The purpose of this blog is to make a record of the salts and pepper sets I have collected–to account for why I collect them, to think about why they interest me both as individual sets and all together as a collection, to explore what my having this collection might say about the culture that has produced and then purchased, given as gifts, used, and collected the salts and peppers over the last century or so–and perhaps, even, what the collection might say about who I am myself.
So I begin with old number one, or, I guess, old number one and number two–my first pair of salt and pepper shakers. I bought them not much more than a decade ago. We found ourselves, my wife Billie and I, once more, wandering through a second-hand store–something we often seemed to end up doing in the different cities we ended up in. There was really no point to our doing it, for we never actually got around to buying anything. It tended to be more like a aimless visit to a poorly organized museum, as we ambled casually around the aisles and appraised various items from the amused distance of superior connoisseurs, commenting on how ugly that thing there was, and how the thing over there on the next shelf was even uglier or even, on rare occasions, more attractive, telling each other how our various parents and grandparents did or did not once own such things and how useless they had become or perhaps always were. But for all the pointlessness of these visits, we somehow often ended up making them anyway. We were walking around in the touristy parts of town, and the shops and ther flea markets were always there, waiting to amuse slightly bored tourists on loose schedules like ourselves
Then, one day, in the middle of a visit to yet another such store, I came upon a salt and pepper set that I really did find interesting. It interested me because it took me quite a while to figure out that it was indeed a set. It looked like two quite random objects that just happening to be sitting beside each other on a shelf, albeit both with a few small holes on their tops that signalled their practical purpose. I supposed, for a while, that they were the remains of two separate sets, each having lost its partner, and now placed beside each other in a desperate attempt of the shopkeeper to persuade gullible buyers of a connection between them that did not actually exist.
And then, suddenly, it hit me. They were an actual set. They did belong together. the connection did exist. One of the figures represented a mouse. The other represented a hunk of cheese. They were a pair, then, by association: two quite different objects that belonged together only because of the connections the people who used them might make between the objects they represented. The cheese did not, in fact, stand alone.
It had never occurred to me until that moment that salt-and-pepper sets might and often in fact did consist of two different objects. I simply sort of assumed without really thinking about it that they would always be two things that looked more or less like each other: two dogs, or two shepherdesses, or two angels, with one marked S and one marked P. Although, I quickly, realized, I’d noticed a lot of male-and-female sets in my time–one dog with a blue bow, one with a pink bow, or perhaps a Santa and a Mrs. Claus. But those pairs looked pretty much like each other. The idea that two quite different-looking things like a rodent and a hunk of dairy product might form a set if you looked at them long enough and thought about them hard enough fascinated me–fascinated me enough that I actually bought the mouse and the cheese.
I suppose I need to account for why that idea of different things combined to belong together fascinated me. In my work as as literary critic and a specialist in theoretical understanding of texts written for young people, I’ve often found myself thinking about how children’s literature so often operates in terms of what I’ve come to call binary opposites: providing characters that represent, and plots and structures that confront and work to resolve, the oppositions between qualities first presented as opposite: good and evil, child and adult, home and away, adventure and security, having fun and learning things, being obedient and being rebellious, being childish and growing up. I’ve spent enough time worrying over opposites like these that I sometimes seem to conclude that the structure of human thought might be a matter of dividing what we experience out into opposites and figuring out ways of relating them to each other in order to give structure to our thoughts and our lives–the structuralist theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss once suggested something along those lines. At any rate,the mouse and the cheese seemed to represent a version of one of those sets of binary opposites, things that belonged together by virtue of their special connection with and perhaps even opposition to each other: the living and the dead, the natural and the manufactured, the raw and the cooked, the eater and the eaten. And I could easily imagine another set consisting of this very mouse and a figure of a cat, another version of the eater and the eaten. In fact, the next time I found myself in a second hand store, intrigued by the idea of one thing meaning something different in relation to a different other object, I spent my time looking for just such a pair.
I didn’t find that other pair–but I had finally found a reason for being in those stores. From that point on, my visits to them consisted of my finding where they kept the salts and peppers and then spending my time looking at those, considering how the different objects represented in various pairs related to each other and suggested in miniature hunks of china or plastic the kinds of relationship that form the very basis of our thinking about ourselves and our world. Sometimes, even, I bought a pair. I had found a million-dollars worth of theory in a somewhat more than five-and-ten-cent secondhand store. And while I hadn’t realized it quite yet, my collection had begun.