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The History Behind Your Plate

Updated on April 7, 2016

Dinner Plates Have Come a Long Way

From flat shells to simple carved wooden bowls to slabs of hard bread to the modern porcelain we know today, plates have come a long way.

We use them every day, several times a day in fact. Dinner plates, bread plates, butter plates, dessert plates. But, have you ever sat down and thought about where your plate came from? Or, how it came to be?

I believe this to be one of the best simple inventions. The simple dinner plate.

banana leaf plate
banana leaf plate

The Earliest Plates

made by nature

It is thought that the earliest plates used by people would have been large leaves, gourd halves, or perhaps sea shells which would be used as simple bowls for holding food. Food items would be placed upon the large leaves or on other containers in the center of the eating area then eaten communally by all members of a tribe, family, or group.

People discovered early on though the uses of clay and made for themselves simple bowls, cups, jugs, and storage jars. Examples of the pottery dinnerware made by these early people can be seen in museums around the world.

The idea of individuals having their own plate to eat from is a fairly new idea. Originally in Europe food would have been brought to the table on platters and carved. People would then use their fingers to take what they wanted from the platters to eat. Breads and fruit would be placed in baskets on the floor for diners to help themselves.

wooden trencher
wooden trencher

Trenchers

and bread

Early trenchers would have been made of wood, earthenware, or metal. The most popular substance used for making trenchers though was bread. This lasted well into the 16th century.

These slabs of bread would be used to hold the meal, sauces, even salt for the diner. It was hard enough that the bread would be used as candle holders as well as being carved to hold food.

During a particularly elaborate meal, several trenchers would be carved for each diner. Well, they would be carved for the more important diners at the table. Those of lesser importance were expected to carve their own trencher from the nearest loaf.

Upon finishing the meal, bread trenchers would be thrown to the dogs to eat, or would be given outside to the poor as alms. After soaking up all the juices from the foods they would actually have been quite filling and nutritious. Certainly they would have been easier to chew.

It was a very hungry man indeed who would actually eat this bread. A very coarse flour would be used in the making of the breads then they would be left to sit and harden for several days before being sliced.

Wooden trenchers might also be used though less commonly than those of bread. These slabs were sometimes carved so that an indentation sat in the middle. More elaborate trenchers, such as pictured here, might have a smaller indentation carved for holding a salt cellar.

At the end of the meal, clean trenchers were expected when cheeses and other delicacies would be brought in.

It was from these smaller "dessert" trenchers that the modern dessert plate developed.

'Whanne chese ys brouhte, A trenchoure ha (have) ye clene On whiche withe clene knyf ye your chese mowe kerve.'

The Babees Book

Obama inaugeration plate
Obama inaugeration plate

From Pottery to Plastic

The evolution of a plate

Over the centuries plates have evolved into those we use today.

In the middle ages, those who could afford them bought plates of pewter. The lead used in making pewter would leach out though, especially when highly acidic foods were placed upon them, causing lead poisoning. One food which especially caused this was the humble tomato, hence the origins of the belief that tomatoes were poisonous.

The poorer people could not afford plates of pewter, so had trenchers of wood instead. Hygienic practices were not as they are today though and these trenchers generally weren't washed in between meals. The resultant bacteria and worms inside the wood caused people to develop mouth sores. This is where we get the phrase "trench mouth".

Over time, plates became more elaborate. They went from being made of pottery to pewter and other metals. As techniques progressed, plates were made from finer porcelain and china.

Today, you can find plates that are very plain to very ornate. Fancy meals might be served on the best china, but for every day meals many families use plates of unbreakable plastic.

Plates for a Fine Tea Party

Plates for a Fine Tea Party
Plates for a Fine Tea Party
bread bowl
bread bowl

Everything Old Is New Again

the rebirth of the bread trencher

Today you can dine off the finest china or a cheap paper plate. The trencher of bread is a thing of the past.

These days it is made to be eaten, but if you want, you too can eat your stew or other meal in a plate or bowl made from bread.

You can buy a ready made loaf and hollow it out to create a bowl. Round loaves of crusty bread work best.

Or, you can make your own.

Cook Time

  • Prep time: 1 hour 45 min
  • Cook time: 35 min
  • Ready in: 2 hours 20 min
  • Yields: Makes 8 bread bowls
5 stars from 1 rating of Bread Bowl

Bread Bowl

  • 2 packages active dried yeast
  • 2.5 cups warm water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablepoons vegetable oil
  • 7 cups plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon corn meal
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add salt, oil and 4 cups flour to the yeast mixture; beat well. Stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well with an electric mixer at medium speed after each addition.
  3. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 6 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 40 minutes.
  4. Punch dough down, and divide into 8 equal portions. Shape each portion into a 4 inch round loaf. Place loaves on lightly greased baking sheets sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, until doubled in bulk, about 35 minutes.
  5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). In a small bowl, beat together egg white and 1 tablespoon water; lightly brush the loaves with half of this egg wash.
  6. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Brush with remaining egg mixture, and bake 10 to 15 more minutes or until golden. Cool on wire racks.
  7. To make bowls: Cut a 1/2 inch thick slice from top of each loaf; scoop out centers, leaving 3/4-inch-thick shells. Fill bread bowls with hot soup and serve immediately.

Have you learned something new about plates?

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    • profile image

      Plate inven 8 months ago

      Plate invention was the best ever

    • profile image

      Yesterday 2 years ago

      Wow i learned sooo much on how plates work

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      most of my bowls, plates are free gift items from toothpaste, etc. Anyway, all of them are china made too

    • profile image

      Thomas J McCabe 2 years ago

      Very interesting hub. Now I want to utilize a banana leaf as a bowl.

    • NanLT profile image
      Author

      Nan 3 years ago from London, UK

      Make more days special occasions. :)

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting Hub. I have a set of very old china from my Mother that I only use on special occasions! I'd love to try to make the bread bowl.

    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 3 years ago from Corona, CA

      I guess people who live in the jungle are still using primitive plates and storage containers. This was a very interesting hub as I never thought about this until I saw this.

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 3 years ago

      Loving those wooden plates. Got them on the table when I went to Medieval markets in Belgium and France :) Thanks for the bread bowl recipe! Gonna give a try :D

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 3 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      This is so interesting. I'd never really thought about plates before reading this page.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 3 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Yes, I did learn something new about plates and sure appreciate it

    • orgaard lm profile image

      orgaard lm 3 years ago

      Wow, I love any thing to set a beautiful table. So this was a fun lens. I like the recipe for Treachers. That should be a fun thing to do with the kids. Or maybe my next dinner party service.

    • rattie lm profile image

      rattie lm 4 years ago

      I have made bread baskets with my students in the past. They loved the whole exrcise.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Yes, i have learned quite a lot about the early plates. imajorly, that it only makes me realise how important pottery is to the history of any people. Thank you so much for the great insight into early plates. Of course with pottery it definitely would have been different, the evidence of this discussion would have been clear and obvious for all to see

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 7 years ago

      You know, I don't think too many of us think about what it would be like without a plate to put our food on ... and I'm thinking those cast members from Survivor have figured it out.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 7 years ago from USA

      I've learned quite a bit. Thanks!

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 7 years ago

      Wonderful! I LOVE the bread bowl idea! Might try it one day - but only as edible decorating item! Great lens!

      Dom.

    • profile image

      seegreen 7 years ago

      Very nice. I quite like the wooden plates. Never owned any, but my parents had some nice wooden platters. They make me think of sitting down at the table with the family and lots of good home cooking.

    • Gamganny profile image

      Gamganny 7 years ago

      Yes I have, great lens on the history of the plate.

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 7 years ago from Canada

      Nicely done, Nan. Believe it or not, your history of the plate page has made me hungry.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 7 years ago from Central Florida

      It always seems festive to eat soup from a bread bowl. I never thought about it being a throwback to medieval peasant life.