From non-descript and forgettable to distinctive and memorable a plate not only conveys the regard given to a meal and its diners, it also displays our relationship with making, functionality, beauty, material culture and ritual. As a piece of tableware, it is the ultimate cultural, stylistic and practical component of the meal however tantalising the food.
The plate determines the etiquette, culture, epoch and social status of the diner, establishing and explaining how, what and where we eat. It interacts with its surrounding tableware and others around the table, in small but important ways. These can range from swapping bowl-loving chopsticks for a flat-bottomed ceramic spoon, to its use as a formal table placeholder assuring ‘absolute sovereignty of every diner over his or her domain’[i]. Plate faux pas can be enlightening and sometimes amusing. Anecdotes of confusion include a twentieth century French diner scrutinising a British table laid with only unfamiliar bread and butter side plates, with the resulting horrified anticipation of a very tiny meal. The plate is a functional, governing and symbolic aesthetic.
For three million years humans have explored plate making materials such as wood, unfired and fired clay, glass, metals, china, the crusts of bread, porcelain, slate, cardboard, burger buns and plastic. The choice of material is normally dependent on the available resources and skills, money and the function or occasion, though designers, hosts and stylists relish challenging these limits. From Palaeolithic burnished clay to twenty-first-century Scandinavian living moss, the imagination, and skills bestowed to make plates of different sizes, surfaces and shapes is remarkable. As is the contemporary compulsion to adorn tables, display food, affirm our social norms and perform cultural rituals, all with the obliging plate
[i] Visser, M., The Rituals of Dining, 1991