Scriptive Things Again

As promised in my post of June 22, I embark now on an exploration of how novelty salt and pepper shaker sets like those in my collection might be illuminated by means of Robin Bernstein’s concept of “scriptive things.”  So what scripts for performance by their potential users do such shakers imply or invite?

I’ll start with the absolute basics. In offering their users instant access to salt and pepper on the dining table, they occupy a strangely intermediary point in the cooking/eating process. The other flavouring components of the dishes we eat have already been inserted into them by whoever did the cooking, and so things like sugar or garlic or parsley remain in the prep area and off the dining table.  It is up to the cook to decide which of those seasonings and how much of them each dish ought to have–and a cook might well be angry at guests who brought bottles of garlic salt or ground oregano to the table with them and then sprinkled these things on their food before eating it, or threw a few spoonfuls of the coffee creamer into the bouillabaisse.  The dish is meant to be complete already–except, apparently, for salt and pepper.  So salt and pepper represent a volitional part of the cooking and eating process–a halfway point at which the diner takes on part of the role of the food preparer and in a way, claims a portion of the food on the table by placing an individual stamp upon it–no longer just what the chef prepared, but now what the chef prepared with an additional level of salt and/or pepper added to it.  Why is that?  How do salt and pepper come to be on the table, and how is it that we take their presence there for granted, as just the way things are and ought to be?   What social or cultural assumptions underline that practice?  What hidden or historical scripts are represented by a container of salt and a container of pepper on a dining table?

I don’t actually know the answer to those questions–although I’m pretty sure that they could be found in histories of food and eating and table manners and dining customs.  And especially in the vast and complex cultural history of how and why we choose to season our food, and how those seasoning practices express specifics of cultural understandings.  Certainly, the presence of salt on the table has had a long history; it preceded the invention of shakers sometime in the 19th century, before which the table salt came in little dishes called salt cellars: But why that should have happened–why these two additions to food should have been singled out as the ones allowed on the actual dining table–I do not know.

What I do know is, first, that their presence on a table implies something special about them, something that makes them different from other seasonings.  One obvious difference might be that unlike a lot of other spices and seasonings, neither salt nor black pepper require cooking before we eat them.  But I’m sure there’s more to it than just that–even other seasonings that don’t require cooking, like, say, cinnamon or nutmeg, usually remain off the table.  Indeed, the difference between salt and pepper and other seasonings seems to imply something about the appropriate range of individual taste in relation to what we are required to share with others (i.e., we usually are not being invited to add more oregano to the pasta marinara we’ve been served, since there usually isn’t an oregano shaker on the table; but we are being invited to choose our own levels of salinity and pepperiness). In other words, taste in salt and pepper is acknowledged to be individual, and so, a sign of individual differences; the fact that your like more salt than I do or than the cook already put in is both a sign of your individual distinctiveness and an acceptable marker of a right to such individual distinctions.  But it is also clearly, a marker that marks a fairly narrow range of behaviour.  To add more salt to one’s soup is a sign of acceptable individuality. To add more garlic or cloves from a bottle you keep handy in your pocket, or to head off to the kitchen to get more ground cumin, is merely a sign of eccentric oddity.  And that also might imply that personal taste in saltiness and pepperiness is somehow more significant than personal taste in cloves–perhaps as a more visible and more readable social marker of difference.  Although that’s a bit of a circular argument–taste in salt and pepper has social significance because salt and pepper are there on the table and one’s use of them is public and on display–but one’s use of them is public and and display presumably because they have social significance.

History might also tell us more about how it is that salt, specifically, and pepper, specifically, came to be the seasonings that have this special status.  The histories of salt available online make claims for its significant role in the development of civilization (since it could be used to preserve meat and thus allowed survival and settling down) and especially for its preciousness in various periods.  Pepper histories make similar claims about the expensiveness of pepper; according to a Wikipedia article. “Peppercorns were a much-prized trade good, often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money”–although where and when this happened is not specified.  So perhaps having these substances freely available on your table remains as the remnant of earlier cultural signals of one’s sophistication and one’s wealth and one’s hospitality?  Providing salt and pepper shakers on a table might then represent an attempt to make your dinner guests comfortable by allowing them some discretion about the flavours in the food your provide for them–an act of hospitality; and choosing to use the shakers might be a matter of enacting the performance of accepting the hospitality and feeling free to be an individual with individual tastes that their script implies.  Or, I suppose, not free exactly–merely free to enact a performance of individual taste that represents good manners in a social situation.

But what I’ve said up this point could apply to any and all salt and pepper shakers–including boringly utilitarian ones that don’t represent anything else, plain glass or metal recdptacleas of the sort that don’t actually appear in my collection.  So next, then, I have to explore the more specific scriptiveness of the kinds of novelty salt and pepper shakers I do collect–the kind that represent other things.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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