The world of kitchen utensils is extremely diverse. From spatulas and whisks to air fryers and slow cookers, there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to the breadth of kitchen utensils, their uses, and designs. How then would we define tools like the salt and pepper shakers? They’re not just decorative and they have a function beyond aesthetic appeal, so they’re considered a “tool”, but could we ever equate salt and pepper shakers and Instant Pots in the same breath?
In all Western countries, salt and pepper shakers are commonplace on almost every kitchen or dining room table. In most cases, salt and pepper are among the only seasonings that simply stay on the table forever.
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That said, for some, sprinkling a little salt and pepper on your meal can be an insult. It’s basically like saying to the cook, “Sorry, but that’s not to my liking. Let me improve it myself.” Likewise, in a restaurant, a diner must feel secure in the seasoning prowess of the chef and the kitchen. After all, you’re paying to have your food cooked, so you should expect proper seasoning skill. Still, the presence of salt and pepper shakers remains a mainstay on most kitchen and dining room tables.
Given all this, how did the salt and pepper shaker set come about? Has he ever laid more functionality in the actual kitchen than he does now? Is the functionality of salt and pepper shakers now outweighed by their aesthetic or nostalgic appeal? If so, does it primarily offer a decorative element in the vein of a fun seasonal item, holiday eve, wedding favor – or does it manage to encompass all of the above?
Origins of seasoning
John Mason – also the originator of the Mason jar – is thought to have invented shakers in the mid-1800s, as noted by Ten Random Facts, but shakers did not become widespread and manufactured until the 1920s. Mason’s original invention was idealized to “contain salt which [be] evenly distributed … over the food, shaking it through several holes punched in a pewter stopper,” as noted by Our Everyday Life. However, this ingenuity only really took shape after Morton added magnesium carbonate to the salt to ensure The Smithsonian notes that one of the first “fine quality” shakers was created in the early 1920s. by a German pottery maker named Goebel.
Hundreds of years ago, salting your food was a laborious process: the salt was usually stored in a cellar and broken into large clumps before being sprinkled on dishes. Soon after, salt began to be collected in small bowls and placed on the table with a spoon, which also added a customizable element to a meal. You can actually “salt to taste”. As previously reported, Morton Salt then, according to the Smithsonian, “introduced magnesium carbonate…which prevented clumping and allowed salt to be poured from a sealed container.” This changed the future of salt and resulted in a stable, reliable product that would not become lumpy or unattractive over time.
Hundreds of years ago, salting your food was a laborious process: the salt was usually stored in a cellar and broken into large clumps before being sprinkled on dishes.
Journal of Antiques notes that salt cellars once contained a kind of block that was used to grind or break the salt into pieces in the event that it clumped. After Morton’s discovery, this piece was phased out, and as modern ceramics became more widespread and commonplace, shakers exploded in popularity – eventually becoming collector’s item, keepsake, favor or collectibles that they are today.
Brass Armadillo, a Des Moines-based antiques mall, says shakers were initially ubiquitous in restaurant kitchens and rarely seen in a home kitchen after their first development. Salt and pepper shakers have quickly become a go-to souvenir option for many families. It doesn’t hurt that they tend to be very budget-friendly (among avid collectors, however, it is said that some high-quality, unique, or vintage shakers can fetch exorbitant prices!).
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As Smithsonian notes, the majority of salt shakers contain one hole, while pepper shakers tend to have two or three. Interestingly, the Smithsonian also states that “it was the Great Depression…that greatly boosted the popularity of salt and pepper shakers as household items and collectibles”, perhaps due to the fact that most were ceramic and were very affordable.
All about salt
Of course, salt is arguably the most important ingredient in any dish. It boosts flavors that otherwise lie dormant, it adds saltiness that permeates, it enhances the flavors of other complementary ingredients, and it helps to deepen the taste of any dish, whether savory or sweet. In addition to seasoning food, salt also plays an important role in brining and preserving food, which was paramount in the days before refrigeration.
This BBC Ideas video notes that salt is “essential to life and has been used since prehistoric times”, noting that it is “one of the earliest food industries and one of the most important in the world”. (Fun etymology note: The Roman word “sal” for salt is also the basis for salary and salad, both of which would have been named in conjunction with salt.)
Salt is arguably the most important ingredient in any dish.
The History Vault dates the production and consumption of salt to 450 BC in China, while pepper originating in India has been “exported from South Asia for around 4000 years”. Before shakers and grinders, pepper was prepared in a mortar and pestle before being served or used in cooking. It is also believed that excessive seasoning was used to “disguise the flavor of the rancid meat” in pre-chill times, unappetizing as that may sound.
NPR notes that salt was once incorporated into a tabletop meal in a unique way: a meat carver — known as a trinciante — would carve meat, letting the slices of meat fall onto each restaurant’s plates, then “Dip the end of the knife in salt and scrape it off the restaurant plate,” according to NPR. Fascinating, but it clearly took a lot of work. The invention of the shaker helped make seasoning an individual and simple task.
The importance of pepper
Peppermate notes that the pepper mill “was invented by Peugeot of France in 1842”. The peppercorn is said to have helped “distinguish between sweet and salty” and was often used in tandem with salt – and rarely with other spices or seasonings – to add a refined flavor and seasoned with dishes.
Varieties of pepper, such as cayenne pepper, were also used, but not as commonly. Morton’s invention of “easy-flow” salt helped influence the development of today’s shakers, which require only a flick of the wrist to spruce up your food, as opposed to sparingly sprinkling crystals of salt from a spoon or the tip of a knife. Pepper mills have replaced shakers in some cases, especially as time has passed, and with more and more recipes calling for “freshly ground black pepper” (via BBC Foods).
BBC Foods also interestingly notes that pepper came to be known as the ‘melancholy’ spice, so many opted for the ‘bloodier’ spices instead – until myriads French chefs are beginning to incorporate black pepper into a swathe of classic French dishes, and this inclusion has begun to permeate the wider culinary world.
Pepper is always best when freshly ground. Once dried and ground, the spiciness begins to dissipate, so a freshly ground start gives tangy, pungent pepper notes, which is why “freshly ground black pepper” is a nomenclature that has spread with such fervor.
A package ?
While some consider “salt and pepper” as a whole, it’s important to note that they are inherently different ingredients – salt is something that can (and should) be added to virtually anything , while pepper can add a sharp note and sharpness that would not be very welcome in a wide range of dishes. Of course, that didn’t stop “salt and pepper shakers” from being marketed as a two-in-one item or set. In addition, it is also important to note that a “pepper mill” and a grinder or pepper mill are two very distinct elements.
Modernity – and what is to come
Did you know that there is even a salt and pepper museum in Tennessee and it has over 20,000 pairs of shakers? According to Wide Open Eats, the museum was opened in order “to display the societal changes depicted in salt and pepper shakers.” The Smithsonian notes that the collection includes “big heads, ruby red tomatoes, bearskin guards, Santa’s feet sticking out of a chimney, guns and potatoes…” and many more besides.
Nowadays, shakers have been modernized. There are electric pepper mills, as well as specialized salt shakers with a grinding function. In addition, the number of salt and pepper products has increased more and more, which adds yet another element to the shaker talk. For many, however, reliable ceramic night lights can’t be beaten.
The longevity of the salt and pepper shakers remains to be seen, but I would be comforted by the thought that my loved ones would feast on a robust Thanksgiving meal in the future, with assorted turkey shakers in a starring role on the landscape of holiday table. I grew up with those familiar and nostalgic shakers, and may your table be adorned with turkeys, Santas, snowmen, or whatever other ceramic delights are customary in your family. They are clearly much more than just a container for seasoning. A nostalgic relic, salt and pepper shakers are both functional tools, antiques and keepsakes, fully encompassing each area.
I can only hope that ornate, decorative, or even absurd shakers — both holiday-themed and not — will continue to hold a special place on the dining room and kitchen tables of the future.
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