Dishes are made to be broken. Here’s how to host without stress. OK, less stress.
Summer in Maine means lots of out-of-state visitors, neighborhood barbeques and impromptu gatherings. I love the opportunity to host, but I frequently find myself in a dishware dilemma: Bust out the wedding china, use the low-stress melamine, set the everyday dishes? And then what about the serveware? My Asian-inspired crackle-glazed trays don’t exactly go with the inherited Williamsburg Potpourri-patterned dishes I use daily. In a perfect world, all the things in my china cabinet would coordinate, or at least play nicely together. For most hosts, though, dinnerware is a collection of sets and individual pieces acquired over years. So how does the continuity-craving party thrower deal with variation? I turned to an expert to find out.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a professional food writer and stylist and her husband is a political scientist and professor at Bowdoin College. They have lived all over the world, and Rudalevige has found that entertaining is a great way to meet new people. She hosts a party of at least eight monthly. “Hospitality is key to belonging to a community,” she says. “I extend first. I don’t wait to be invited.”
When Rudalevige buys dishes, she buys white. “I have inherited Wedgwood, but there are only six in the set.” She supplemented the classic china with white plates of varying patterns. Rudalevige estimates she has 20 basic dinner plates, each of which she bought for less than $2. She doesn’t want to worry about breakage. The same is true for glassware; she doesn’t want guests to feel guilty if they drop one.
Mixing glassware sets can further reduce breakage stress. Nikaline Iacono owns Vessel & Vine, a retail beer and wine shop and bar in Brunswick that also sells vintage glassware from the 1920s-1990s. When dealing with older pieces, things don’t always come in complete sets, so Iacono often assembles her own. “I put together sets based on themes,” Iacono says. She marries color, style of glass and patterns to hold sets together. “It’s a fun way to do it,” she says, “and if something breaks, it’s not the end of the world, because you’re not looking for an exact replacement.”
Glass and dish cleanup are also on Rudalevige’s mind when she hosts a party. She doesn’t set out more dishes than fit in her dishwasher, because, “No one wants to be washing dishes until 2 a.m. after a party.” Before the meal, Rudalevige usually serves one passed appetizer on a napkin, along with a cocktail. At her table, she uses antique doilies crafted by her grandmother as placemats (no tablecloth) and silver napkin rings. She coordinates napkins with candles and flowers (both low as not to obstruct sightlines and conversation) for a pop of color. She then sets dinner plates and often tops them with wide, shallow bowls, which work for pasta, soups and stews, or meal-sized salads. The dinner plate stays on the table—whether it was used or not—through all the courses, including the post-entrée salad and cheese platter Rudalevige typically serves. Dessert gets a new dish as needed.
When Iacono considers the most important glassware for entertaining, a good wine glass is at the top of her list. Vintage is nice, but vintage wine glasses are harder to find because wine glasses are used a lot and prone to breakage. And, Iacono notes, nowadays we use a much larger glass. “The shape and the aesthetic [of wine glasses] has changed,” she says. Instead, she chooses a modern, stemless glass and likes something a bit more delicate than the most inexpensive options. Her favorite brand is Riedel, which can run up to $59 for two glasses, but Iacono swears by the marked-down selection at the off-price retailer TJ Maxx. “The selection is higher quality than I’d find at a restaurant supply store, for much less money.”
Rudalevige also shops TJ Maxx for dinnerware, including her serveware, which is also white. She opts for multi-purpose pieces and stays away from anything super-specific, like those long, skinny dishes that are only for serving olives. “They’re impossible to get your fingers into!” she jokes. Her only course-specific choice is a wooden salad bowl. “It’s usually the only bowl that gets passed, and wood is a bit lighter.” She also owns fish forks, because it’s something she serves often.
When she’s throwing a party and serving a signature cocktail, Iacono loves a punch bowl with accompanying cups. “You can batch out a delicious cocktail without having to worry about mixing during the party.” Add a big ice ring and some frozen berries and you have a self-serve option that will last several hours. She mixes and matches beyond the 12 cups that typically come with the bowl to have enough for a big group.
For both dinner and drinks, the resounding message from the pros is clear: Dishes and glasses are made to be used. If you have a piece that is too sacred to imagine losing to breakage, display it. Otherwise, pour, serve and enjoy without worry. There’s always another $2 white plate.
RUDALEVIGE’S GO-TO WHITE SERVING DISHES
>> 2 flat round dishes for vegetables and other things that lie flat
>> 2 wide, deep square bowls for salads, side dishes and pasta
>> 2 large, shallow, rectangle dishes for things like meat and fish, with enough lip that juices don’t spill
IACONO’S MUST-HAVE GLASSES
>> Wine: stemmed or not
>> Collins: can double as a water glass and is taller and skinnier than a rocks glass
>> Rocks: a double or single version, shorter and squatter than a Collins glass
>> Coupe: a wide, shallow glass for straight up cocktails like Manhattans or mixed drinks like margaritas (legends says the coupe was modeled after the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts)
>> Roly poly (how can you resist the name?): similar to a stemless wine glass but smaller and made with slightly thicker glass for increased durability. Perfect for outdoor use and Mad Men-esque whiskey neat pours.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.