Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The "good" stuff

Do you use the "good" dishes in your house? The "good" silverware? Or do they sit gathering dust in a cabinet somewhere?

I have been musing over the concept for the last few days. It started with a knife. Someone posted to a board about this amazingly fancy and expensive kitchen knife. And I looked. And lusted. And that reminded me that I'd lusted after some (slightly less expensive) knives made by this company previously. And then I went off on a little window shopping tangent, thinking about what knives I would buy if I was in the market for that sort of thing. Which of course made me think about how much I hate my kitchen knives, and how they were only supposed to be a cheap, temporary stopgap measure and yet have been used (and hated) for years. So in the end, I might actually buy some nice new knives to use instead. But only two, because as a vegetarian I surely don't need a set of fancy knives for all sorts of meat dismembering when all I ever do is chop a few veggies and occasionally slice a loaf of bread. And I would have to immediately donate all the old crappy knives to Goodwill, because otherwise I know the "good" knives will end up in their box not getting used, just because they need to be hand washed. Yet, it feels like frivolous extravagance, especially in this economic climate to think about splurging - although there's a part of me that thinks it is my duty to the economy to spend money while I can afford it, because not everybody can and we really don't need to head in to a depression.

But while thinking about knives and such, I thought I'd check the silverware that I have, in case there was a carving set there. Or a bread knife. Or something. So that perhaps I would only need one fancy sharp knife. Because I have this enormous set of "good" knives and forks and spoons that pretty much never gets used. It was my parents set that they got for their wedding or some such occasion. I actually really like it, and I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with it - there may have been some theft involved on my part, coupled with a father who has absolutely no interest in such thing and who was remarrying someone who presumably couldn't care less about my mother's soup spoons. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I have this set, and hardly use it, and that seems a shame. Except you can't dishwash that set either, so I don't want to damage it by using it all the time in case I accidentally throw a knife in the dishwasher and ruin it, thereby ruining the entire set. Darn wooden handles! And I do also have quite a nice set of every day silverware that my aunt gave to me when she inherited a super nice "good" set of silverware so she moved her previous "good" set to her every day set, and gave me the old every day set. And I put MY old every day "set" of mis-matched cutlery that I had cobbled together since my student days in my guest cottage, which my tenant now uses.

Aha, I thought, well, my "good" stuff is presumably worth something now that it has been babied for 40 years or so, so I googled it. And, well, we're talking less than 50 cents a spoon. Substantially less. So my mother and I have coddled these things, not used them, saved them for special occasions, and for what? So they can accumulate dust and be worth less than new silverware?  There's something about that that I find very sad. I don't have a separate set of "good" dishes, but instead spent my money on good solid stoneware that is nice for every day but can also take a beating. And of course, I haven't had a wedding to register for all sorts of fancy china. But this set of silverware sits there, waiting to perform its function, doing nothing 364 days a year.

But why do we do this? Why do we think that every day is not special enough to celebrate by using the good china or the good tableware?

There's a description in a novel I read many years ago (and have since re-read multiple times: Shroud for a Nightingale by PD James) about a woman - a murder victim, actually. But it has always stayed with me, and there are so many ways in which I have wanted to be this woman, and still regard it as an ideal - without the 'murdered' part, of course.

It was the room of a woman who preferred to be unemcumbered. It contained the necessary basic comforts and one or two carefully chosen embellishments.  It was as if she had itemized her needs and provided for them expensively but precisely and without extravagance. The thick rug by the bed was not, he thought, provided by the Hospital Management Committee. There was one picture but that was an original watercolour, a charming landscape by Robert Hills, hung where the light from the window lit it most effectively.  On the window sill was the only ornament, a Staffordshire pottery figure of John Wesley preaching from his pulpit. Dalgliesh turned it in his hands. It was perfect; a collector's piece. But there were none of the small trivial impedimenta which those living in institutions often dispose about them to provide comfort or reassurance.


He opened the small left-hand drawer. It held her make-up, the jars and tubes neatly arranged on a small papier-mache tray. There was a great deal more than he had expected to find: cleansing cream, a box of tissues, foundation cream, pressed powder, eye shadow, mascara. She had obviously made up with care. But there was only one of each item. No experiments, no impulse buying, no half-used and discarded tubes with the make-up congealed around the stopper. The collection said: 'This is what suits me. This is what I need. No more and no less.'


He moved on to the wardrobe and examined again the collection of clothes. Three pairs of slacks. Cashmere jumpers. A winter coat in bright red tweed. Four well-cut dresses in fine wool. They all spoke of quality. It was an expensive wardrobe for a student nurse.

I omitted a couple of paragraphs, but included the points that resonated the most. I bet that woman wouldn't have"good" knives or "good" china that she never used. She would have selected a small number of items with care, and would use them every day. She would have figured out exactly what she liked and would have stuck with it. Why can't I be more like her, instead of someone who is surrounded by the baggage of ill-thought out impulse buys or cheap, quick-and-dirty temporary solutions to things that ended up becoming permanent? Why is it hard for me, even now, to just use the damn "good" silverware? Why can't I not worry that "good" china might get broken and just use it anyway and enjoy it for what it was meant to be? Or pare down my large knife collection of cheap, ineffective knives to just one or two really nice pieces?  

I would love to be able to reduce my possessions to only a few select pieces of good quality. I mean, even with a kid in the house should it matter? Should it matter if they break a Wedgewood plate as opposed to a Target plate? Should I have two super sharp fancy knives that are kept in a special place out of the reach of small hands and yet are used all the time as opposed to many cheap knives scattered all over the kitchen that I can't keep track of but which still can cause injury? Why do we feel the need to surround ourselves with junk just because it might get damaged or because we don't want to spend the money on fewer, nicer objects?


Anonymous said...

I have the same dilemma about flatware. I bought a set too cheaply and the handles are not thick enough to my liking. They bend when I'm scooping up ice cream, for example.

Thus, I'm now burdened with buying a second set that will last a lifetime. I think some of these purchases happen due to ignorance. You learn as you go.

Personally, I would never want any kind of kitchenware that is not dishwasher safe. My time is too important to hand wash "special" items. I use Corel dishware for the same reason. I buy white because I assume the pattern will never run out of style.I NEVER want to be burdened with extra nice china. I was also at a party where I was hassled by the host about being careful with the china. I don't want to be that kind of hostess.


calliope said...

I try to haul out the good stuff as often as we can. But honestly all the REALLY good stuff was taken by a certain family member before we moved to Florida. Like seriously looted. And weirdly I was ok with that. I think if you make a great meal then the dishes should be great too!