Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Salt Cellar: Before You Could Take It with a Grain of Salt

In 2003, I stumbled on Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, and found it intriguing that an entire book could be written on such a simple topic.  I’ve since come to love many books that focus on similar topics, ones that (as it turns out) are not so much simple as so integrated into our daily lives that we don’t even think about how they came to be there.  There are many, many things to be said about salt, so it’s a topic I’ll be returning to in the future; for now though, I’ll stick with how salt was presented at the table until the relatively recent past:  the salt cellar.
An essential mineral, salt is also the only mineral for which we have an innate craving, partly because it’s one of the basic tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami).  That means that throughout time, we’ve been adding salt to our foods both during cooking and when dining.  “Pass the salt” has likely been spoken innumerable times since people started gathering around a table, and up until about sixty years ago, after making the request you’d be passed a salt cellar.
The salt cellar, an open dish usually made of glass or metal, has been used since at least the fifth century BCE, but it was in the Middle Ages, when salt was still a very valuable commodity and proof of wealth, that they started to become a more special, significant item.  The class system was still very much in place, and was reflected even at the dinner table:  your rank or place in the household determined your type of chair or stool, what your plate was made out of (i.e., wood or metals ranging from pewter to gold), and most importantly where you sat in relation to the head of household, who of course always had the salt cellar within reach.  Sitting towards the far end of the table with your wooden trencher, you’d have a lowly seat “below the salt;” sitting nearer the head of household and within passing distance of the salt cellar, you’d be (a phrase still in some use today) “above the salt.”   
Salt cellars became increasingly ornate and decorative, covered in materials ranging from enamels to precious stones.  They were often given aquatic themes with shells or pearls to connote the salty oceans, or really just gave a sculptor and head of house a chance to show off:

shiny shiny
Fifteenth century salt cellar, Musee du Louvre

Well now you're just bragging.
Cellini salt cellar, 1543, Vienna
That Baroque ostentation eventually went out of fashion, but salt cellars remained both decorative and a staple of the table:

Late nineteenth century

In the early twentieth century though, things started to change.  Salt had previously been sold in blocks and chipped off with a salt spoon or the diner’s knife, but around this time distributors started adding magnesium carbonate and other agents that absorbed moisture; suddenly salt came in grains and could be poured!  This was a handy breakthrough in convenience, even becoming the selling point for Morton’s Salt which remains to this day: 'When it rains, it pours!'  This was probably the greatest thing ever, until sliced bread came along about twenty years later.
The salt cellar with its blocks of salt met its match in the salt shaker, which could pour individual salt grains to taste and be shared at the table very easily.  Salt shakers gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, until salt cellars simply became nostalgic collectibles.  Perhaps a bit of tradition has been lost with the salt cellar, so pour out a pinch of salt in memory of it next time you’re at the table.

1 comment:

  1. "This was probably the greatest thing ever, until sliced bread came along about twenty years later."


    After that, you were the greatest thing. Lurve!