Tuesday, February 20, 2018


This week's topic was inspired by our brief chat about the character Kalr 5 in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, who is a total connoisseur of dishes. They feature in Alice in Wonderland, and they get their own special scene in The Hobbit. But there's a lot more to think about here.

Kat pointed out that chopsticks were designed to be used with particular types of dishes - bowls, which gather the food, or dishes with crannies.

Knives don't work well with bowls.

Do you lift your bowls? Western dishes, with wide rims, are awkward to drink from.

I mentioned trenchers, the pieces of bread that were often used as dishes in the Middle Ages. They were not the same as bread bowls. They were sometimes eaten with sauce at the end of the meal, but at other times were given to the poor.

Kat told us about pies with hot water crusts, which were used so you could hold stew without a dish, and then the crust was broken down for use as a thickening agent the following day. These were molded from the inside. Pasties and hand pies are made with the same goal - to avoid dishes. So are sandwiches, and biodegradable food wrappers like leaves and rice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a scene where Willy Wonka drinks chocolate from a cup and then eats the cup. Cliff noted that this was key to the worldbuilding in the movie, establishing not only that most things were edible, but that totally unexpected things could happen in the factory.

There are many religious rules surrounding dishes. In Judaism, one is expected to have four sets of dishes. One for dairy, one for meat, on regular occasions, and then separate meat and dairy plates for Passover as well. The strictness of the rule varies among Jewish groups. Synagogues have utensils of different types.

Kat brought up the question of disposable or "lesser" dishes for unworthy people. This was something Ann Leckie used in her book as well, since we saw Kalr 5 judiciously deciding when to bring out the best dishes for a guest.

How do you handle dishes after you've eaten? Recycle them? Wash them? If they are washed, who washes them? Do you have access to water? The desire for easy cleanup can lead to disposable dish use.

In American tradition one generally had two sets of dishes, one "China" and one every day. Sometimes (as at my house) there is a special set of Christmas dishes, which we use at Christmastime when family is in town. There is also the tradition of registering for a wedding, where the couple to be married goes out and selects a set (or two) of dishes for their home, and registers their choice with the store, and then people who are invited to the wedding can go to the store and buy a piece (or more) of the set to give to the couple on their wedding day.

In some cultures, such as Japan, everything is plated before serving. Only some specific dishes are expected to appear in a communal dish.

One of our discussants remembered a science fiction story where eating was considered a private and slightly disgusting thing to do.

Dishes can be quite specific to the foods they are intended for, such as cake plates, butter dishes, or cake tier stands.

One does not put cereal in a ramen bowl!

There are also sometimes special sets of unbreakable dishes for babies. Melamine ware is becoming quite common, but appeared at least as early as the 1970's with "Make-a-Plate" where you could draw a design on your own dish.

Kat notes that she drinks different kinds of tea from different kinds of cups. Mugs are for black tea and green tea takes no handle.

Depending on how they are made, dishes can contain lead. This is true of ceramics and cut glass lead crystal (so don't leave your wine in the lead crystal decanter for a long time!).

Pottery and dishes are often distinct in style to particular artists. Do you recognize the maker? If you don't know the maker, are you not good enough socially to partake in the meal?

Can you tell if someone approves of you by which dishes they bring out when you visit? Do the doilies come out?

There are also commemorative dishes and collectors' dishes.

You might own an heirloom plate for ritual purposes, such as a seder plate or a kiddish cup. There is also the chalice used for mass. The Holy Grail was a dish... what would be an appropriate goblet for Jesus? That became a pretty important question in Indiana Jones.

Kat told us about juubako, a three-tiered ritual container for New Year's food (osechi).

In America (and elsewhere in Western cultures), our plates tend to match and come in sets. Whole companies are organized around completing those sets and replacing broken dishes so they match.

In Japan, each person has a different rice bowl. The colors of the food are suppose to complement the dish they come in. If a dish, such as a bowl, is intended to be held in the hand, it will have a foot. There's a special way to hold them; you are not supposed to hook your thumb over the edge of the bowl. The tea ceremony is an extraordinarily disciplined example of a more general cultural view on how bowls should be used.

In France, hot chocolate can be served in bowls. I have a set of hot chocolate bowls with "ears" that allow you to pick them up and drink from them.

Place setting rules can be very complex and even cause anxiety (especially for people aspiring to join upper classes who can afford complex place settings). In France, I've seen the fork on the left and the knife on the right, but the spoon going across the top. With chopsticks, you lay them across the place setting so they don't point at people. There can be tension in a diaspora (such as the Japanese) between old and new ways of setting the table.

In the age of Japanese internment, there were cases of families being evicted and having to get rid of their old things, and sometimes burying their dishes.

Do you have a dishwashing machine? What does that say about you? Are your dishes able to be put in a dishwasher? Older Japanese dishes tend not to be dishwasher-safe.

The Trail of Tears also has terrible stories of people having to leave behind important household wares when they were evicted from their homes.

In a role-playing game, which dishes are you carrying with you? Do you need to purify water to avoid disease? How do you do that? Do you carry water bottles?

Are there sippy-cups or special cups for babies?

Can you use dishes in microgravity?

What dishes would an alien use?

Thanks to everyone who participated in this discussion. This week we meet today, Tuesday, February 20th, with guest Kate Johnston who will be sharing her expertise in Public Health. I hope you can join us!