YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

What the heck is that? An heirloom

November 26, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

There it is, way at the back of the cupboard. What is that thing? We see it only when we're hauling out all the special-occasion tableware for the holidays.

We've already got the carving set out, and the gravy boat and ladle. The sugar tongs, olive forks and butter picks are scattered around us. Along with that dish over there, which is for cranberry jelly -- or anyway, we think it is.

But then there's that thing in the back, that big shallow spoon with scary-looking tines writhing out of one edge. It's been in the family forever and nobody knows exactly what it's for.

Such strange items are cherished heirlooms now, but even if we don't know their functions -- and plenty of times, the experts can't figure them out either -- they aren't just oddities from the past. They're perfectly adapted to specific uses, certainly better than the utensils we improvise with today. In their time, they were totally practical.

Most date from one 70-year period, the golden era of formal dining, when swell hosts couldn't wait to show off exotic foods like, oh, celery or asparagus, and felt the need for special equipment to do so. Starting in the 1850s, silver and china firms in the United States and Europe catered to a craze for highly specialized tableware. By 1900, 140 kinds of utensils might be available in a given silver pattern -- 140 kinds of knives, forks, spoons, tongs and spatulas of various sizes and shapes, plus nut picks, lobster claw crackers and other oddments. And that doesn't count the dishware that went with them.

"It had a lot to do with marketing," observes Jessica Smith, curator of American art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. But the demand was genuine.

And these things are undeniably cool to have. As Smith says, "One of [railroad heiress] Arabella Huntington's favorite things to give was a tea set designed by Tiffany. I wouldn't have minded being a guest at a wedding where she was giving those away."

Once upon a time, celery was a luxury because, like endive, it had to be mounded with dirt as it grew to keep it from being bitter. So, a utensil called a celery vase was invented for displaying a head of celery at the table as if it were a bouquet of flowers. Diners would pluck off stalks one at a time and dip them in a salt container at the base of the vase, congratulating themselves on living pretty high.

Asparagus spears were awkward to handle, so people used a specialized implement to serve them, either an oversized serving fork with four or five tines, a broad spatula with a "hood" to keep the spears from rolling off or a set of tongs with grippers a couple of inches wide.

When it came to eating the asparagus, 19th century people preferred to eat a stalk from one end to the other, like a banana. Etiquette permitted you to pick it up with your fingers, but for the fastidious there were individual asparagus tongs for picking up a single spear by the base.

As one of the first canned foods, sardines had their moment of fashionability. They were also fragile, so they needed a special extra-wide serving fork -- it looked like a miniature leaf rake -- to pick them up securely, or even sardine tongs designed like a hinged pair of leaf rakes.

We still use forks with very small, slightly curved tines for winkling oysters out of their shells, but these days, we rarely serve the oysters on special plates with oyster-shaped depressions in them. Peas had their own server, a sort of miniature strainer called a pea spoon. Potato chips were once upscale enough to deserve their own serving utensil, a flattish scoop called a Saratoga chip server.

In the 19th century, people liked to poach eggs at the table, probably for the same reason we enjoy fondues and Mongolian hotpots today. The eggs were poached in tin containers filled with boiling water. Cookbooks warned that one should replace the water with fresh boiling water halfway through the process so the eggs could cook thoroughly.

Some utensils were a response to necessity. A peculiar sort of bowl, often shaped like a nautilus shell, was called a spoon warmer. Before central heating, houses were much colder in winter than they are today, so the warmer would be filled with boiling water and the serving spoons kept in it so they wouldn't chill the food when it was served.

Tea was once so expensive that it was stored in a lockable container called a tea caddy. For reasons of space, the spoons in a caddy had peculiarly short handles, and that became the tradition. People continued to use short-handled "caddy spoons" for tea leaves even after prices came down.

What inspired most of the specialized tableware was simply the 19th century formal dinner itself. It was a series of obligatory courses: shellfish, soup, appetizer, fish, roast, lighter meat dish, vegetable, wild game, pastry or pudding, ice cream and finally coffee, often with a sorbet in the middle of the meal and a cheese course toward the end.

Los Angeles Times Articles