One of my father’s girlfriends when he was living in Chicago was a French woman, whom we shall call, for the purposes of this story, Antoinette. Whenever my father describes Antoinette, the words ‘quintessentially French’ seem to pop up; she was Parisian, and stylish, and a bit snobby, and bemused by her life in the States but by no means committed to any particular aspect of it. I can’t remember if she was a college student or just drifting through Chicago, a dropout, perhaps, or an indifferent art student. Most probably, they met in some musical venue or another, Chicago being a good place for jazz and my father being a fan of jazz.
In the first few months of their relationship, they tended to end up at her house, or in various locations around Chicago, and never actually went to my father’s home, since it was hardly an inspiring, let alone romantic, location; my father tended towards a series of small cold water flats that he drifted in and out of depending on whether he could afford the rent in a given month, and none of them were exactly thrilling. Eventually, he decided that it was time to bring their relationship to the next level, and bring her home to cook for her.
My father, then and now, is a very good cook, and the ritualistic inviting of people home for a meal requires much planning and forethought. The offering must be meticulously evaluated, perhaps several proposals drawn up before settling on one, the one that speaks not just to the person being invited to dinner, but to the relationship as a whole, the one that will make a statement. My father, like me, has a tendency to say things with food.
After much pondering, he decided to cook Chinese food[1. A culinary legacy of another girlfriend, a fact he prudently left out when inviting Antoinette to dinner.]. He thought out the menu with care and laid in all the ingredients he needed and cleaned the house and as he was getting things squared away, he became obsessed with his plates and silverware. Like most college students, he had a motley assortment of eating utensils picked up at thrift stores and other random places, and while these were usually sufficient for entertaining, he felt that they wouldn’t pass muster with Antoinette.
He searched high and low through Chicago to try and find something suitable for the Great Event, weighing and discarding a number of options and trying to account for the limitations of his budget at the same time. Finally, he discovered a set of glass plates and bowls, made by a French company, and decided that they were the solution to his problem, paired with some borrowed matching silverware from a friend. Surely, their very Frenchness would be sufficient to please the exacting tastes of his girlfriend, and they were sturdy enough to survive the frequent moves and other events of a college existence.
The evening duly arrived, and he laid out dinner in a series of dazzling courses, but Antoinette had come, as they say, loaded for bear, and she was clearly less than delighted with my father’s company, and the meal. After picking an assortment of small fights, the two got into a spectacular argument over the noodle dish, in which there was much huffing and puffing. My father claims he cannot remember what the fight was about, and this is entirely possible, but he does remember how it ended.
Antoinette stood up from the table, berating my father for his limited fashion sense and his dingy apartment and all of his other shortcomings, and as she sputtered to a close, she looked down at the table, trying to come up with the most pithy and exacting insult she could muster.
‘And,’ she said, staring contemptuously at the place settings, ‘and I laugh your plates to scorn!‘
She stormed out of the apartment, leaving my father at sea in a debris of meal remainders and ruing his tableware investment. They eventually patched it up and enjoyed, by all accounts, a tempestuous relationship for a few months before it finally petered out, and the plate incident became a point of amusement rather than bitterness, a story my father told at the dinner table sometimes, often as people ate from those very plates, for, as it turned out, his predictions were correct; the plates were indeed durable, and lasted for 10, 20, 30, going on 40 years.
He doesn’t have a complete set any more, of course, but he does have a few of the glass bowls and at least two of the plates, somewhat scuffed with time and relegated to the back of the cupboards, where you store the dishes you use for potlucks and when you run out of good plates, the emergency dishes available when all else fails. Though the mighty have fallen significantly from their halcyon days in that Chicago apartment, I suspect a few will probably survive to be inherited by me, so that I in turn can tell the story of the plates laughed to scorn.