Photo by Judith Hausman
In the wine world, prestigious glassware manufacturers make magical claims that a wine tastes its best in their glasses. Specific shapes deliver wine to the right place on the palate, and position the nose properly to access maximum bouquet. Even if $30 (or more) per glass requires faith or susceptibility, it’s undeniable that a light, thin glass does add sensuality. The fine rim rests between your lips, the wide, weigh-nothing bowl shows off the wine’s glimmer, the long stem is an undefined pleasure to lift. Try to imagine appreciating a great red in a pottery mug.
The principle here is that container affects taste — somehow the container’s properties suit the food. I like soup in bowls with a broad rim; they present the fragrant soup in a circular frame that I like. There’s something old-fashioned about that style to me, and besides, the broad surface cools the soup a little. My friend David steers toward a certain straight-sided bowl for his morning Cheerios because in it, the just-right milk-to-cereal ratio can be attained.
When I asked people to consider this principle, two interrelated themes emerged. A wide one was nostalgia. Ed said the bowl his daughter decorated with strawberries is perfect for fruit salad. One of our best local chefs reaches for a big, porcelain, flower-painted bowl for pasta at home because he’s “not quite sure how many bowls of her Sunday rigatoni and homemade ‘gravy’ my mother-in-law, Kitty, served out of that bowl over the years, but any pasta that I put into it tastes that much better.” Fellow journalist Bill swears by the tall Pilsner glasses his colleagues gave him years ago; they seem to make the cheapest beer taste delicious.
William votes for plastic. “When I was a kid, my favorite cereal bowl was a plastic treasure chest, complete with snap-tight lid and shovel-spoon, which I got thanks to my persistent loyalty to Cap’n Crunch. I swear breakfast cereal still tastes better from a plastic bowl than one made of any other material.” Helaine and her husband use a special rooster pitcher brought back from Italy with pleasure even though it pours poorly. Bettina says, “Since I take my time for a proper breakfast only on Saturdays and Sundays, the weekend feeling starts automatically when I take out my blue polka dot mug and German bread plate from the cupboard. They look just so lovely on a sunny morning.”
The second strand was what I’ve termed engineering; that is, some design feature matches the food to the container. A very large white ceramic mug with a huge handle and a top that is slightly larger than the bottom is the perfect size for a friend’s one gigantic cup of coffee in the morning. If she’s traveling, she’ll even bring it with her. For Simone, leftover Chinese tastes better in a fairly small china bowl with high, straight sides. She thinks it has to do with microwaving in the confined space so the ingredients are forced to meld.
Poet Fran Brent notices tea tastes different in glass, Wedgwood or her usual, a white porcelain mug. “The taste becomes balanced in the deep mug and I like the way it feels in my hands when I drink. The bouquet of flavors — tea, milk, sweetness — seems properly arranged by the cup’s shape.” My cousin Betty feels the same way about coffee. “Coffee is better in a mug, thick enough to let you suck up the coffee but not too heavy to hold.”
The most unique answer I received was from Michelle, wife and mother of musicians, who explains that her men choose a certain set of white Corelle bowls for their ice cream because they like the music of the spoon on these bowl. “And they make the sound on purpose when they spoon up the Chunky Monkey,” she says.
So in some universal ways, the favorite dish does enhance the pleasure of a favorite dish. You reach for the rough brown mug for the coffee but the fine blue one for cocoa. You choose Grandma’s flowered plates for the cookies but the sleek white ones for the salad. Notice your own thinking; those glassware makers are on to something.