Among the greatest joys an exhibition curator can experience is seeing the pleasure with which guests respond to their displays. Very high on my list relating to Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table (open through January 6, 2019) was the recent visit by my friends Suki and Tony, owners of Lily Asian Cuisine, a highly-rated local favorite in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The couple brought along their two charming daughters, so I could show the whole family how we much we westerners have admired Chinese wares over the centuries.
We spent about an hour viewing the exhibition. We talked about how dinnerware and foods were acquired from the 1600s onward and then looked at dining traditions, setting the table, folding napkins, and the like. Eventually, we arrived at the area focusing on dinnerware with nature designs in Western styles, such as portrayals of Aesop’s Fable animals and soup tureens in the forms of rabbits and turkeys.
Just before we left that space, Suki came to a halt and said, “I have to tell you a story about dishes!” With sparkling eyes, she reminisced that when she was young she often went with her siblings and cousins to have dinner at their grandparents’ house. “Of course, we were never allowed to start the meal before Grandfather came home.” Just before he was scheduled to arrive home, Suki’s grandmother would bring out a special, covered lacquer box. She would place it, somewhat ceremoniously, on the center of the table and then slowly lift the lid to unveil an enticing display of little dishes, all fitted together and filled with treats such as nuts, pickled fruits, and the like. The children selected their favorites, munching on them as they awaited their grandfather’s arrival. “Ah, that is such a happy memory,” said Suki, sighing.
So now, I was filled with suspense as I had an inkling of just what sort of dish she might be talking about. As we were about to pass through the exhibition’s Moon Gate to enter the gallery of nature designs in Asian styles, I rushed ahead and whipped out my phone. The result? Well you can see Suki’s expression in the picture, above. The butterfly dishes on display in the exhibition were much like the ones her grandmother served treats in.
Tony provided fascinating insights into Chinese meanings of symbols on the displayed tableware. He told me that the number associated with the dish set Suki admired was meaningful. The set has nine little dishes, which is a number connected with couples and good things, and when added to the box, the number becomes ten, which is a number associated with the whole family and many good things. What a wonderful concept to be able to share with their family, my own, and yours, too, of course!
See more Dining by Design blogs.
By Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics & Glass, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library