Why Are Salt and Pepper On Every Table?

Have you ever counted how many holes does a salt or pepper shaker has? Why are salt and pepper so important and found on every table across different cuisines in the world? What is the superstition about passing the salt? Read on to know the etiquette and history of salt and pepper shakers.

Salt and pepper shakers are the common denominators of all restaurants across the globe. Go from the most basic fast food eatery to a high-end establishment with 5 Michelin stars, and you will have these two spices available. Why is it so?

Why Are Salt and Pepper On Every Table?

To know the answer to this question, let’s dig into the history of salt and pepper.

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An Existential Need

Let me start with salt. You may like to add a pinch of salt to your dish, but this impulse comes from a biological necessity. All forms of life on earth (including plants) need salt to survive. A human being needs between three and eight grams (0.10 to 0.30 ounces) for certain metabolic processes.

If by chance, someone tried to eliminate salt completely from their diet, death would be inevitable.

It sounds harsh, but human civilizations thrived in an area where salt was easily available in the early millennia. The reason why we seem to discover vestiges of human life in the same area can be explained not just by the movement of continents and the climate, but also by the availability of salt.

This basic need means that salt played a crucial role in the evolution of the human species and influenced history more than any other commodity.

So much so, that many words and phrases we use today come directly from the word salt and its importance in human life.

Very often at meals, people must have asked you to pass the salt. Are you aware of the superstition concerning passing the salt? Some people say that when passing the salt to someone at the table you should never hand the salt shaker to them. Instead, you should put it down close to them.

A Few Basic Concepts that Come from Salt

  • He’s not worth his salt

A common saying about someone whose talents and skills are overrated is that “he’s not worth his salt.” This phrase came from Ancient Greece when slaves were sold in exchange for salt. Yes, salt was so valuable back then, that it was used as currency.

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  • Salary

Let us now look at your salary. No, I am not curious about how much you are paid – I just want to point out that the word “salary” also comes from salt. How so?

In Ancient Rome, soldiers were paid in salt (“salarium argentum”), and this is the origin of the English word.

  • Salad

Also, let’s look at a salad. It is healthy and fresh and also comes from the Latin word for salt. Romans started eating salad in the form we know it today, by sprinkling salt on a mix of leafy greens.

What about Pepper?

Pepper also has a long connection with human civilization. It started as medicine, used to treat anything from heart disease to constipation. The earliest written records concerning the use of pepper in medicine are from the 5th century. They detail the use of pepper as a poultice to treat eye problems.

But let us go further into the past.

One of the earliest confirmed use of pepper comes from Ancient Egypt.

When scientists analyzed the mummy of Ramesses II (also known as Ramesses the Great) who died in 1213 BC, they found peppercorns stuffed in his nostrils. Thus, it is evident that Egyptians saw pepper not as food, but as a substance needed for the mummification process.

Indigenous to the warm climate of South India, pepper became increasingly popular and expensive from then on. In one of his writings, the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder complained: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of 50 million sesterces.”

However expensive it may have been, Romans loved pepper and put it in almost every dish.

For instance, in Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, a cookbook by Apicius, 80% of the recipes include pepper.

During the Byzantine period, Arabs had the monopoly of the pepper trade. They went to great length to protect the secret of the location where this spice grew. Their stories spoke of “Groves of trees in India [and the Caucus mountains] “guarded” by poisonous serpents,” according to an article written by Paul Freedman and published by The University of Chicago Press.

Later on, throughout the Middle Ages, the Italian merchant cities of Genoa and Venice held the monopole for pepper trade and its value, at one point, was the equivalent of its weight in gold.

Vasco da Gama’s trip around the world was prompted not by the sheer wish to discover new continents, but by the King of Portugal’s want to discover a new trade route to India and thus break the Italians’ monopole.

Salt and Pepper in Numbers

Now that we know how salt and pepper influenced human history let us look at some facts regarding these spices.

Production

In 2017, the primary producers of salt were (in 1,000 metric tons):

  • China – 68,000
  • United States of America – 43,000
  • India – 26,000
  • Canada – 13,000
  • Germany – 13,000

In the case of pepper, there is some variation from the ancient times when it comes to places of origin. During the last century, the black pepper plant was acclimatized in various regions on the planet (Africa and South America). Thus the key producers of pepper in 2017 were (in thousands of tons):

  • Vietnam – 163
  • Indonesia – 89
  • India – 53
  • Brazil – 42
  • China – 31

Consumption

The world can’t have enough salt, although the World Health Organization is striving to develop educational and awareness programs warning of the dangers of excess salt consumption. As I stated at the beginning of the article, human beings need between 3 and 8 grams of salt per day. How much do we eat? Here are the statistics for salt consumption of 2017 (in grams per day):

  • Central Asia – 14
  • Asia Pacific region – 13
  • Europe – 11
  • Africa – 11
  • USA/Canada – 10
  • Latin America – 7

Let us focus now on the pepper. The top consumers of pepper for 2015 were (in thousand tons):

  • India – 72
  • United States of America – 64
  • Vietnam – 55
  • China – 51

These four countries consumed almost half of the global production of pepper.

So, Why Do We Find Salt and Pepper on Every Table?

There is an interesting thing about etiquette salt and pepper shakers. The long and complicated history of these spices shows that people have developed a taste for them from the earliest millennia of our existence.

It is hard to imagine today how difficult and expensive it was to obtain these two spices centuries ago. As we know human nature, the more difficult it is to obtain something, the more we covet it.

Thus, the fact that salt and pepper started as luxury goods helped make them so popular and become a staple in every cuisine around the world. Also, manners require passing both the salt and the pepper together, even when only one is requested. They get lonely if separated.

A salt shaker can have around one or two holes. On the other hand, pepper shakers can have more holes. Remember it like this, the three P’s in PePPer, 3 or more holes in the pepper pot and one in the salt pot.

Being able to offer guests homemade dishes seasoned with salt and pepper was a sign of wealth and a good social position.

As cookbooks and recipes passed from generation to generation, we simply accepted the fact that these are basic ingredients for most cooked foods. Now we take it for granted when we see the salt and pepper shakers on a restaurant table and have forgotten that our ancestors would have paid a fortune to have them.

Key Takeaways On Salt and Pepper Shakers

  • Salt and pepper shakers are a common sight in all kinds of restaurants.
  • It is said, human civilizations thrived in an area where salt was easily available in the early millennia.
  • The earliest written records concerning the use of pepper in medicine are from the 5th century.
  • There is certain etiquette behind placing salt and pepper shakers on the table.
  • Some people say that when passing the salt to someone at the table you should never hand the salt shaker to them. Instead, you should put it down close to them.
  • A salt shaker can have around one or two holes. On the other hand, pepper shakers can have more holes.

Did you find the history and etiquette of salt and pepper shakers interesting? Were you surprised by the superstition of passing the salt? Don’t hesitate to share your comments below. Share the history of salt and pepper with your friends. You can also subscribe to our newsletter and stay tuned for new articles.

SEO and Content writer, translator, dreamer. These are some of the words which describe Silvia. She believes in the power of words - both for good and for evil. She also believes that we can all choose to use words in a positive manner, to share information, ideas, feelings, and truth. There is nothing more rewarding than to be the instrument through which knowledge is shared among other people. From this point of view, she considers herself in a privileged position of trust, which she strives never to betray.