Q. My husband and I went out to dinner recently with some friends. We got into somewhat of a debate about salt and pepper shakers and whether salt should be in the shaker with the most holes or the pepper? After not coming to a final consensus of opinion, we decided it was an etiquette question and we should ask you. At first, we all thought it was kind of a silly discussion, but it actually may not be. We also would like to know if it is proper dining etiquette to "shake" some of the contents of one of the shakers into the palm of your hand when you can't see inside the shaker to determine if you have the salt or pepper?
- Many years ago in the United States, it was thought that bodies which sweat a lot working in the fields in the heat, or those playing sports, needed to replenish that salt in their bodies; therefore, salt was found in the shaker with the most holes. Older salt shakers with the "S" and the "P" will verify rule of thought.
- Health studies conducted in the United States in the last few decades indicated the intake of extra salt was unhealthy for our bodies because of water retention and possible heart issues. Therefore, there was a switch: salt was placed in the shaker with the fewer holes and since pepper was not as fine as it used to be, it was placed into the shaker with the most holes to make it easier to shake onto your food. And, thus, the shakers with no "P" or "S" arrive in the sets of china.
- In European countries, the scenario was the opposite with pepper because pepper, in its original form took forever to get a good amount from a shaker with just one hole. An old saying to determine which went where was: three holes for PePPer because of the three "p's".
- On to more changes: The entrance of sea salt. Because it is flakier and some chefs feel it should not be ground because it would lose it's flavor, one now sees the return of individual Victorian-type salt cellars in many restaurants, including the tiny little salt spoon. It brings with it a new ambiance, as well. Some diners say, "Oh, how cute!" and others say, "What is this"? The latter question more frequent if the tiny little spoon is not included because unfortunately it somehow easily winds up in some diner's purse or pocket to take home as a memento. When there is no tiny little spoon, the diner must revert to another long-past technique of using the tip of the dinner knife to transport a small amount of salt from the cellar to the diner's plate. Tedious, but again, the ambiance factor of something different and so unique.
- Then we come to the nuance in recent years of pepper grinders: "Would you care for ground pepper on your salad?" The chef's rationale for using the pepper grinder is this: Ground pepper is fine and will flow from a small pepper shaker, but ground pepper also loses most of its aroma once ground; therefore, a pepper grinder is more appealing and makes the food more delectable. The ambiance again enters the picture.
- Considering the use of a salt grinder, however, is considered an "affectation" because salt does not have aroma to lose in the first place. Again, the "salt cellar" becomes the answer has for something different and more of a "unique dining experience" since by now, the pepper grinder is no longer so new.
- When glass salt and pepper shakers are on the restaurant table or some private dining table: how convenient. Just check the number of holes before using so as not to especially over-salt. Remember the golden rule of never adding any condiments to your food before tasting. To do so before tasting is not only rude, but a definite insult to the chef or cook whose purpose it has been to make sure each dish is properly seasoned.
To answer your original question: Obviously with the evolution of the forms of the condiments themselves, and the discretion of the restaurant or hostess as to which condiment vessels are selected, there is no "right" or "final" answer. Just be prepared for what you find and enjoy another opportunity for a discussion or debate.
Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Dianne Isbell at Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.