Heart of a Hutch
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Feature image: A hutch like this one, crafted by Caracole in High Point, is the perfect place to display dishes (and pies) with pride.

Perfectly curved, and perfectly paired in neat rows, the cup hooks mutely accuse me whenever I walk by. I installed them myself, in what could reasonably be called a defacement to what could reasonably be called an antique: my hutch. Or corner cabinet, or pie safe, or china cupboard, or whatever you have squatting or hulking in your kitchen or dining area. Usually wooden, sometimes painted, probably nicked; perhaps with glass panes or chicken wire where glass might otherwise be, or punctured tin panels, or open shelving for easy access.

One day, I threw out the cups that hung there, and the matching saucers, too. The world had turned to mugs for coffee and cocoa and tea, and porcelain cups became props for PBS period dramas.

In my defense, the lowly hutch — not quite level, with a twice-folded index card that I Magic-Markered brown and wedged under one corner — filled up with other, more treasured, more oft-used stuff. Oft-used if you count birthdays and graduations and baptisms and holidays. My mother-in-law’s sterling bread-and-butter plates, thin and silvery as dimes, that I set pillar candles on. The clear dessert plates with my grandmother’s initials etched on the rims, nearly obscured by scratches from generations of forks scraping up the crumbs of carrot and coconut and pound cake slices.

The bottom shelves of the hutch are thankfully hidden. I spent an entire snowy Saturday lining them with Pacific Silvercloth, in the vain hope that I’d never have to polish silver again. There, the formal salt and pepper shakers stand guard over a jumbled pile of trays, though the salt shaker is blackened and pitted because I failed to empty it one Thanksgiving, and, well, salt and silver are not friends. Somewhere in the back is a silver baby spoon that is irreparably mangled from an accidental encounter with the disposal. Still, I keep it. It represents a time I can’t have back.

Hutches do that. The piece itself — be it passed down from a relative’s farmhouse or discovered at a yard sale — exemplifies a life lived. The constant opening and shutting, which has maybe left the door perpetually ajar, carries echoes of noisy meals, somber gatherings, celebratory occasions. Its contents, even more so.

The filigreed cake basket you scorned as a useless wedding present that, 34 years later, held the rose petals when your daughter got married. The cheap, chipped set of china from your early days of marriage. The pair of inherited Imari plates that you’re too afraid to use for anything whatsoever. Your mother’s gold-rimmed plates that can’t go in the microwave or dishwasher, but they’re not going anywhere else either, unless it’s over your dead body.

In this day of gleaming, brushed-steel appliances and sleek granite countertops, it’s good to have a comforting, off-kilter hutch. Good to recall the history and the memories contained behind its doors and on its shelves. And the collections inside.

Value is in the eye of the beholder: My cups and saucers went, but behind my relish tray remains a set of demitasse cups, surely more useless than all the rest of the hutch’s contents combined.

Nope. I’ll fill them with chocolate mousse for Thanksgiving dessert. Like silver and salt, chocolate and turkey don’t really go together. My blue-on-blue china will look out of place, too. No matter. Used daily or patiently awaiting the last Thursday in November, the humble hutch holds the useful, the forgotten, and the fondly remembered. And plenty that can’t be seen at all.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.