By Linda Kupecek
When I was a child, our kitchen wasn’t fancy schmancy. I remember the yellow linoleum, the red arborite table (fancy in its day) the worn wooden cupboards. But most of all, I remember the Crown Ducal dinnerware. I have no idea how a family living modestly in downtown Calgary happened to dine daily on a beautiful set of Crown Ducal porcelain, in the Florentine pattern. Perhaps my father, a bargain hunter with a discerning eye, happened upon it at a garage sale in Mount Royal.
Either way, the set dwindled over the years with a crack, a chip, a misguided decision to send things off to the junk heap. I managed to hold onto a few pieces. Once I became a collector (hoarder) of arcane (weird) items, I included Crown Ducal porcelain in my searches. I want that set again. Like many collectors, I want to recapture my childhood.
Perhaps that is why setting a table with vintage china gives me such joy. I am opposed to paper plates – and not for environmental reasons. I was once deeply insulted when a dinner guest, mid meal, suggested I simply put the food on paper plates at my next dinner party. Me. MOI. The lady with three cupboards full of vintage china from 1890 to 1970. The dreadful cook who distracts guests from judgment by serving questionable food on exquisite china. If I don’t have the china to impress, what’s left? Charred chicken.
I may not be a great cook, but I would hang my head in shame if I put a chicken thigh with a nice crust of tarragon and paprika on a paper plate and handed it to a guest. Why degrade the dining experience when there are so many beautiful options in the china cabinet by way of the thrift store? Eating is not just
about the protein and fibre and carbohydrates you shove into your mouth in the car on the way to therapy. It is about making the experience
more than a grab-and-run after chomping down over stoneware plates.
My old china is part of who I am. I love my mismatched vintage plates, my incomplete dinner sets, my treasures from estate sales,
flea markets, antique shows, and of course my family history.
This is an ode to vintage china: the old Johnson Bros. from the 1950s, the delicate floral Pareek, the Coalport, the Lenox, the Nippon, the ancient Chinese platters. The instantly recognizable Paragon cups and saucers! So many beautiful patterns adorn the historically smaller-sized, plates, which (as one astute dinner guest noted) “have such a lovely feel, so delicate and crisp compared to what we use now.” The new stuff, says another brutally blunt friend longing for the good old days, “chips when you look at it. The older, real china was made to last.”
Part of the joy of using old china is the way in which we reconnect with the past, whether it is the memories of family meals long gone, or simply realizing that other families and friends rejoiced and laughed and wept over the china maybe one hundred years ago. The circle is completed.
You hold an old dinner plate, beautiful, floral, exquisitely decorated, and wonder what its history is, as Agatha Christie wrote, decades ago, in “Come Tell Me How You Live.” What was the dining table, the situation, the family, the culture of the many meals at which this dinner plate was present? (Honestly it might be even more fun to imagine the knock-down, drag-out fights that old china might have witnessed, no matter how refined the setting.)
I acknowledge that I relish serving dinners on vintage china in the faint hope that guests will be so busy admiring the design that they won’t notice the food. Alas, this is not the case. So many younger people don’t give a hoot. But that is okay. I know in my heart that 30 years from now, they will be reminiscing about the fabulous table settings Auntie Linda created. Just too bad it will happen while I am cooking with the angels – who might gag at my efforts.
We honour our dear ones by presenting food in an artful and mindful way. I, for one, love my china as I love my friends, and want to keep them all.
Linda Kupecek is an award-winning writer who can be spotted at her favourite thrift stores, looking for Crown Ducal (Florentine pattern).