simply and not detract from it with gimmicks of design or the snares of sophistication. I wanted something that could be handled without fear, would survive dishwashers and could be replaced.

Several years ago at a small dinner party, our hostess had been regaling us with "spirited" (OK, mean) observations about people she dealt with in her business. I hate gossip and that kind of table talk, and as a break from anesthetizing myself with more wine, I thought I would help clear the table of dishes. Our hostess stopped talking mid-sentence and stared as I began stacking the plates to remove them to the kitchen--they were too delicate and too valuable to stack.

Fair enough--we each have our own sense of value, and those differences should be respected. But I wanted dishes that could be stacked and, if broken, replaced without a breach in the time-space continuum as we know it.

I asked Noah, one of my closest friends, if he wanted to go with me to Table Talk, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn to browse choices; he "had other plans," and I truly don't think it was just because he's straight. There are more interesting things to do on a Sunday than look at dishes. But I had a mission, and I intended to come home with my prey tagged, boxed and tucked into my Insight that very day.

Several hours later, I was removing the old dishes and stacking the just-washed new ones--the soft-white, plain, heavy, glazed earthenware, slightly misshapen, off-the-shelf "Sausalito" model--in the cabinet. The salesperson at Pottery Barn told me it was the store's most-popular line, which I think is good for two reasons. More people must be focusing on what goes "on" the plates and "in" the bowls rather than what those bowls and plates look like. And, it means the chances are very good that after Marley the Pug has jumped from chair to table when my back is turned, and accidentally pushed aside something, I can easily replace the cup that falls to the stone floor and breaks.

Last night, I had a soup I put together from stock I made and froze in late December. I heated and ladled it over roasted and shredded chicken, diced yellow squash, garlic, three types of seeded-and-chopped chiles, and fresh lime juice. I had a hunk of bread from a loaf I'd baked Monday for a dinner with Andrew-who-didn't-show (bad, Andrew!), fresh butter and a glass of cold water. The meal was excellent, and the soup bowl and bread plate didn't look half bad on my plain, brown wood table!

The Lisboa stuff will go back to the farm this summer. Since I've pared my life down--or it has been pared down for me--I decided not to get so many place-settings this time around. This is likely to be my last set and, besides, I can always get more if needed. But at the shop, I succumbed to visions of a full table and went for eight of everything. I'm an optimist, if nothing else.

From the in-file:

To: Linda M.: Thanks for the note. Some of my fave meals are the memory ones you and Michael shared with me from your trip in Ireland.

To: Caroline M.: The Pinto Grigio I mentioned last column is a very rare Venetian breed. You should try the Tawny Arabian Port.

To: Samuel K.: Thank you for the generous offer to help secure the $25 million hidden in Spain by your deceased father after the coup. Now that peace has returned to Sierra Leone, I hope you can focus on recovering this fortune, and I wish you the very best of luck.

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