Has an object ever given you an intense feeling of déjà vu? What about an object on a tv show? Well that’s what happened to me when I started binge watching Emergency! on Netflix a few years ago. I was convinced that I had seen Station 51’s lovely tropical dishes somewhere else. Did someone I knew as a kid have these dishes? I couldn’t figure it out. But I was enamored with them, and I had to find out more.
True, I had watched bits and pieces of the Emergency! when I was a kid, but it was off the air before I had graduated from Mr. Rogers territory, and my 1970s reruns of choice as a kid were usually The Brady Bunch , Little House on the Prairie, and Wonder Woman. I honestly had not watched much Emergency! until I rediscovered it a few years ago.
As I watched, my infatuation with the banana leaf dinnerware grew. Determined to find the pattern name, I began scouring the internet and queried other fans. Although I was initially unsuccessful, I kept spotting THE dishes (as I began calling them) on other shows produced by Mark VII Limited, like Dragnet and Adam-12. A friend also spotted them in the 1987 Mark Harmon classic Summer School. So I persisted, and eventually my Google image searches paid off.
These thick-walled dishes are restaurant ware, a sturdy category of ceramics that are designed for commercial use, mostly hotels and restaurants. If you are a fan of the mid century tiki aesthetic, check out 1950s and 1960s restaurant ware. Many patterns include kitschy palm trees, bamboo, and tropical flowers.
The pattern of my interest is called Shadowleaf (don’t you love that name?) and made by a California company called Wallace China. But wait, there’s more! The pattern was also produced by TEPCO (Technical Porcelain and China Ware Co.) and Wallace sued TEPCO over the similar pattern and name. After the lawsuit, TEPCO called the pattern Palm. Shenango China bought out Wallace in 1959 and also produced the pattern, so you will find the pattern produced by three different companies. Who would have thought there would have been so much drama surrounding dishes?
Taking my obsession one step closer to looney-town, I tried to analyze the maker’s marks on the bottom of the dishes. Despite my super sleuthing, and attempts to pause the show at just the right moment, I could never get a clear picture of the bottom of a mug or dish.
Content that I had somewhat solved the mystery, I purchased a couple of TEPCO coffee mugs and saucers, and one plate. This may seem like a strange thing to collect. Most Emergency! fans are probably interested in collecting action figures, autographs, or photos of their favorite characters. For me, however, the overall aesthetic of TV shows from the 1970s is a big part of what makes them fun to watch, and it’s great fun to make personal connections to the objects that make up those fictional worlds.
As a person who loves food and experimenting with recipes, I’m particularly drawn to the stories in Station 51’s kitchen. Emergency! was a show about firefighting and paramedics, and a damn good one at that, but Station 51’s kitchen was the setting for many personal moments. It’s where relationships were built and tested. Where the characters personalities (and all their quirks) really came out. The kitchen, mug of coffee in hand, is where they contemplated career changes or developed practical jokes. It’s where they experimented with new recipes or got talked into ridiculous crash diets. The kitchen was the center of the comedic moments that made this show more than just a procedural drama, and where food was intertwined with comradery.
Perhaps it wasn’t déjà vu after all, but the embodiment of all those stories and relationships that really drew me to these dishes. Certain objects have the power of connecting the present to the past, and the fictional to real life. It’s great fun to be able to share a cup of coffee with my spouse and bring a piece of that fictional world into my own.