Both Elegant and Kitschy

My favourite salt and pepper shaker set that transforms the surface it sits on from a hard surface to one that implies the surface’s permeability is this one:


It consists of just those two quite elegant and curvy triangular shapes–each on their own an interestingly abstract sculpture, perhaps.  But somehow, together, their representational intent becomes clear:  they are, in fact, shark’s fins, and thus imply the remainder of two sharks lurking just under the surface.

This pair has an economy rarely found in novelty salt and pepper shaker sets: it is a decidedly simple and understated evocation of the objects it represents.  What is surprisingly, therefore, is that there is still a novelty salt and pepper shaker set kind of vibe to it.  That vibe comes, I think, from the fact that the set is just a tiny bit of a witty joke, or maybe more accurately a puzzle.  You have to look at it for a while before you see what objects these apparently abstract shapes does quite literally represent.  There’s something cute about that–something very salt-and-peppery.  There’s the sense that the invisible sharks lurking beneath that surface might have luxurious eyelashes and lipstick around their mouths.  And yet, still, the aesthetically pleasing simplicity of the shapes remain.  So this, then, is a paradoxical set, somehow both elegant and kitschy.  Only in the weirder reaches of the salt and pepper shaker set miniverse could you find that particularly weird combination.

Ambiguously Gendered: Batting for Which Team?

This shaker set is not necessarily ambiguously gay–more like ambiguously gendered.

batter and catcher closeup

Its two baseball players (who each look a little like stereotyped angry codgers wearing too much eyeliner), might be either both male or both female or a combination of one male and one female.
batter and catcher2

The shaker on the left wears a pink hat, which might be a sign of femaleness, and similarly, the blue hat of the shaker on the right might signify maleness. But then, the pink hat goes with a blue collar, the blue hat with pink stripes on the player’s outfit–so both figure’s clothing contain bits of pink and bits of blue–albeit more pink for the batter, more blue for the catcher. And while the catcher wears long pants and what look like blue stockings, the batter seems to have shorts on–or maybe even a skirt? And a closer look suggests that the catcher appears to be wearing less eyeliner that the batter, or even none at all (although on the other hand, the catcher appears to be wearing lipstick, unlike the batter. Unless that’s just a big sore on the middle of his/her lips.) So they might then represent a male and a female–a grumpy male and a grumpy female, but a male and a female nevertheless.

Or maybe they’re just two guys (or two girls) dressed up in the colours of their opposing teams, which happen to be primarily pink and primarily blue.

So what are we to make of a pair of ambiguously gendered ball players? And if the batter’s a woman and the catcher a man, are there gender implications in relation to their batting and their catching? And if so, what are they? Why do women specifically bat and men specifically catch? And why is the one in the pink hat the one wielding the phallic symbol? Where are the balls (well, actually, that’s sort of what this entire post is about)? And for that matter, what do we then make of the invisible pitcher they are both implying an awareness of and a response to? And why does the set consist of a batter and a catcher rather than the surely more conventionally binary batter and pitcher or catcher and pitcher? And why would anyone ever want these menacingly grimacing and hardly cute or adorable folks on their dining table? Who ever thought a set like this would sell, and who ever bought it? (I mean, of course, before someone with a sense of irony bought it second-hand as a gift for me.)

Another mysterious shaker set, then, that raises more questions than it answers.

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?

More on the Tyranny of Pairs

I’ve been thinking further about the tyranny of pairs in the world of shaker sets, which I discussed in my last post. It has occurred to me now that it’s the implied connection of the two disparate things in a pair that is, often, the source of the comedy or even the cuteness. A dog and a fire hydrant–but of course they go together. How funny. How cute. A drunk and a lamp-post. How funny. How cute. Or, heading backwards through the history of other shaker sets I’ve discussed on this blog earlier: a lobster cooking itself in a lobster pot, a buttock and another buttock, a female body and a pair of separable breasts, a mouse and a piece of cheese, an angry worker and a broken computer terminal. All funny. All cute. In each case, the single shakers go with something else that might not be the first thing you’d expect, but, once you get it, you get why it’s connected to the first thing in a cute or funny way. It’s the sort-of unexpectedness of what, in the long run, is pretty expectable, but not to begin with totally obvious–a connection between two separate and quite different things that nevertheless satisfactorily and convincingly ties them together, by means of references to old sayings, old jokes, old ideas about stereotypes. While the two separate things remain separate they are nevertheless connected, by means of language and the network of cultural repertoire they refer to and pass on.


A lot of the sets of shakers in my collection are what the world of salt-and-pepper-set collectors, apparently, call “go-withs”–the ones I like to call binary opposites: the shakers depict two quite different objects that have some logical or linguistic collection to each other, like the common opposites of black and white or good and evil or adults and children, or for that matter, salt and pepper.  Take, for instance, this pair: The two shakers look nothing like each other, and so it might take a moment or two to figure out the puzzle:  it’s a goose and an egg, and geese lay eggs, and the egg is golden so, wait, I get it now, it’s the goose that laid the golden egg.  And considering the size of the goose and the size of the egg, it must have been really, really painful.

In the next series of posts here, I’m going to consider a series of go-withs in which one of each pair is also to be found in the next pair.  So now it’s a guessing game:  which of the goose or the egg will appear in my next post, and what will be paired with it?