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(Alexander Raths/iStockphoto)
(Alexander Raths/iStockphoto)

TABATHA SOUTHEY

When did restaurants stop plating their food on actual plates? Add to ...

I’ve been away seven weeks now, travelling, working, researching a book, seeing friends, but it’s time to come home; I miss plates.

I’ve been staying in London mostly, visited other cities from there, and then I was in Dublin for a while. In all these places I ate out a lot, and I can report that the restaurant industry is in the midst of a tableware crisis. There’s barely a plate to be found any more, and the first time you’re served a dry-aged rump of beef with celeriac gratin, chanterelles and red wine jus on a cutting board, it’s possible to be charmed.

After all, you are not a tablecloth, but soon the tide of things being served on other things that were just not meant to be served on starts to wear on you.

I have a high whimsy-tolerance. Doctors have often remarked upon it. Sometimes half an hour into a puppet show involving a talking reflex hammer and a musical stethoscope, a doctor will say, “This is very unusual,” and make a note on my chart, but recently my whimsy-tolerance has been tested.

I miss plates. Why, in one day on this trip, I was served breakfast on a chalk slate, lunch on a clip-board and dinner on a wooden cutting board shaped like a clover leaf. I’ve been served frites in a beer stein, and the ones I could reach were delicious, and so my verdict was a resolved “Fun!” – until my slow-baked quince, wild honey ewe’s yoghurt, bee pollen and almonds arrived in a vintage teacup balanced on a strip of artfully weathered barn board, and then the next morning at breakfast, I was served a waffle on another waffle with maple syrup in a stem vase.

What was under that waffle I do not care to know, but everything I’ve been served of late suggests that that non-plate waffle presenting item was handcrafted from a substance that Dwell magazine would call “reclaimed ash flooring from a demolished church in Ohio,” and the rest of us would call “wood.”

I miss plates.

In several fashionable venues, I was given the menu tucked into an ironically unfashionable book and, in other places, it’s the bill that’s presented that way. I will never again see a scuffed-up, campy pulp paperback without assuming I owe someone money.

In lovely Dublin, I dined a number of times at the excellent L. Mulligan Grocer. You could build a small cottage from the cutting boards of Scotch eggs and lamb I cleared at that charming place, and so I will forgive them for the barely repressed school anxiety that arrived with the bill in a case for a vintage geometry set.

For a long time now, desserts everywhere have been served in Mason jars. The House on Parliament, my beloved local pub in Toronto, does that and the only problem with a dessert being served in a Mason jar is that, in my mind, when I eat something from a small glass jar, I am always eating baby food.

You give me a jar and a little spoon and, no matter how delicious the thing in the jar actually is, I am, immediately and in the most exaggerated way possible, pretending to enjoy downing puréed brown rice and lentils in an effort to convince a skeptical baby to join me in this exercise.

“Mmmmm,” I say, waving my spoon in small circles in front of anyone unlucky enough to be sitting across from me.

“Stop that,” my dinner companion said to me, recently. “It’s really manipulative. If I wanted a dessert, I would order one.”

“Nom, nom, nom, nom,” I said.

“Is there antibiotics in that or something?” he asked. “You’re trying to trick me. I don’t have an ear infection. ”

“Here comes the train!” I said unable to stop myself. “Chooo! Chooo!”

“What is wrong with you?” he said.

“I miss plates,” I replied, taking a sip of my wine from my repurposed Griffin low-form beaker and tracing a circle nostalgically on what should have been a tablecloth but was either a collectable Spider-Man bedsheet from the 1970s or something that may have been the Shroud of Turin. I get all the restaurants mixed up.

One of the highlights of my trip was seeing the Celts: Art and Identity show at The British Museum where, among other things, I saw the extraordinary Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found, as apparently everything Celtic is, in a peat bog, which is where, it seems, Celts kept all their stuff.

Discovered in Denmark in 1891, the ornately decorated Iron Age silver cauldron is large, 69 centimetres across and 42 deep, and was likely ceremonial, but after the dinner I’d had the night before, all I could see when I looked at it was a weary Celt shaking his head and muttering, “It’s very nice but hardly an appropriate vessel in which to serve a salted caramel budino with a dollop of crème fraîche. What the hell is wrong with people these days? Why can we not use the ramekins the gods have provided us?”

Iron Age Celts miss plates.

Last night I dreamed I was served an Irish seafood chowder with chorizo and treacle bread cupped in a waiter’s hands, and I understood it was delicious because it was authentic, and then I asked the waiter about the “seared scallops served on a bed.” I was wondering if the end of the menu had been cut off there, but I knew it had not, so I ordered sole à la meunière plated, soon a lost word, on a slab of timber sawed by a lumberjack at my very table.

This was followed by the arroz con leche with fresh cherries served in a live pitcher plant.

All the while, I was seated on a small, organic, free-range (when not being sat on) child to whom I whispered: “I miss plates.”

“You have to come back next week,” said small, but surprisingly comfortable, child excitedly. “They’re getting in some live Andean flamingos for cutlery.”

“I’m going home, small but comfortable child,” I said. “I have plates there.” And then I was awoken by the sound of an incoming text, “Join me for dinner at Chez Everything’s in the Dishwasher and We Really Hate Trees. Everyone’s talking about it.”

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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