My grandma was cool.
Brilliant, intellectual, stylish and way ahead of her time.
Born in poverty, close to the Arctic circle she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 12, never to see Norway again.
Pregnant and married to the love of her life at 16, living in a rough timber shack and raising 4 children, she embraced beauty and intellect and eduction. Each day included home schooling of music, culture or literature while she cooked on a primus gas ring, a practice she continued until the end of her life. Although my 14 year old father was supporting the family shooting rabbits when grandpa was injured, she knew that rigor and aesthetic would out and things would improve. A lifetime tradition of discussion (and argument!) over the dinner table was established.
My dad would describe this tough time as “bread and water, sometimes meat and potatoes but dreaming of fruit on the sideboard”. I have always loved this analogy.
Fierce and difficult, brilliant and one of a kind, I think of her often.
Her youngest son became an academic. He travelled and studied abroad, and indulged her passion for china, dishes and modern ceramics. In the later years of her life she loved her hard won home and incredible garden and especially being surrounded by beautiful things.
Meals were times to gather at the table and enjoy food, the company, and conversation.
As children visiting, we were tasked with choosing which dinner set we would use to set the table for lunch.
The choice: Yellow and Black, mostly Villeroy and Boch, but amended and added to with dishes and jugs, salad bowls and bakeware from everywhere, as long as they were modern, yellow or black. Very dramatic!
My choice usually.
The other side of the kitchen held the cheery english red and black and white checked set. OK, but not my favorites.
In the sideboard there were White Arzberg dinner plates and beautiful platters, coffee pots, casseroles, little soup bowls and demi tasse coffee cups. These were used at night and for “occasions” when the modern teak table was extended and accented with peacock blue clothes and teal napkins. Some brass candlesticks too.
We took this task seriously.
To set a table is to be in control of a vision.
We would carefully count out knives and forks and spoons and put them in the right place. Spacing out plates and bowls just so, and making sure there were condiments and salt and pepper shakers.
The lesson: care and responsibility.
The end result: beauty and happiness.
She didn’t live to see disposable dinnerware, nor travel to the United States to see real food served in foam boxes even at cafes. Or extremely successful wealthy people on reality TV programs eating from plastic take away boxes. She couldn’t imagine a world where people CHOOSE to drink from paper cups rather than a coffee cup. We had bright colored melamine picnic sets when we headed to remote beaches or went miles up bush tracks for billy tea and sandwiches. I don’t remember ever using paper or plastic until I was catering.
Decades after setting my grandma’s table, I love my shelves of china.
I have owned the yellow and black extravaganza collection since I was 30, and the white Arzberg for 25 years after my mum, downsizing, decided she didn’t entertain often enough to keep them. 50 plus years of “occasions”, they are the heart of my dishery and I probably use some of them every day.
Nothing is “for show”, and much has been broken or chipped, and thrown away. My newly, crawling son pulled a pile of Italian platters from the cupboard onto the tile floor, so the family joke is that a couple of pay checks are owed. . ..maybe those beautiful Heath dishes aren’t so out of reach after all!
And I dream of creating my own dinnerware…..
I wonder why you wouldn’t you set the table or eat from a cool bowl? Grab a tray and some napkins for the take away TV dinner? My husband’s idea of cooking dinner is buying sushi and setting the table!
The simplest meal is a quiet celebration: good fortune? A momentary respite? Companionship or family?
Michael Pollan says that each meal is an opportunity for choice.
To show how we feel about agriculture vs. agribusiness, labor practices, health and nutrition, animal cruelty and our own self worth and traditions.
I think the set table is also another choice, and like many of the small and simpler things of life, wrongly perceived as trivial.
It’s not fussy or pretentious or god forbid, “tablescapey”, but recognition that work has been done to create this meal (even to buy it) and now it’s time to stop and sit.
Take a moment. Feel happy and blessed.
And dig in!
Valdris Woldseth: 1906-1985