Words by Sonia Rao, The Washington Post
Plates in the Rao household each served a specific purpose: Compartment plates prevented South Indian curries from flowing into one another; those with a raised edge made it easier to pour raita all over spicy biryani; flat ones were good for liquid-free meals, such as aloo paratha with a side of mango pickle.
We kept all three types stacked high in a kitchen cabinet, a potentially disastrous placement for clumsy kids looking to set the table each night. But these weren’t any plates. They were Corelle, the seemingly indestructible kind still found in immigrant households across the country.
If the brand name doesn’t ring a bell, the Butterfly Gold pattern, especially popular in the 1980s, just might. The parents of my first-generation friends served dinner on these plates, bordered with alternating images of butterflies and flowers when I had sleepovers at their homes. Similar ones – with different borders, often still floral – could be found in several of my relatives’ pantries, or even in the college dorm rooms of first-gen kids whose families insisted they pack the lightweight dishes from home to save money.
“I have the Morning Blue ones,” said Kevin Nguyen, the 24-year-old child of Vietnamese immigrants. “I asked a bunch of my friends about that, too, and they were like, ‘Corelle?’ Then they were like, ‘Oh, I had that one!’ They probably look generic to us because everybody had them.”
Immigrants aren’t the only ones who use the plates, of course. People whose families have been here for multiple generations might remember them from their grandmother’s house, while plenty of others are still buying them; Corelle reps say it remains the largest dinnerware brand in the country. But in immigrant households, Corelle takes on an added significance. The widespread notion that these were the plates to buy after you move to the United States make them a distinct physical representation of assimilation.
“[If] I want to express my American assimilated identity, then I use very symbolic American brands to express that – I buy Tide, and I buy Coke and Nike,” said Carlos Torelli, a business professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who studies cross-cultural consumer behavior.
Corelle could be viewed as such a brand. It launched in 1970 with white plates and added four patterns throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Butterfly Gold hit its peak a few years later, according to Business Insider, which noted that 35 percent of American households had Corelle dishes in the late 1980s.) The highly regarded brand could be found everywhere from dollar to department stores at the time, contributing to its reputation as what Kathy Clark, category portfolio director for dinnerware, called “an accessible premium.”
My mother, 52, bought a 20-piece set of Corelle’s “triple-layer strong glass” dishware for just $15 from a Denver store going out of business a few years after she moved from India in 1989. The plates and bowls, decorated with an intricate blue pattern, made it through several moves to my parents’ current home in Illinois.
“We buy Corelle because that’s the first thing Indians do when they come here,” she said. “They just buy them because, at that time, they were really popular.”
So very popular that Kirti Patel, who left India in 1993, has grown sick of her Corelle dishware. She bought it from a now-closed Korean store two blocks away from her house in Los Angeles that sold an extensive supply of products by Corelle and its sister brand CorningWare: plates, cereal bowls, salad bowls, cups, casserole dishes and more. Patel, 43, tried throwing her red-patterned dinnerware out “because everyone has it,” but to no avail.
“You are so used to it, so you cannot let it go,” she said.
Corelle is a trusted brand across many cultures, according to Torelli, 53, who moved to the United States with his wife in 2003. The couple had a set of Corelle dinnerware in Venezuela, as the brand developed a strong global presence over time. When people move to a new country, he said, their socioeconomic level often leads them to purchase solid products they are already familiar with, to minimize risk and maximize durability.
The same goes for gifts. Nguyen’s parents, who left Vietnam during the war and eventually wound up in the Bay Area, received their first set of Corelle dishware as a housewarming gift around 2003. They have used them ever since, said Nguyen, who remembers sneaking dinner up to his room on a Corelle plate so he could play computer games – against his parents’ wishes. One night, he took his food upstairs while home alone, and disaster struck.
“When I got to the top of the stairs, I slipped,” he said. “Food everywhere, drink everywhere. So the glass of my drink broke but, of course, the plate didn’t.”
Speaking from experience, these are the kind of plates you can accidentally bang on a granite countertop without breaking. Movers recently dropped a box of my sister-in-law’s kitchen stuff and everything inside broke, save for her Corelle dishes.
As Nguyen put it, “They’re the old-school Nokia phones of dishware.”
Feature Image: Stacy Zarin Goldberg and Styling by Amanda Soto for The Washington Post