This post originally appeared in the February 7, 2022 of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
One privileged and also incredibly bulky result of being part of a family that’s been in the U.S. for multiple generations is that we’ve had time to accumulate a lot of stuff. My mother’s house is full of drawers of mismatched china, etched crystal wine goblets, and both the silver my great-grandmother got for herself when she was around 28 and figured she’d be single for the rest of her life, as well as the silver she received at her wedding. What an honor to be the stewards of these antiques — and also what a pain in the ass.
It’s a pain because tradition has it that things like wedding china and crystal are only to be used on “special occasions,” which for most people translates to “never.” You have your Ikea or Crate & Barrel dishware for everyday use, and then your nice china sits in some cupboard and gathers dust even though you barely have enough room in your apartment as is, because it’s so nice and so delicate. And if you do manage to find an occasion to use it, there’s the hassle of cleaning it, because everyone says you shouldn’t run it through the dishwasher.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Take a deep breath, accept the impermanence of all things, and just start using your fancy china.
It took me a while to arrive at this stance. We only have heirlooms because our families have taken care of them, and it felt like a responsibility to preserve them and ensure future generations could also enjoy them. Except that wasn’t what was happening. No one was enjoying it. If we pulled the china out for Thanksgiving or Christmas, everyone was on high alert not to drop or stain anything. There would always be some exasperated sigh over the discovery that a plate had chipped or some gold border was flaking. Tears were shed over broken crystal, which was bound to break because it’s 100 years old and we’re only human.
Perhaps fearing that future, most of my friends who had either inherited china or gotten a fancy pattern from a wedding registry also seemed to feel some trepidation. No event was good enough for it. Though it was supposed to be for entertaining, it sat unused during dinner parties and holidays, either because they didn’t trust their guests to be careful enough or it felt like too much. It became a dinnerware tautology — you never brought out the good china because no dinner is good-china worthy. It is such a waste of beauty to keep the loveliest things out of sight, away from the parties and the food and the people you love, just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.
The thing about owning nice things is you’re going to die one day. Which isn’t to say throw it all to hell and only eat off paper plates, but that nice things are meant to be enjoyed while we’re still on this earth. A friend of mine reminded me of this simple fact. She bought a beautiful set of vintage china with a pale blue border and painted magnolias in the middle, and set the table with them on a random weeknight dinner we planned. Now she usually has them out to serve crock-pot meatballs and pimento cheese on game nights. I was inspired, and started pulling out my few inherited silver platters and crystal barware for parties, treating my friends to potato chips served off my family’s finest. And my mom has gotten to the point where there’s so much inherited china she just uses it as her everyday plates, even (gasp) putting some of it in the dishwasher — which it survives because its actually pretty durable.
It’s great to treat heirlooms with care, but not to the point where you don’t use them at all. Honor your ancestors or your family who bought such nice things off your registry by actually using what they’ve given you. When you make every meal an occasion, you don’t need to wait for one.