What We Made in America — and then screwed up

When I married Jim 10 years ago, the most emotional purchase we made together (for me) was a set of dishes.

I’d been married before, and the dishes I got as a wedding present so long ago are all still in perfect condition.  They were good quality, called “Ruska” — made in Finland — purchased at Neiman Marcus in Dallas by my father’s business partner.  In 8 years of a first marriage and 14 years as a single mom, only 1 bowl ever broke — and it was because I dropped it into the dishwasher just as the door to the DW was slamming shut, and it broke into 3 very clean, very large pieces.  It was not just ceramic, it’s brochure said — it was ironstone.

But it was dark brown and black and very austere looking pottery.  And it was an emotional anchor to a bad marriage and a lot of really hard years as a single parent.

About 3 years before I met Jim, when my son went off to college, I bought myself a small set of dishes that I dearly loved.  They were bright and pretty, and as warm and homey as the Ruska dishes were hard and cold.  I walked into a Williams Sonoma shop and there they were — waiting for me.  They were porcelain instead of pottery — fine and thin, and light as a feather compared to the old ironstone.  They were translucent.  Called Montgolfiere, the dinner plates were blue skies and puffy clouds over a countryside in rolling hills of farmland. 

The 4 salad plates were covered with 4 different fantastical hot air balloons in soft bright pastels.  The cups and saucers were the hot air balloons’ baskets on a saucer of more puffy clouds.  They were and are wonderful and happy dishes — and marked a kind of liberation from that heavy past I’d survived.

It was these Montgolfiere dishes Jim and I started out with when we first got married.  He had some dishes, but they were, like my Ruska set, anchored to the past. He’d been single a long time.  And my balloon dishes were very special to me because of what they represented — but they didn’t really represent US as much as they did ME.  They were a little “girlie” and fluffy.  And I really wanted some dishes that picked up and started fresh — like we had picked up and started fresh.

I looked a few places trying to find something that was right for us — something utilitarian and interesting without breaking the bank.  I didn’t want Walmart specials.  I didn’t want bone china or gilt.  I didn’t want strict utility like Tupperware or Corningware.  No “ware.”

Then I got a little book from Amazon.  Actually, I got in on a whim.  It purported to be about cooking and southern France, and art.  It was a very thin, hardcover-only book called The Secrets of Pistoulet.

Turns out, Pistoulet is a real Provencial place and a real inn — and looks quite a bit like the artist’s drawing of it.  The drawings were all done with the ochres that come from the nearby mountains (from the softest yellow to the purest earthen red) and ultramarine.  The motifs are olives and sunflowers and all the plants we all associate with southern France — that area where Van Gogh found so many of his paints and subjects.

Then I realized from the related links on Amazon that Pfaltzgraff — the gold standard for pottery/dishes in Pennsylvania for decades — had taken the author and artist’s artwork, created a palette, and produced an ever-expanding “match by mismatching” set of dishes.  A ceramic quilted pastiche of color.

In fact — it wasn’t a new set for Pfaltzgraff when I bought mine — this is/was one of their most popular lines of dishes.  And for good reason.  Bright.  Sunny yellows velvety custard yellows, and clear ultramarines.  Intense color.  Really lovely.  And with different designs from one end of the line to the other.

The bowls (and there are many) are all in different patterns and designs and sizes and shapes — because the bulk of the recipes in the little book are for soups.  Soup and bread is the meal at the little Inn at PIstoulet — and so there is a mix and match quality to everything Pfaltzgraff made(makes) under that name.  It’s part of the point and structure of the story.  So there are a dozen or more shapes and kinds of bowls to serve in!  And a variety of turine sizes and shapes and designs.

But they match because of the palette.

Or they did.

I have a good selection of bowls and medium-sized plates in this pattern from Pfaltzgraff. I really like the French green earth color and the olive and tiny five-petal flowers.  Even the occasional aubergine or beet.  There are platters with the inn in the bright sunshine, and cups surrounded by sunflowers.  There’s even a cheese plate with goblets of wine painted into it.  Swirls of blue and intense red ochre and egg-yolk yellow clay.  And a shallow pasta bowl with a pocket watch keeping time under whatever pasta you decide to put there.

And they make me happy.  They’re fun to eat hot soup and home-made bread from because so much thought and intention went into producing them.  And because I’ve read the book, they also carry the intention of the story with them.  They are like eating off the illustrations in a child’s storybook.

Then a couple of years ago, the owners of Pfaltzgraff — for whatever reason — decided to get out of the dish business.  I don’t know if they died off, or if the economy chased them off, or whatever else may have happened.  But they sold their business.  And they sold it to people who had no intention of keeping up the high quality of Pfaltzgraff’s brand.

And it shows most in the Pistoulet dishes………………………………………………….

The palette is no longer true to the natural ochres from the mountains and hillsides of Provence.  I know ochre — and these dishes are painted with chemical imitations of natural ochre.  Even the ultramarine isn’t ultramarine — but instead is a garish substitute.

And they stopped using the paintings from the book as the source for what is painted onto the dishes.

The pottery is thicker but lighter — that means more porous and thus easier to break.  The reason my ironstone and my porcelain were so hard to break was because there is so little air to weaken then internal structure of the piece.  The glazes were hard fired and sturdy.  But the new Pfaltzgraff Pistoulet dishes chip and ding just going in and out of the dishwasher.  It overheats (very quickly) in the microwave — which means there are metals either in the paints, the glaze, or the pottery itself.

And the new designs are created by someone with absolutely no artistic sensibility.  The shapes are bulky and off balance.  The lids make pieces top-heavy and the pottery is just — cheap.  In the worse sense of the word.

Pfaltzgraff has been part of the landscape of dinner tables in this country for several generations.  It was made here, designed here, and used here. I don’t know if they were nice people, but I suspect they must have been.  Family business only lasts if it takes care of its employees and neighbors.  And customers.

Now, the original formulas have gone the way of so many other family recipes and businesses.  People half-a-world away don’t care if their product lasts because they want us to replace often.  People half a world away don’t care if the paint or glaze is brittle or ugly or even unhealthy.  Their concern is with fast, cheap, and $$$.

Once again, my bottom line is that I’m tired of unhealthy capitalism.  I’m tire of just making quantity without making quality.  I’m tired of the buyer and the seller being so dissociated from each other that the seller stops caring what we want, and tries to force us to want what they have to sell.  I’m tired of pushy, greedy, snake-oil.  I’m tired of corporations rather than people.

I’m tired of “it’s not personal — it’s business.”

I want to be able to buy a piece or two of Pistoulet without having it break or chip the first time I use it or wash it.

I’m tired of brand-names being bought up by “investors” who have no interest in capitalism except the bottom line — to the extent that they make the reputation and hard work of the generations who built the company — worthless.  Just bloody worthless.

I’m tired of golden parachuted CEOs hitch-hiking from one brand name to another — squeezing all the $$$ they can get from past glory and past reputation and the goodwill with customers they never had anything to do with… only to jump ship or move on as soon as the current state of the goods is so bad that the $$$ dries up.

Better to just let a brand name die than to let it be run into the ground by corporate greed, or lost in the shuffle of so many other merged and acquired –and acquired again — small but worthwhile businesses.

I’m getting tired of worn out and sickly versions of capitalism.

Instead of creating something wonderful and strong and beautiful and useful and selling it for a fair and honest price — so much of what we now know as capitalism is based on how many people can be hustled before the truth gets out.  Whether it’s prescription drugs that have circumvented the needed testing, or foreign made baby toys with lead paint and sharp edges, or dog food full of ground up melamine (plastic) — the point has become to cheat and trick consumers into buying what they don’t need, don’t want, can’t afford, and can’t expect to last.  The point has become to lie to as many people as possible as fast as possible and then run with the money. Capitalism hasn’t always been a pyramid or a ponzee scheme — but that’s what we’ve made it into.

The US didn’t invent capitalism — but we sure found the fast track to corrupting it.  Pfaltzgraff used to make dishes like The Finnish company, Arabia made dishes — someting unique and different and creative.  Now Pfaltzgraff shares its brand name with the corrupted version of Farberware pots and pans and a dozen un-named labels of kitsch and kitchen gadgets — the stuff you get from dollar stores and outlet mall house-ware stores.

It’s not that we’re now making stuff badly — it’s that we opted out of making anything at all, and turned that dirty work over to countries that can “make it cheaper” — and we work very hard to not know how and why it’s cheaper.

Shame on us.

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One thought on “What We Made in America — and then screwed up

  1. Thank you for your kind words about my book and the original Pistoulet dinnerware collection by Pfaltzgraff. It was a joy to create and loved working with all the people who cared so much. The original development team went to France with me to experience Pistoulet. They paid for the trip out of their own pockets as they were so excited by the project and a big travel experience was not in the budget.
    I will pass your comments on to the people now in charge of production.
    There are people who still care. It is just harder spotting them when the organization becomes such a large entity.
    I am very sympathetic to your cause.
    Jana

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