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How Potlucks Inspired Our Favorite Porcelain Paper Plates

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Makers are at the heart of the Food52 Shop, and we love to share their stories—so we partnered with our friends at Pure Leaf Iced Tea to feature a few in their Traveling Tea House.

Whether they're cradling a hot dog or quivering beneath the weight of barbecue chicken, paper plates are cheap and disposable—they're not, however, sustainable. But what if they were? What if, instead, these "paper" plates were porcelain, individually crafted so no two plates were alike, and with curled edges for sturdy stacking? Enter: Virginia Sin's porcelain paper plates.

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Photos by James Ransom

The plates are her brainchild—Virginia's the founder of SIN, a Brooklyn-based design company established in 2008. Besides having won sustainable design awards (more on that below), her porcelain paper plates are used at Eleven Madison Park—and here at Food52. In our test kitchen, you'll find them being used as a prop to showcase a rather genius lentil salad or a pulled pork sandwich piled high with slaw. You could say it's a test kitchen MVP. However, they're also well-suited on a dinner table or kitchen counter, where their whimsical-yet-homey feel—right down to the ridged edges—fits right in.

Virginia says she founded her company as a way to make her memories tangible—which means her porcelain paper plates are more than a permanent version of the cookout staple. They're inspired by childhood memories and meals where having seconds and thirds was only natural. Below, we asked Sin to share with us the plates' backstory, which involves a little friendly family competition—and a lot of garlic-scallion chicken. Here's how the porcelain paper plates came to be:

Photos by James Ransom

What was the inspiration for the plates?

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The plates were inspired by my childhood memories. Coming from a large Chinese (Cantonese) family, eating and watching the adults play mah jong brought us all together at every special event or holiday. These potlucks were held at my grandparents' house and dishes were served on a 5-foot wide lazy Susan my grandpa built from scratch. Each dish was a labor of love, prepared for hours by one of my aunts or uncles.

Being the only girl cousin in the family, we got pretty rough and rowdy when it came to eating. The only rule of the game: My grandpa was always the first to eat. The second he placed a piece of food on his paper plate, the rest of the family would go crazy. We would compete to see who would snatch the best cut of the garlic-scallion chicken, usually a dark meat section, and who could overload their paper plate the most with a giant mound of food.

9 Chinese-Inspired Chicken Recipes to Make at Home (Tonight!)
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Despite the intricate flavors of the wood ear mushrooms or the pickled lily flowers in the clay pot rice dish, we all ate off of these paper plates. We would still use the same paper plate, even after we went for seconds or thirds. Because everyone in my family had pretty big appetites, by the end of the meal, the paper plates would be weighted down, warped, and asymmetrical. The lived-in state of the paper plate was the final form I chose to translate in the porcelain rendition.

Plates that take the cake.
Plates that take the cake. Photo by James Ransom

What makes the design unique?

The warped lip acts as a perfect handle and creates an interlocking form when the plates are stacked. Also, the original porcelain paper plates were porcelain paper clay, a concoction I made from shredding actual paper plates and mixing this into a liquid porcelain slurry. Once the material was malleable enough to wedge and run through the slab roller, I would then run an actual paper plate through the slab roller to indent the slab of clay with the paper plate form and paper creases.

None of these processes are traditional to ceramics—and not having a formal background in ceramics was helpful in allowing me to play and experiment with material and processes.

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Porcelain Paper Plate

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Porcelain Coffee Filter Bowl

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So, what sorts of awards have the plates won? They look museum-worthy.

The plates were recently acquired by the New York Historical Society Museum for their 20th and 21st century objects collection. They won Design Within Reach's "Most Sustainable" in the Modern + Design + Function Competition back in April 2007 and were nominated for the Cooper Hewitt's National Design Awards People's Design Award in 2008.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

What else do you love about these plates—when do they come up in your own life?

I like that the plates are fit for the everyday and for every occassion. Whether it's a potluck at my grandparent's house, reheating a slice of leftover pizza, or serving caviar on it, the plates feel timeless and relevant. I personally use them at home every day and I find the form to be a more interesting option than a standard white plate.

Find Virginia's work in our Shop, and at the Pure Leaf Iced Tea Traveling Tea House in Chelsea, New York on April 29th and 30th.

Tags: pure leaf, porcelain paper plate, virginia sin