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How we stack up

Wander down the china aisle or search the depths of your cupboards, and you may find more than plates. You might discover yourself.

November 27, 2002|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

HAD I played my cards right, I could have inherited the full china collections of both my grandmothers and my mother. I was an only granddaughter and only daughter. Tradition dictated that I got all the plates from both sides of the family. At three services per lady, this amounted to something like 540 plates, not including formidable stacks of kidney-shaped side dishes.

There were the intensely floral Minton plates, metal-banded Lenox ones and, as one grandmother grew older, a certain number of Franklin Mint commemorative plates. There was porcelain, bone china, stoneware, plastic. There were English plates, French plates, American plates, Mexican plates, Victorian plates, mid-century Modern plates, plates with flowers on them, birds, Christmas trees, scenes of Yale University campus. There was even a plate edged with faded pink flowers that looked European, but whose under-stamp read, "Made in Occupied Japan."

All I had to do to be eligible for all these plates was to get married in a manner befitting them.

I eloped. My husband and I went to the Conran Shop and bought the most minimalist white porcelain we could find. It was the early 1980s, and we were rebels, we thought. Individualists! Only now is it obvious to me that we were no such thing. Rather, we were so predictable that the ceramics industry could easily have given us a number, say the B-2s or C-4s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographer's credit -- The large photo of dishes on the cover of Wednesday's Food section was credited to the wrong Times staff photographer. It was shot by Anacleto Rapping, not Carlos Chavez.

Back then, for example, my cold white plate told buyers that I was artsy and educated, but lacking the great wads of cash driving the bridal trade. They knew that I was interested in the plate as canvas, that I thought about the color of food and probably was trying the fashionable dishes of the day: carrot soup with cilantro, chicken with mango, avocado salad with strawberries and black pepper. So '80s! Alas, so me.

When my husband and I split at the end of that food-mad decade, I became another kind of plate shopper. Confused. I experimented with a modern British clay plate with a white glaze sprayed with blue speckles, a pattern called Vogue. I liked it long enough to get the set home, but Vogue, I soon realized, was my rebound pattern. It went under house plants, and whoops, smash, got dropped a lot.

Ironically, the next choice was my mother's. She had been so irate at my secret wedding, after each of my grandmothers died, she gave away most of my great big plate dowry to my brothers. When she died in 1995, there was only one full set left: hers -- cream-colored porcelain, gold edged, bearing a wheat sheaf motif at the center. Very 1950s, very good taste, very mother. She always regarded them as an antidote to my grandmothers' stacks of pseudo-Sino-Anglo gaud.

I used the wheat sheaf ones for about four years before realizing that although I had more plates than I needed, I still needed plates. I'd open my cupboard and the white plates reminded me of a divorce, the speckled ones of a regrettable impulse and the formal ones of a dead mother. Yeesh!

The minute I realized why I wanted new crockery, I realized what I wanted the new plates to do: to be cheery and luscious, nothing less.

Stacks of subtext

The search was on but was unexpectedly exhausting, like a sudden case of multiple-personality disorder. Every weekend I'd go to a new kitchenware shop, credit card in pocket. At Crate & Barrel, there were octagonal stoneware plates, ideal for immaculate bachelors who serve artful rolls of sushi. There were Mediterranean plates with tomato and olive motifs. All wonderful for someone else.

At Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma there were the infinitely tasteful French variations on white porcelain, which I would have chosen if I didn't already have my divorce white.

At Williams-Sonoma, I lingered longingly over the Wedgwood transferware, named Highgrove after Prince Charles' country pile. I've always wanted plates like these, or thought I did, and a country house to go with them. But as I stood there holding a sample, marveling that they were now dishwasher safe, it was irrefutable: I wasn't Camilla Parker Bowles, and never would be.

At Macy's, there was plenty of gilded bridal stuff, the fine china. Impressively this is all now dishwasher- and microwave-safe. But I'm a kitchen table type, so I made my way to the kitchenware section. Here was distinctly smart stoneware in a mid-century Modern style, effortlessly chic, perfect for a graphic designer in a studio apartment. This is also the place to find the American classic Fiesta ware. Oh, yes! I love these plates! But basking in their sunny flair, I suddenly realized they were every bit as wrong for me as Highgrove. The owner of Fiesta ware should have a bright retro kitchen with Formica, stainless steel and cook burgers and eat Cheerios.

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