You Break It, You Replace It

Dear Helena,

Last night I was at my friend’s cocktail party and, trying to be helpful, I took their crystal punch bowl to refill it. On my way to the kitchen, I tripped, and it shattered. It turned out that the bowl had belonged to the hostess’s beloved great-aunt. I apologized profusely, but my husband says that’s not enough and we should try to replace it. What should we do? —Accidents Will Happen

Dear Accidents Will Happen,

Recently, I broke a plate that belonged to a friend’s dead father. I drunkenly insisted on taking the pieces home and, when sober, reassembled the plate with Super Glue. You could barely tell it had been broken. I felt quite proud of myself. But, says Sally Kimbel, who sells dishes on eBay, I shouldn’t have bothered. Glued-together plates are fine for display, but microscopic bits of food can get lodged in the cracks, the same way they can get stuck between your teeth. “Over time you’re not going to get that out. The clay is very porous,” she says.

So trying to fix it isn’t the answer. You need not offer to replace the item if it’s an ordinary wineglass, coffee mug, or dish. But if it’s something more precious, good manners require that you make every reasonable effort to do so.

Of course, even if you find an exact replica of someone’s dead uncle’s decanter, it won’t be the same one that generations of relatives have handled. But, says Mary Burnham, a food and wine writer in San Francisco, that’s not the point. She has 10 dinner plates that were part of her great-grandmother’s wedding china in the 1890s, and she would definitely expect a guest to replace one if he broke it: “Even if her fingers never touched it in the same way, it would remind me of her tastes and traditions and provide the same connection to the past.”

First, ask your host if he knows the name of the pattern and manufacturer. If not, snap a picture of the broken pieces with your phone. Photograph both the front and the back, where you’ll usually find a manufacturer’s stamp, says Scott Fleming, president of Replacements, Ltd. A matching service will typically identify the pattern for free.

You can order the piece from the service if you don’t mind paying a premium or if your need is urgent. Fleming recalls: “One young man called and said he was looking for a wineglass. He’d had a party and his parents had gone out of town. We had to send it overnight.” But if you don’t mind getting an item that may have some wear and tear, it’s much cheaper to trawl eBay.

But no matter how hard you look, some things simply can’t be replaced. Perhaps the item was handmade, or a new one is simply not within your budget—as in the case of this punch bowl. I don’t recommend sending the owner a gift certificate, much less a check. When a host is downcast about a broken teacup, it’s usually not the financial loss that’s upsetting him, and giving him cash is tacky. You’re better off with a contrite note and a small gift, like flowers.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.