Clink. Clink. Clang. Tinkle. Ping. Chunky diner coffee mugs that return your grasp with a firm handshake and a hearty hello. A happy silver fork, declaring its position in melodic tone as it lands decisively in the center of your plate, announcing the end of your meal. The thick, smooth, rounded edge of a demitasse cup, like a lover’s furtive mouth brushing against your lips on a first kiss, delivering love in the form of sweet, dark espresso. White porcelain plates, virginal and pure in their presentation of edible gifts, no matter how many meals have come before.The crisp sparkling whispers of your mother’s vintage crystal, scolding you for not taking it out of the hutch since that dinner party last September. Because god knows good crystal needs to get out and socialize more than twice a year.
The presentation of food is important; dishes and silverware matter. The design and materials of our utensils can awaken or suppress the senses, making the food we eat taste better or worse. Paper plates and plastic utensils will never, ever do (unless, of course, you’re a festival or fair goer eating roasted corn or Indian food or elephant ears or funnel cakes or green chile soft tacos or any other manner of street fair right there. On the street).
But otherwise, consider the plates and glasses and forks and spoons and knives and bowls and all the other tools we use to nourish ourselves an important…no, necessary…part of the gastronomic portrait. Alice Waters, culinary star and owner of Chez Panisse, says this about design utensils in an interview discussing her work for The Edible Schoolyard:
Alice Waters In order for kids to be seated at a table together and really connect around a table, the table needs to be prepared in a particular way that encourages them to be together, and conceivably encourages them to share their food. In our work at The Edible Schoolyard, we’re communicating to the kids that we really care about them, not only about what they put in their mouths. We’ve made a place that is comfortable, because that shows them that we care, too. We want them to see beautiful things, as well as to smell and to taste beautiful things. For example, I love to put down the tablecloth. That’s all a part of telling them that we care. We’re creating an atmosphere that naturally fosters goodwill and respect — an everyday experience that encourages civilized conduct.
We set the table with a tablecloth, and real plates, forks and knives. We think about the center of the table. Maybe it can use a little centerpiece. The kids choose what that might be, whether it’s flowers from the garden, something from the kitchen, some vegetables, or something that’s going to be part of what the kids are eating. The improvements to the food or the surroundings don’t need to be costly. They can be quite simple.
CEL What do you think the distinction is between serving meals on disposable paper or plastic plates, and serving food on real dishes?
Alice Waters When we serve food on real dishes with real silverware, I think we’re modeling sustainability. We’re trying to present the kids with an alternative to the idea of disposability — to the notion that you can just throw it away once you’ve finished. In The Edible Schoolyard kitchen classroom, students have the experience of cloth napkins that are washed every day. I think that the silverware and the dishes have that same teaching value. We’re connecting the eating experience to a set of values that naturally leads students toward a healthier future for themselves and the planet.
This post inspired by a recent visit to a new pizza place in Baltimore which shall remain nameless because they should be ashamed. Very, very ashamed. First, for making really bad pizza. Second for serving dinner “for here” on flimsy paper plates with sad plastic utensils.