I have a set of dishes, Churchill’s beautiful version of the classic blue willow ware pattern. (Those regular readers of this blog will have seen pieces of it.) I have place settings for 12. I got them in the early 1980’s at my local Skaggs-Albertson store. It was the classic “grocery store dishes” deal. For every $x you spent on groceries, you got a stamp. You filled in a card with 9 stamps and you could buy a four piece place setting for, like, $2.50. We’re talking nice, good quality ceramic dishes.
I already had a set of Noritaki pottery left over from a wedding that didn’t take, and I liked them well enough, but I had always secretly yearned for a set of blue willow ware dishes. Now was my chance. I bought all the accessory bits, too — 12 coffee cups and saucers, serving bowls, platters (round and oval), coffee pot, teapot, condiment set, a butter dish for stick butter, a gravy boat, two of the cutest covered casserole dishes you ever saw, relish tray, the whole nine yards. Why did I buy so many place settings? These are my forever dishes, and I figured having so many place settings would allow for attrition and still leave me enough dishes that matched to serve food to a reasonable number of people if the need arose. I have broken a salad plate, which I promptly replaced at about 5 times what I originally paid for it, because matching sets . . . .
And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about, matching sets. We’ve been indoctrinated for centuries to think that dishes need to match. If you set a table, the dishes must all be part of a matched set. Glassware all has to match. Silverware all has to match. The table linens have to match.
While the part of me that has been inculcated since infancy in the orthodoxy of Matching Sets (and the part of me that swoons over blue and white china anything) glories in my cabinet full of matching dishes, there is the part of me that glories in my shelf of teacups. Oh, I have a set of 9 of those tall, slender Chinese style blue and white tea cups with lids from Pier 1 (because blue and white!), but they’re on a different shelf. No, I have this one shelf where I have a pair of el cheapo clear pressed glass “hot chocolate” cups, two hand-thrown heavy pottery mugs with handles and a larger, handle-less thrown pottery mug from this potter in southeastern NM who signed her/his work “Taylor,” a collection of about six Chinese teacups without handles but with lids that double as saucers alike in style, but not in color or design. None of them match except the two clear glass cups (they came as a pair in the Christmas gift) and the two white pottery cups (I saw the one, loved it, had to have it, and then saw there was another one like it . . . pounce! . . .). That shelf is like a family photo album. I remember how and where I got every one of those cups, and using any of them evokes memories of places and people and good times. They’re a carefully curated collection, to coin a phrase, not just of teacups, but memorabilia.
And the thing is, I can make a case for cups, glasses and dishes that you use on a daily basis being collections, rather than sets. Odds and ends gathered from hither and yon because you like them — their shape, or their pattern, or their color (I have a set of 10 cobalt blue drinking glasses I bought 10 of because cobalt blue, — and because they color coordinate with the blue willow dishes) or because they were a gift from a special person, or were what remained of a set that was inherited from a family member, and each piece would come with a history.
See, if none of your wine glasses matched, then you wouldn’t need to offer those absurdly chichi wine glass charms to your guests so they could keep track of whose wine was whose. Each glass would be one of a kind, and there wouldn’t be another glass like the one that was yours.
You could use the plate or bowl that fit your mood — if you were sad, you could use the one with the beautiful hand-painted flowers on to cheer yourself up; if you were feeling dumped on by the world, you could use that elegant bone china one that was all that was left of a set brought over from Europe by great great Aunt Ermintrude when she immigrated from Upper Loose Chippings, Blighty, in Eighteen-Oh-Something; when you were feeling burnt out from work, you could use the brilliantly colored majolica one you got in Spain. Mood therapy through dinnerware. What a concept.