In Defense of Fine China

Twelve years ago, during the short months of our engagement before my husband and I were married, I had the pleasure of registering for wedding presents.

As a young child, I had watched all three of my older sisters select china, crystal, and sterling at Delta East-West gift shop owned by Helen Ward Nicholas and located on Main Street in my hometown.

I watched them unwrap the towers of presents that resulted, invariably wrapped in slick white or shiny silver paper. They set out the gleaming wares on the dining-room table, the engraved calling cards of the givers—“Dr. and Mrs. Shelby Truesdale III,” say—nestled among them for visitors’ inspection.

My sister Beth chose Pembroke china by Aynsley (pronounced Pem-brook), at the center of which was an illustration of a blue bird with a fine sharp beak. My sisters Janice and June, married in 1974 and 1975, each selected Lunt’s Chantilly as their sterling pattern.

Throughout the long desert of my twenties, I had seen more displays of wedding presents than I could count: Waterford toasting goblets, Wallace Rose Point iced-tea spoons, starched white linen cocktail napkins that had been hemstitched by ten-year-olds in some sweatshop in Uttar Pradesh.

And I had seen them used, as well: I had sat at Sunday afternoon dinner tables with crisp napkins on my lap, trying to pick up asparagus spears from serving trays with silver tongs, and delicately placing hot yeast rolls on the bread plate to my left. I’d been served innumerable mimosas in pewter mint julep cups, though never the namesake drink.

By the time I married, at thirty-one, I was an exile from the South, with a postmodern family scattered across the country, and no dining table where presents might be displayed.

Even though I was of impossibly advanced age—so I thought at the time—I had pranced through life with few possessions other than books and could have used some practical items to outfit a home.

The tendrils of tradition sought me out, even from afar—china, crystal, and hemstitched cocktail napkins I had waited so long for and wanted. The phone rang one day and it was none other than Mrs. Nicholas, calling to let me know that people from my hometown had called and wanted to know what patterns I had selected.

As the packages arrived in the mail in D.C., I felt saved, like a prodigal finally come home. At last, and despite all, I had arrived at the pinnacle of Southern womanhood, with its attendant accouterments.

My china: Haviland’s Symphony Gold. My crystal: Waterford Lismore. (I’m reminded, fondly, of Kelly Foster’s Good Letters post that trumpets the virtues of gracious living.)

At some point during my protracted years of singleness, brides apparently stopped caring about china and crystal—a trend that seems only to have advanced in the decade since my wedding. According to a July 11, 2012 release from TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, only twenty-nine percent of couples registered for formal/fine china.

At least from my admittedly informal canvas, wedding registries now seem far more devoted to high-end cookware, small appliances, and particle-board closet organizational systems. All fine, I suppose—but all also catering to the stereotype of the chip and dip lounge lizard, acquiring and consuming. Nothing to gleam, behind glass, under shimmering light, in the corner dark of the dining room—mysteries for a little future daughter to dream on.

As far as home entertaining and décor goes, the bulk of my friends can be divided roughly into two styles: The devotees of mid-century modern design, who want to array their houses like Mad Men but with a few kitsch touches—Barcelona chairs and flokati rugs and ironic cocktail shakers, vintage kids’ lunchboxes and passé action figures.

In the other category, houses are arrayed as temples to Pottery Barn with plain wood tables, homespun Shaker-styled accessories, and Caipirinhas cocktails served in heavy Mexican glass tumblers.

One mode bespeaks of irony, the other authenticity. And isn’t it interesting that these would be the two poles folks gravitated toward?

I lived on this earth for more than forty years before I heard upper-middle and middle-class Americans start talking about their belongings as a matter of curating one’s collections. (See any recent issue of Real Simple if you don’t believe me.)

Amid them there appears to be no place for sterling candlesticks placed atop an Irish linen runner, a splash of claret in a small, delicate, tulip-shaped glass. Have you noticed how huge plates and glasses have become these days? As though clumsy Cyclopses inhabit our houses.

Our fear of formality seems to stem from a couple sources: One is the wish, socially, to appear Teflon-cool, casual, above all that earnest feeling and hard work that fine-china entertaining requires. We do not, it seems, want to be our lace-curtained Irish grandmothers, back in Birmingham or Levittown, sitting on plastic-covered brocade.

We want entertaining to be effortless, the equivalent of Erica Jong’s famous zipless fucksince decorating and real estate are as pornographic as anything else today—free of the strictures of authority, but also those of feeling.

To entertain formally is a matter of labor and love and a submission to the belief that the ritual of the celebration matters. It is, in the end, an act of kenotic love and one available to the faithful and secular alike.

Yesterday afternoon I threw a baby shower for a young neighborhood friend. I have neither curated possessions nor endless casual space, but I did array my full set of china cups and saucers on a snowy embroidered Lebanese cloth. I set out my mother’s sterling, pattern: Lunt, William and Mary.

It felt, in some ways, that I was being old-fashioned. But it also felt like an act of daring, an act, somehow, of righteous rage: I have good china, and I’m not afraid to use it.

About Caroline Langston

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

  • Lola LB

    Makes me want to go wash my china and glasses. By hand. One of those days, I WILL get to use these . . .

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Here’s a lesson we just learned about including a bit of ‘ quality ‘ in one life … especially on a daily basis that tucks in quite nicely with your ‘ China ‘ essay ;

    Over the last three years my wife lost both her parents ( mom alzheimer – dad kidney failure ) which meant she amongst other things inherited her moms fine silver …. which of course her mom never used ( her mom being of the generation that when receiving fine silver or china …. stuck it in a cabinet .. only pulling it out for very special and rare occasions )

    At first we considered selling it as ….. well …. it didn’t seem to fit our lifestyle ( we’re a bit more ‘ Earthy ‘ ) But after finding out that fine silver has lost most all its value due to the recession and could only be sold for scrap silver we began looking into what it would take to maintain and use it ( selling it for scrap value was not worth the effort … not to mention the blatant destruction of some very fine craftsmanship )

    We found a most excellent site on fine silverware and I called the owner to discuss first the value ( she confirmed what the evaluators were saying to be true ) and second … if we were to keep the silver : what we needed to do in order to keep it well maintained .

    Turns out fine quality silverware is in fact very robust and the only thing needed to keep it up when using it daily is to wash it by hand ( instead of in the dishwasher ) In fact the more you use it and wash it the better it looks . She highly recommended using the silverware on a daily basis as well .

    Since then that all we use . Fine silver each and every day . To be honest the simple pleasure of doing so that it gives s amazing . The weight , quality and feel adding a certain element to the dining process . And ……. it goes quite well with our hand thrown pottery place settings to boot .

  • Brad Winters

    My wife and I have inherited a set from my grandmother, and this makes me seriously excited for it — plus a tad bit more informed about it. Cheers!

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    Seriously, Caroline Langston Jarboe is the only writer I know of who can write about fine china, drop the f-bomb in the same essay while not managing to be a bull in a china shop, and critique culture all while mentioning dining ware I know absolutely nothing about. Mostly when I think of china, I think, “I’d like to visit that place, but I don’t want to eat on those plates.”

    And what plates my wife and I have—the plates of cyclops indeed! Our square dinnerware is so large it cannot turn on the turntable in our microwave. It gets caught and swivels back and forth like it’s trying to slow dance, and it’s every bit as awkward as an 8th grade dance.

    I always enjoy your writing, Caroline. Thanks as always! :)

    • Lyonet

      Nice reply.

  • Beverly Parkison

    True” Southern” charm. Thank you cousin. Next time you are here …out comes the china.

  • Mary Frances Richards

    Thank you, Miss Caroline, for a lovely piece about something near and dear to my heart. My husband and I have lived in Europe for 20 years and enjoy entertaining fairly regularly. While I am sad to see the decline of fine tableware in the U.S., here, a formally set table is still appreciated. Although the tablecloths are not the pristine linens of the Deep South, there is the magical world of Jacquard Francais, which opens up endless color schemes. Our china, crystal and silver provide a link with my Mississippi Delta childhood and teach our children how to conduct themselves in a more elaborate social setting, an ability that can come in handy when you least expect it. Thanksgiving is our biggest party of the year, when we have the privilege of introducing friends to the delights of Southern cooking. Pecan pie served to guests on silver rimmed porcelain sits just that little bit more proudly. It’s a part of what Belgians call “la bonne vie”.

  • Kathryn

    I have had this discussion numerous times with my mother, about how sad I am that no one seems to be aware of what they’re missing in having fine china, crystal and silver. I grew up in the Midwest and everyone registered for (and received) china, sterling, crystal. Small town or city- didn’t matter. And if you do have some, don’t just admire it in the cabinets, use it- often! I think it makes everyone (adults and kids) feel special.

  • Tracy Dowling

    How does one fill one of those enormous contemporary plates, not to mention quaff all the coffee in one of those enormous cups? Perhaps we all should eat off our good china several times a week–and learn to enjoy the art of eating which includes it place on a beautiful setting…with a smaller plate. We would be both thinner and richer! Just saw a photo of myself taken during last week’s trip to the outer banks…I’m eating on my good china every day this week!

  • http://pamsknitting.blogspot.com/ Pam

    A northwest girl, I’m not adept at formal dining, But I own fine china, as well as some very pretty dishes for every day. I love having dishes that denote an occasion. The “good china” comes out when we’re having a crowd, but I don’t want to stoop to paper. And it comes out every birthday. Thanksgiving of course, usually supplemented with everyday dishes, because there’s (what a blessing) so many of us. At Christmastime, we use some inexpensive Christmas dishes from Target — my sisters have the same ones, so we pool our resources for the big dinner. I know these dishes will be part of family memories for my kids & their cousins — and I’m glad. It’s not the most important thing, but it’s a good thing.

    My sister inherited some dishes from a great aunt. Only two of each kind of piece showed any wear. What a sad sight. It made us vow that our dishes would NOT look new when they were passed on.

  • Lyonet

    Excellent article. I especially appreciate the insight offered regarding kenotic love and importance of celebration for religious and secular alike. Thank you.

  • jazzgirl205

    I only use my fine china and silver for special occasions. These are the special occasions:
    Xmas
    Thanksgiving
    Easter
    when my 15 yo dd cooks
    dinner parties
    after funeral get togethers (big family happens more often than I’d like)
    when dh’s friend comes over and cooks
    When friends come over with Chinese takeout (I hate eating out of paper)
    luncheons
    for the hellavit


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