/ by Jennie Wakefield
My great aunt Cora disapproved of blue dishes. Few foods are blue, she reasoned, so dishes should not be blue.
Cora had taught home economics at a women’s college in South Carolina back when women studied home economics, before she married my great uncle Jack. He had been dead for 20 years when, as a new bride, we moved to a small Upstate town near the even smaller town where she lived. In her modest but well-appointed home, she applied the sensible principles she had taught years before in her classes.
I took her pronouncements seriously. My china, being Williamsburg blue and white with accents of red, began to annoy me. It seemed artificial, as if I was waving the flag each time I set the table.
Cora’s dishes were predominately green, a color echoed in the carpet and floral wallpaper of the dining room. Even her napkins and candles were green. After Jack died, she continued to have her breakfast and mid-day dinner in the verdant room. She hosted my new family at least once a month for dinner, sometimes just the baby and me, sometimes my husband too. I deferred to her authority about a number of household matters. When we divorced a decade later, he took our blue and white dishes with no argument from me.
I inherited a set of crockery in a blue and white Currier and Ives pattern from my grandmother, one I often see in thrift stores. I used the teacups out of necessity but intended to retire the sentimental pattern as soon as possible.
Clearly, the old prejudice against blue dishes lingered but I began to see the flaw in Cora’s dish logic when a number of years later I became a devotee of hot tea. The Japanese tea ceremony had piqued my interest and I dreamed of building a humble tea house where simplicity and nature were valued. In the books of rustic Japanese houses that I studied, I noted the use of blue in dishes and fabrics.
Cultivating my taste for tea, I experimented with new flavors. One day, I brewed a pot of Darjeeling; the name itself made me want to try it. I poured the tea into the straight-sided crockery cup, spooned in sugar, stirred rhythmically and dropped a slice of sunny lemon into it. Before my eyes was the contradiction of Cora’s argument. The blue and white pottery was a foil for the orange-amber liquid and membranous yellow fruit, a visual suggestion of a simple but extraordinary experience to come, a suggestion that relied on contrast, contrast in color and texture. Aunt Cora was simply wrong.
Nowadays, I recreate my tea ceremony almost daily, having treated myself to new blue and white cups and saucers in a graphic pattern that pleases me. Plates and bowls too. And a cup of tea without lemon? Never! I revel in the juxtaposition.
I’m not sure why Cora’s color sensibility was what it was. Maybe it was just too hot in her small southern town for anything but garden references; maybe green was the color du jour when she was making old ways new as a young woman and educator, but I often remember her green dishes in situations, utilitarian or aesthetic, that are stuck in their sameness.
There’s a lot of meaning in dishes.