Panic had left the man no room to be polite. An abrupt tap on my shoulder was all he could manage before getting down to business: “Is this a pasta bowl?”
It’s not the first time I’ve been singled out in a thrift store. My basket screams savvy second-hand shopper. When it comes to discerning trash from treasure, I have a knack for making sense of the great mess of other people’s stuff.
I turned to look at the man. He was in his mid-60s, lean with a great tuft of hair, some of which was standing straight on end. “It’s not exactly a pasta bowl,” I said, glancing at the ceramic soup bowl in his hand, “but you could use it for pasta, in a pinch.”
He shook his head, exasperated. “She wants six pasta bowls!” he exclaimed before turning on his heels and ordering me to follow: “Come,” he said, “come with me!” My natural instinct as concerns elders is obedience. So I did as I was told and followed the man to where the sets of dishes—or the remains of what were once sets of dishes—were stacked.
For the record, a pasta bowl is the perfect marriage of a bowl and a plate. It has enough depth to contain sauces and liquids, but is still shallow enough to maximize the noodle-to-cheese exposure ratio.
My stressed-out stranger was clearly in a rush, so I quickly began scanning the display, looking for something that might appease his wife—the “she” he had referred to earlier.
If you haven’t thrifted in a while, second-hand stores are overflowing with the late 20th-century’s most popular everyday dishware. It’s a tactile trip down memory lane, courtesy of the patterns of the past. Here Corelle’s Butterfly Gold might take you, quite unexpectedly, back to your grandmother’s kitchen, with a damp tea towel in your hand, wondering when you can go back outside and play.
“Maybe this will work?” I said to the man after much nostalgic rummaging, showing him a stoneware bowl—restaurant chic with squared edges.
“Are there six of them?” he asked.
“No,” I said, attempting to explain that the pasta bowl is a relatively recent phenomena and it’s rare for someone to dump a full set. “Somebody breaks one, and that’s when they come here. The best you can hope for is five.”
“She wants six!” he barked. No less and absolutely no more, which is why he vetoed my next two prospects, sets of six accompanied by other dishes his wife didn’t want or need. I suggested he try a discount retailer of new housewares where customer satisfaction includes selling things in even numbers. But this, too, was shot down. “My wife won’t hear of it,” he said. “Too expensive!” She had insisted he find a “bargain.”
I started to wonder what kind of scolding was in store for this man if he dared to go home without a perfectly matched, nearly free, set of six pasta bowls. It got me thinking about my own experience with domestic tyranny—equal measures giving and receiving—and the variety of forms it takes.
There’s the classic My Way Is The Only Way: reloading the dishwasher, reorganizing the couch cushions, rewashing the laundry because the right scent wasn’t spun into the wash. Do these behaviours qualify as sins of pride and arrogance?
This pasta bowl business was a clear-cut case of marriage’s Mission Impossible: where the database of possibilities is so vast and expectations are so high and precise that the probability of success is slim to none. It was like me sending my husband to buy pantyhose without an engineering systems diagram for help: “Does she want shapers or control tops, black or nightshade, sheer or opaque, medium or total control, sandal toe or reinforced?”
For nearly two decades now I have had a love-hate relationship with King Solomon’s virtuous woman (Proverbs 31:10–30). I have aspired to her strength of character but have seen the darker side of an obsession with industry and productivity in the worldly striving with which she can become conflated.
It is good to have strong arms to harvest abundant fruit, uphold high standards and prepare delightful and inventive pastas, but not if you’re going to beat your family about the head with them.
I once forced my husband to return three pounds of no-name butter because he lacked the intuition to know that local, freshly-churned butter was the only acceptable butter for holiday shortbread cookies. I rejected his gift—it wasn’t good enough for me. Food preparation had become an idol.
Back at the thrift shop, the 1970s knits were calling to me. I had offered my friend a diligent search and all known solutions to his pasta bowl problem, and so I did what any Good Samaritan might have done and quietly crept away.
I will never know if he achieved his mission. Company was coming that night, he’d said. His wife probably had to choose between plates or bowls. The perfect marriage between the two might have had to wait a little longer.