Skin or Mask?

Here is another example of a set of shakers that exudes an intriguing ambiguity. It represents a clown, clearly, accompanied by a drum. Why a drum? I have no idea. Perhaps the drum originally came from a different shaker set–although the color tones do suggest these two do belong together. But that’s not the source of the ambiguity. The source of the ambiguity is the clown’s face.

It’s a clown in blackface. Or, wait, maybe it just a clown of African descent, depicted without his makeup. Perhaps he hasn’t put his makeup on yet and he will soon appear under the big top in whiteface–after all, he seems to have grey hair, and surely fully dressed clowns would never wear grey wigs, so that there is still another wig to come. Or, wait, maybe it’s a clown of African descent who has already put his makeup on,and his makeup is a sort of blackface on top of his real pigmented skin.

One way or the other, the face is a version of the one anyone familiar with salt-and-pepper depictions of African Americans will have learned to expect: the fat, bright pink lips dominate–although the equally pink nose does seem to be a more definite indication of a clown face (unless it’s an alcoholic African American with the stereotypical very shiny nose). Since similar faces are found on shakers that do not represent clowns, it might well be just a stereotypical attempt to depict an actual African-American. But since this one does represent a clown, it might just be an attempt in makeup to create an artificial version of that stereotype. It might be a white guy in blackface. And the odd fact that it might just as easily be either of these two quite different things is the essence of its ambiguity. Not the raw and the cooked exactly,but the real and the imitation for sure. The ambiguity is intriguingly revealing of the phoniness and inaccuracy of the stereotype. Even when it isn’t attached to the idea of clowning, the stereotype is essentially a sort of clowning, an imposition of masquerade which, as in the case of the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose shakers I discussed in an earlier post, purports to represent reality in a way that seriously diminishes it.

More on Veggie People

Copacetically, just after I’ve just been talking in my last post about salt-and-pepper radishes humanized with human eyes, another blog that is also focused on salt and pepper shakers offers a recent newspaper article about “veggie people”–anthropomorphic depictions of humanized vegetables from a century ago, found on cards and other places, including,eventually, salt and pepper sets. The blog post, from Pinch, Shake, and Grind: Adventures in Salt and Pepper Shaker Collecting, can be found here:

The blog is produced by “the world’s only salt and pepper shaker museum,” located in Gatlinburg, TN:

And this is the newspaper article:


Since I began writing this blog, I’ve become aware of how difficult it is to get much sense of the history of novelty salt and pepper shakers–who had the idea of producing them, when, and why. I know shakers like the ones in my collection were imported from Japan and other Asian nations around the middle of the last century–but that’s about all I know: I can’t seem to find much in the way of books about this industry, its foundation, its artists and idea people, its markets, etc. So I’m pleased to learn a little bit about at least the prehistory of novelty shakers from this article. My thanks to the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum for finding it and posting it. I just might have to make my way down to Gatlinburg some day to see what there is to see there. and, I suppose, to be seen by any anthropomorphic radish or peach shakers that might happen to be housed there.

Big Radish Is Watching You

If, as I discussed my last post, there’s something odd and unsettling about shalt-and-pepper shakers that look like raw potatoes and that are designed to be put on tables that include cooked food like fries, then what are we to make of a pair like this:

Now admittedly, these radishes (I think they are radishes–either that or carrots that have been out in the sun too much) represent a type of food that it is acceptable to have on a dining table in their raw state–salad vegetables and crudités and the like. So they don’t represent the category confusion between cooked food and raw ones. They do, though, like the hamburgers of my second-last post, represent the confusion between real things and artificial ones. They might appear on the occasional dining table along with some real radishes, thus raising the big question I have been exploring in these last few posts: why? Why fake representations of food to be mixed in with real ones? Why fictional food in a context of nonfiction?

More significantly, though, these radish shakers exaggerate the category confusion (or, perhaps, reveal the underlying ugly truth beneath it) in providing the radish with eyes. Thus humanized, they represent live things in an unliving form, but live things with, apparently, the character and emotions of people–radishes that can laugh or cry, then, or shriek if someone bites into them. While unreal representations, they are a reminder of the fact that real radishes are, really, alive. They may not actually have eyes, but they could still be emitting some sort of soundless vegetable scream as you pull them from the ground.

A strange thing to want to be reminded of at the dining table as you sit down to begin the process of ingesting living or formerly living things. What if your pot roast or your pork chop were actually staring at you also with big cute eyes? There’s a long tradition of inanimate objects humanized, in Hans Christian Andersen stories like “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and old Looney Tunes movie cartoons and children’s books (The Brave Little Toaster, e.g.,) and places like that, and I have to say I always find it a little unsettling. But placing such a humanized, representationally sentient object on a table amidst a number of similar objects one is about to ingest seems downright peculiar–something like saying mass for the pig just before you smack your lips and eat the pork chop.

Le cru et le cuit

In my last post I talked about how categories get confused when you put salt-and-pepper shakers representing food items on a table in the midst of real food items: categories like real and fake, hard and soft, edible and inedible, etc. Yet another such category, one that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss thought was culture-defining, is le cru et le cuit: the raw and the coked.  For Lévi-Strauss, “cooked,” refers to anything that is socialized from its natural state–rawness. All societies have binary structures that distinguish between the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the rotten, the moist and the dry or burned, but they separate them differently.  And the separations are, he claimed, always important.

So what about salt-and-peppers representing raw food?  Not that the salt-and-pepper versions of food are either raw and cooked (unless you consider doing time in a kiln to be cooking).  But some of them are, in fact, clearly meant to represent something that is raw.  Like these, for instance:

Raw potatoes, right?  Very clean raw potatoes, very shiny ones–but still raw.  And unlike the mini-hamburgers of my last post, these potatoes are actually large enough to be considered life-size.  They look surprisingly like the things they represent–might actually, for a moment or two, trick someone into believing they were real, until a closer second glance might reveal the truth implied by the presence of holes for releasing salt or pepper and, also, the imprint of the place they come from:

But why would you want fake raw potatoes on the dining table?  Raw potatoes are what exists before you prepare the fries or mash or Pommes Anna you might also have on the same table.  You would never have real raw potatoes on the table–so why imagined ones?  a reminder of where the fried came from, what they once were before they were turned into fries?  A reminder of rawness amidst the pleasures of cookery?  Who needs reminding, and why?  These shakers are, strangely, disconcerting, though, even if I don’t know exactly why.  There’s something playful about placing imagery of raw food in the midst of real food–playful in an impish and unsettling way.  Culture-disturbing, somehow.  Anti-social.

Food, Fictional and Non-Fictional

Thinking as I wrote my last post about how disturbing it was to look at versions of the exact same characters in different poses in two different salt and pepper shaker sets, about how the impression that they could move and take different positions seemed to suggest a life they were leading outside and beyond their hard ceramic shaker-set lives, and how suggesting that seemed to break the contract they imply about being safely shakable because they are hard, are ceramic, are not really the things they represent, not really alive, not really all that damageable, I became aware of another oddity: salt and pepper shaker sets that represent food.  Like these:

I mean, think about it for a moment or two.  You are serving a real meal consisting of real food–food you can eat.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  And yet, there on the table is a hard, ceramic, entirely inedible object that represent something edible.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  I get that there’s an obvious connection between salt-and-pepper shakers and food, that they are implements to be used in the process of serving and eating food.  And I suspect it’s for that reason that I have so many shaker sets that represent food, from carrots to bananas to milk and cookies But for all the logic of that, it still seems more than a little strange that you’d want representations of food on the table where you are serving real food.  It’s a weird confusions of categories:  real and fake, hard and soft, edible and inedible, etc.  It seems inevitably to raise the question of just how representative these objects are–how they are fictional food with their fictionality made obvious by their presence in the midst of non-fictional food.  Why put things that look like food but that you can’t eat on the table along with the actual food?  Is it the creation of some sort of puzzle–figure out what you’re supposed to put in your mouth and what you’re supposed to keep out of it?

Beyond that, I’m not quite sure about what to make of the act of shaking a fake hamburger over a real hamburger in order to get salt and pepper on it.  Or for that matter, shaking a fake hamburger over a vegetarian meal of beans and rice to get salt and pepper on it.  For there is a sort of actual food being provided by the shakers–the salt and pepper that you will shake on the real food and then eat.  They are not food but they can make the food taste better–just give them a shake and, perhaps, some of their magical unreal pretending will fall into the real food and make it more magical?  Are these shakers some sort of strange transitional object, then, not quite real and not entirely pretend?

One other aspect of these hamburger shakers also freaks me out a little: their shininess.  They are surprisingly lifelike, except for that shininess.  They look like real hamburgers, albeit miniature ones, that have been shellacked or varnished.  Hamburger preserved for posterity, perhaps, or in their sparkling shininess, the purified essence of hamburgitude, smaller than but better than the real things they represent.  Perhaps, then, they share the diminishing utopianism of all miniatures, all dolls and dollhouses and such: more perfect but infinitely smaller, infinitely more cramped, and more easily managed worlds than the real one.  Having a miniaturized and therefore both cuter and more controllable hamburger on your table along with the real ones–is it a sort of fetish object, a representation of the wish that the real hamburgers be just as safe and in control as the fake one, just as free from taint and bacteria and deathly additives and all the other potential harmful aspects of actual meat?

Once More for Old Times’ Sake, Once More

When I wrote about shaking in my last post, I realize, I was taking something important for granted:  you are allowed to give the shakers a symbolic shaking that implies violence to the person or thing a shaker represents because the shaker is, in fact, merely a representation–not actually the thing it represents, but a merely an image or replication of it, and so tough enough, hard enough, to take it.  You most likely wouldn’t feel right about giving a living naked woman or a real-life African-American pancake cook a good shake–it might actually hurt them.  Also, furthermore, they might retaliate and give you a good shaking right back, or maybe the swift uppercut to the jaw that you deserve.  But the violence towards unsettling Others that you are likely to veil and hold back in real life is allowable against a mere hunk of earthenware.  You can shake the bejeezus out of a shaker-set depiction of a cute aboriginal child without any consequences whatsoever, except possibly the sprinkling of too much salt on your dinner and, eventually over the long term, perhaps, a well-deserved heart attack.

At any rate, it’s in the context of that allowable violence that this particular salt-and-pepper set particularly startled me:

In itself, nothing all that startling; but some readers of this post might recall an earlier post in which I discussed another disconcertingly similar shaker set, one that looked like this:

So it’s the same couple, apparently–but in this earlier shaker set they’re standing, and in the new one I just purchased recently they’re sitting down.

How is that possible?

I suppose there’s some technical explanation about reshaping an old mould or something like that.  but when I first saw that sitting couple after already being familiar with the standing one, it really did startle me: how could figures in hard ceramic be captured in different positions?  Somehow, it seemed, the old man and the old lady being represented had actually moved–or at least ,were capable of movement.  They could stand up and they could, apparently, also sit down.

And if they could do that, could they be so safely and harmlessly shaken after all?  Were they merely representations, or, somehow, more alive than that?  Was their tough ability to take it merely a pretence after all?

It helps to some degree to realize that, while they look almost exactly the same, have the same glasses, the same clothes, the same facial expressions and so on, these couples are actually two completely different sets–not the same set in a different moment, but two similar sets in the same moment, as here;

Still, if these people can both stand and sit down, might they not also give birth?  Can I expect to find yet another set of the same couple, she in the agony of labour pains, he with both of his hands over his ears instead of just one hand over one ear?  There’s something all too Frankenstein-ish about these pairs.  They’re alive!  They’re alive!  They’re alive!  I’d like to give them all a good shaking.


In my explorations of the scriptive actions of salt and pepper shakers over the past while, I’ve considered everything but the most obvious action they imply–the one implied by their name: shaking.  Salt and pepper shakers are made to be shaken.  Furthermore, as I think about it, I see that the act of shaking is the one that might be most productive of insights in terms of how Robin Bernstein herself explores the concept of scriptive things that she develops in her book Radical Innocence.  Salt and pepper shakers are made to be shaken, i.e., to be treated with a certain amount of violence: you aren’t going to be getting all that much of the salt and pepper you’re hoping for from shakers so fragile that the action of shaking might break them. And while most of  the novelty salt and pepper shakers in my collection are made of some kind of potentially breakable earthenware, it’s a very durable, not-really-all-that-easily breakable kind. Most of my shakers are pretty old by now, probably from the fifties or sixties, but most of them are intact, the few exceptions being the occasional dog or cat’s tail or canoe paddle or other small projecting part that’s been broken off.  I’ve dropped a few of them from fairly substantial heights, with no apparent damage.  They are tough.  They can take it. They invite being shaken. Shaking them makes food taste better.

All of that develops other resonances when we consider what the shakers represent.  Here we are, in a world full of adorable, cute, petite little doggies and humanized carrots and aboriginal children, and what are we being asked to do to them?  Shake them–that’s what.  We are being invited to give all these theoretically adorable things a darn good shaking, an act that will make our food more enjoyable.  So why would we want to shake the things we find so adorable?  Why would anyone want to shake these doggies, for instance?

They are so gosh-darned, all-fired cute.  They simper or respond to simpering.  They have weirdly human-looking, eminently batable eyelashes.  And yet there appears to be an invitation to the expression of a probably otherwise unacknowledged hostility towards them–perhaps the same hostility that might be inherent in the act of perceiving someone or something as cute, a need to give the object less power over us than its adorability might appear to be demanding.

In fact, I can’t deny an urge to give these particular poodles a good shake.  They are so busy inviting my cooing response to their adorability that I find myself loathing them.  Shaking is what they deserve.  A whole lot of shaking. Shaking all over.

They poodle shakers are clearly less dangerous and more dismissably harmless than actual poodles, a further diminishing of the inherent wolfness that gets constrained in the very existence of poodles.  If you shake a cute little poodle, you are adding a layer of implied physical violence to the violence against the threatening nature of animals that the cuteness of the shakers being shaken already implies.  The major emotional or psychological purpose of novelty shakers depicting cute things, as I’ve suggested in a number  of earlier posts, is to minimize and constrain and imply control over what we must otherwise find to be threatening.  Shaking such already minimized objects just seems to add more intensity to the minimization and control.  We are being invited, it seems, to buy and make use specifically of shakers that represent particular things we do feel threatened by–by, say, the bodies of women (see earlier posts on breasts and amputees), or animals and animality generally (in regard to shakers depicting lions or cats or lobsters or poodles) or by “savages” (the cute aboriginals) or other people of colour (Aunt Jemima).  Shaking of shakers is inevitable.  Violence against the object they depict is, it seems, mandated and allowable–and often, for a lot of us, I suspect, very, very satisfying.

Just how satisfying might be revealed by this set of shakers I own:

At first glance, they might seem kind of boring–a pair of plastic shakers in the shape of traditional old-fashioned glass shakers, each in in the colour of the seasoning that might be found in such an old-fashioned set: black and white.  But that little loop visible on the white one reveals their secret:

Those are loops attached to pull strings, and when you pull the loops out from the shakers, the shakers begin to shake all by themselves, as is visible in this video.  The thing is, watching them shake all by themselves is no fun.  No fun at all.  And furthermore, letting them shake all by themselves puts no salt and no pepper on anybody’s food.  They are both fairly boring and completely useless, in ways that reveal the deep ugly secret hidden at the heart of more conventional shakers:  shaking, the sheer energetic, violent, satisfying act of shaking, is what they are all about.