Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What the Devil is That?

QUESTION: My mother left me her collection of deviled egg plates. While I’ve eaten deviled eggs at parties and picnics, most of time they’re served on a regular dinner plate or in a plastic Tupper Ware-like container. How did these plates originate? And are they still collectible today?

ANSWER: Deviled egg plates are a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s when hostesses entertained in a more formal manner. It was also not long ago when eggs were a desirable food, especially when they were served deviled on ornate plates made especially for that purpose. Happy housewives back then didn’t have a guilt trip about whether her gourmet delights would clog the arteries of her dinner guests.

What the devil are deviled eggs? Various dictionaries and food encyclopedias trace the history of the devil egg to 18th century England. People began using the term “deviled”  to describe kidneys and other meats served hotly spiced. Most sources accepted the comparison to heat and the fires of Hell, resulting in the adjective deviled.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, hostesses served deviled eggs at all sorts of occasions, from finger food at outdoor barbecues and picnics to appetizers at fancy sit-down dinners. Down South, no proper home was without an deviled egg plate. A North Carolina businessman, who grew up in the 1950s, remembers his mother always putting out two platters of deviled eggs when receiving guests. And deviled eggs became a standard dish at church suppers.

Though egg plates came in a wide variety of shapes and designs, all shared a common feature—a series of half-egg shaped depressions in which deviled eggs could be nested. But despite a centuries-old history of the deviled egg, most museums don’t have any pre-19th century egg plates in their collections. The decorative egg plate seems to have peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

Deviled eggs reached new heights with proliferation of cocktail parties from the 1940s to 1960s producing an explosion of decorative egg plates during that period. The 1970s, however, marked the end of egg plate’s hey day. 

One of the most popular motifs for egg plates were hens, roosters and chicks. There were trays decorated with hens, shaped like hens or with figural hens, salt and pepper shakers. Small oval plates with matching hen shakers can easily be found in the ochre and avocado colors of the 1970s. Manufacturers also produced plates of other designs with matching salt and pepper shakers. A plate with deviled egg depressions plus two small, flat rimmed depressions is likely one that’s missing its shaker mates.

Multipurpose plates often have space for dips, relishes or other finger food in addition to the deviled eggs. Creative hostesses often place a salad, salad dressing, or relishes in the center of these plates, decorated with a hand-painted hen and rooster decorated egg plate.

Collectors often follow a decorating theme, gathering only those plates embellished with hens or flowers or plates with matching` shakers, etc. Others are more eclectic, preferring highly decorative or unusually shaped egg plates. Flowers, such as roses and violets, matching the china patterns and tastes of the times were quite popular, as were those with fruit or vegetable themes to correspond with kitchen and dining decor. The most commonly found glass egg plates are the ones of blue and green Carnival glass, made by the Indiana Glass Company.

People often confuse egg plates with oyster plates. Deviled egg plates have perfectly oval depressions with smooth edges while oyster plates have jagged edges and slightly kidney shaped depressions. The majority of egg plates are made of heavier china or stoneware, while oyster plates are more commonly found in fine porcelain and majolica. Generally, oyster plates are older, frequently dating from the mid- to late 19th century.

Prices for egg plates vary widely. Fine china and elegant glass egg plates seem to command the highest prices, the market apparently being driven more by the porcelain or glass pattern collectors than egg plate devotees. Many egg plates can be found for under $30, but values for ornate examples or those made by elegant glass or well-known pottery manufacturers can be much higher.

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