A few years ago I was in Kyoto, Japan sitting in a restaurant with my friends and their friends whom I got introduced to in that moment. One of these new friends, a tall Japanese guy, wanted to welcome me, a blonde, blue eyes western woman visiting his country and wanted to show me his appreciation. After a while we were sitting together enjoying each other company, the tall Japanese guy started to eat from my bowl of soup, truly surprising the rest of the company with this gesture.
Perhaps, he was too exuberant for a Japanese behavior (his height must have had something to do with his gesture), or perhaps he really meant it, but my friends told me later that his gesture was a sign of a consolidated friendship, a creation of a tight bond that would last through the years.
Eating is someone’s plate in Japan means loyalty, trust, respect and it is an honor. That was his way of showing these feelings to me.
I really liked that very much. Never thought I was going to receive such a friendly treatment.
That moment brought me back in time when in Italy, my native country, people used to eat all together from a plate placed in the middle of the table.
In every corner of the world, people do the same things, just like home, I thought.
Again, a few days ago, I was in a restaurant on American soil and a large plate of spaghetti was propped in the middle of the table for everybody to take a piece and share.
These days, when I sit at a restaurant’s table, often the question is if I want to share my dishes with the person I brought along, but this is not always possible. Often I go out with business people.
I am wondering though if this sharing dishes is happening because so many cultures are living together and we want to try everybody’s food, or because we have developed a curious palate, or further because we feel the need to get closer to people?
As I said earlier this is not a new costume to me at all. I remember the painted large dish on the center of the table in my grandmother’s house and in all her neighbors’ houses in the country town of Italy where she lived. The plate was hand-painted, very colorful, and huge for hosting a large quantity of food for the entire family, mom, dad, all the kids and the grandparents. Back then seniors lived in the family until their time on this earth was over.
The table setting was quite interesting. The hand-painted dish always took the middle of the table and it was filled with lunch or dinner food.
Each person had a fork, a wine glass, bread was sliced as needed and knives were placed loose on the table for those who needed them.
Everybody sat around the table and waited for the head of the family to sit too. For the respect of that person, whomever might have been, generally was the oldest person in the family, nobody could start eating.
After the head of the family sat and dug the fork to get the first bite from the plate in the middle of table, everybody dug in and ate from the same plate.
The last bite was also reserved for the head of the family. Incredible, you might say and yet, not being old at all, I have lived in such an ancient society!
This seems unreal, almost a scene from a Medieval Shakespearean comedy, but less than 40 years ago this was a common scene in the South of Italy where I grew up. Everyday people, perhaps to brighten their days, used the hand-painted, colorful dishware they bought at the street market or directly from the factory.
Nobles and wealthy people ate off of chic white porcelain plates.
Today modern Italians don’t use hand-painted ceramic plates anymore for every day use and nor for holidays either. They might hang them on kitchen walls for decorations, or they might place one small sample on a coffee table.
Italians just are not in love with such a beautiful antique art anymore. They love modern style, sleek, straight lines, no curlicues and no fussy designs. The reason behind this is that Italians live and breathe antiquity everyday.
In some cases they live just across from famous buildings, statues, famous fountains, stairs, or Cathedrals and Corinthian capitels. All of that beauty is part of their everyday landscape, thus part of their lives. It’s just routine. Lucky people!
There are still many factories making hand-painted ceramics, but they are sold mostly to tourists. Tourists bring back to their countries the beauty of Italy, they find to be chic eating off of one of those hand-painted Italian plates from Tuscany, Umbria and other regions.
Tourists appreciate the art work and countless hours painters spend in the making of every single plate.
Although Italians have remained very social, convivial and relaxed around food, they also have distant themselves from the custom of sharing food from the same plate.
Here in America, very surprisingly, I am finding this costume back into my life and I don’t know how to take it.
Is this history repeating itself, or old things are always new for somebody else?
I am treasuring my hand-painted ceramics, as matter of fact every time I return from Italy, I carry in the plane a few hand painted ceramic pieces in my hand carried luggage .
I want a cheerful table whether I have company or not, I want to surround myself with the beauty of my country and enjoy the colors of my heritage.
If you need help in locating a special hand-painted table top, or a custom-made backsplash for the kitchen, some specific plates patterns, I am here prompt and ready to help you with any of your needs, whether it will be decorating, designing, or remodeling. Ciao,
Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved
Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe.
She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and entertainment rooms.
She is the author of two regional Italian cuisine books, available here in this site on the Books Page and in various other locations: