I love bowls. I own a lot of them — from pinch bowls that hold little more than a soupcon of salt to a glazed terra-cotta behemoth that my neighbor held on her lap on a plane all the way from Italy. One of my best friends owns a wooden bowl the size of a small Volkswagen that she hauls out every Halloween to hold 2,000 pieces of candy she gives to trick-or-treaters. Those kids’ faces light up when they see the size of that bowl, until they find out they get only one piece each.
Because let’s face it: A big plate piled with candy just isn’t appealing. A bowl has a bottomless quality, and the bigger the bowl, the better. Americans like big things, so bowls have become the vessel of choice. It’s getting so you can’t throw a Mason jar of overnight oats without hitting a bowl full of quinoa smothered in raw kale, dried cranberries and good intentions gone wrong. We even had to give it a name: “Bowl food.”
Bowls represent comfort in their rotundity. Our earliest memories include eating Fruit Loops or mac-and-cheese out of bowls emblazoned with images of Peter Rabbit. Whether filled with matzoh ball soup to feed a cold, or Chunky Monkey ice cream to soothe a broken heart, bowls are what we have turned to in times of crisis for generations.
Acai bowls, poke bowls, Buddha bowls. Nearly every fast-casual concept is built around a Rubenesque bowl made of paper or plastic: Line it with a grain, stabilize it with a protein, top it with a colorful array of customized vegetables or fruit. As America continues to struggle with its obesity epidemic, the bowl concept has flourished: Plates signify the meat-and-three mentality of yesteryear, while bowls seem to say, “I’m huggable and healthy!”
Because a bowl from KFC filled with mashed potatoes, fried chicken, gravy and three kinds of cheese has to be good for you. Right?
I worry about plates. What will engaged couples register for if not for a dozen delicate porcelain plates that they will only use once a year, at most, for the rest of their married lives? What will furniture makers design instead of plate racks?
We have a bias against plates. They are flat, and flat is bad. The only time flat is good is when it concerns a pancake, and pancakes are Instagrammable only when stacked on a plate, with maple syrup dripping artfully down. Then again, that stack isn’t so flat, is it?
The elevation of round over flat has sneakily been making headway into our vocabulary for decades. We are skeptical of the person who “flatly denies,” while giving a wink and a nod to the one who “roundly denounces.” A juicy pinot noir has a round finish, while a bouillabaisse without enough garlic and fennel is pronounced flat. Flat-earthers are, obviously, out of touch with the planet’s round reality.
There’s a place for plates, though, and I would hate to see it lost altogether. It’s hard to use a fork and knife in a bowl, but it’s a piece of cake with a plate. Plates can hold a piece of lasagna, plus salad and garlic bread, all at the same time. Bowls cannot, and should not. As British etiquette expert William Hanson has written, “Only dogs eat from bowls.” Of course, he also thinks Brussels sprouts shouldn’t be pan-fried in olive oil, and that’s just plain wrong. Plus, I love dogs and refuse to disparage their bowls, especially those cute ones hand-painted with primary-colored paw prints.
I blame ramen for the demise of plates. Or maybe it’s the Internet, or the global economy, or cheap airfare to the other side of the world, where Americans found out that ramen wasn’t just something you cooked in chipped coffee mugs in a microwave in a drunken state at 3 a.m.
And then, being Americans, we had to turn everything into a bowl of ramen, even though we’re too self-conscious to eat ramen properly by hunching over and slurping from the bowl. We made David Chang angry with our Pinterest-perfect ramen bowls, and even when he declared that ramen was dead, we didn’t listen. We instead started putting smoothies in bowls instead of cups, even though that defies the whole point of a smoothie.
Then Prince Harry married an American, and they served bowl food to Queen Elizabeth at their wedding reception in a royal palace.
And that, in a nutshell — which is, after all, just a tiny nut-shaped bowl — is why the rest of the world hates America. We can’t leave well enough alone. Italians have served caffe lattes in bowls for decades, which means that here in the United States, frappuccino bowls can’t be too far behind.
Until then, pass me a plate, please.
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