Why {And When} Did Salt And Pepper Become The "Default" Condiments?

How did it become standard for almost every Western table to come equipped with that neat little binary, salt and pepper shakers? Salt I can figure: it’s relatively cheap and commonplace, and seems to have graced tables for millennia. But why pepper? It seems to have been a fairly late addition to the condiment canon, and was presumably reasonably rare and costly for a good while. When were they first paired, and how did they become the “default setting”?

Well in case you have not been keeping up with the times, Bacon Salt is now the default condiment

Guesses only, I’m afraid.

Salt seems straightforward - it was widely used as a preservative before the availability of refrigeration. So probably people just got used to things tasting salty.

Pepper - well, that came from India originally, so I suspect it was traded throughout the British Empire. Since the USA and Britain remained trading partners after the Revolutionary war, that’s probably how it ended up being popular in America.

As I said, guesses. And edited to add that I see you aren’t American. Still, same logic applies.

As Explained By The Perfect Master

Never mind.

Sugar is usually there too, at least in the South.

Interesting that the column says:

  • but I thought this was pretty much a myth.

I wonder if the following statements from this 1986 Straight Dope column are still correct:

> Pepper is a different story. In terms of total volume, it isn’t even in the same
> league with salt. Every year Americans douse their food with a staggering 6.5
> million tons of sodium chloride, whereas during the same period they use a
> measly 27,000 tons of pepper. (That is to say, black pepper, the fruit of the
> plant Piper nigrum. Red pepper adds another few thousand tons.) Pepper
> nonetheless is among the most popular of all the spices, and always has been.
> (Salt, strictly speaking, is not a spice.) In terms of total tonnage, it lags behind
> sesame seed and mustard consumption in the U.S. But whereas the latter two
> are largely confined to the hot dog and hamburger biz, pepper you can
> cheerfully dump on nearly anything.

There have been changes in American tastes since 1986. The most obvious is that more salsa is now sold in the U.S. than ketchup. I wonder if other changes have happened in our palates at the same time.

In any case, the contrast in the amount of pepper and salt used in food is a little bit deceptive. If more than two hundred times as much salt as pepper is used, you would at first wonder why black pepper is on the table at all, since that would mean that you would expect to refill the salt shaker two hundred times for each time you fill the pepper shaker. The problem is that the 6.5 million tons of salt refers to all salt added to food at any point. The vast majority of salt is added in processing the food, while black pepper is mostly added at the table, I think. I, for one, hardly ever add salt at the table.

Slightly off-topic…

When I was married to a Vietnamese woman, I naturally had an intense crash course in Vietnamese food, and I started thinking how crazy it was that they put fish sauce and chilli sauce on nearly everything. I thought it was silly.

Then I realised that fish sauce is very salty, and chilli… he-ey, waaait a minute, this is Vietnamese salt and pepper! I stopped thinking it was silly after that.

Yeah, that section of Cecil’s article had me scratching my head. The phrasing “Americans douse their food” implied to me that he was referring to household use of salt, but there’s no way that can be right.

At the time of that article (1986), 6.5 million tons of salt per year represented more than 50 pounds of salt for every man, woman, and child in the country. I don’t know about you, but i generally don’t go through a pound of salt a week.

If you buy prepared foods, canned foods and frozen entrees, those contain a lot of salt which is included in your annual figure. The annual figure is not just what you shake on your food at the table.

In France, the standard condiments on la table are salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. In the netherlands, up untill 20 years ago, the Holy Triumvirate of spices was pepper, salt and Maggi. Maggi is the Dutch answer to Worchestershire sauce; a kind of hot, sweet-spicey soy sauce.

I knew Maggie. She was sweet.

And spicy.

6.5 million tons a year? There’s no way that much salt is used in all stages of food production and consumption; according to the USGS Minerals Yearbook, less than 2 million tons were used for food production, less than a million tons were distributed through grocery stores and wholesalers, and we all know that fat less salt than that is actually consumed. Much gets used for other purposes: freezing, brining, etc.

I don’y suppose anyone’s going to tell us where that “6.5 million tons” figure comes from?

That’s my understanding too, and I’m surprised that Cecil buys into that myth.

It’s akin to saying “the Indians made use of the many complex, aromatic and flavoursome herbs and spices easily available to them, not because they tasted good, but because the Indian people were savages who ate rotting meat because they weren’t like us civilised white folks who only ate fresh meat”. I’m going to risk opprobrium here by saying that Cecil has unintentionally bought into a racist myth. You should know better, Mr Adams.

The truth is surely that they used spices and herbs simply because they (and not “semirotten meat”) were “in abundant supply”, not to mention delicious. Just as the British used to make liberal use of native herbs before the “rosemary and thyme gives young men erections - omit it!” attitudes of Victorian England, itself a reaction to the more pungently spicy foods introduced by returning men from the Raj, added to the enveloping prurience of the genteel generation (of which my grandmother was a member - boiled ham and potatoes only, please).

And it’s worth noting that many spices available to Indian cooks were only available because they were in huge demand in Europe. Many spices were harvested in the Far East and transported by land and sea - often via India - to the Middle East, where they were sold to Europeans. Somewhere along the spice routes, some of the produce fell off the back of a camel, so to speak, and entered the pantries of India.

Plus, of course, Indian cuisine has been mainly vegetarian for centuries, with vegetables spiced as much as meat, giving the lie to the “disguise the rotten meat” hypothesis.

Also, isn’t salt denser than pepper? Wouldn’t volume be a more appropriate measure?

Ya know, I really oughta read the columns sometime. Thanks for the link.

I don’t buy that Cecil was being racist. The way I read the column, he was referring to Europeans using pepper to disguise the taste of nearly rotten meat, and that it was Europeans who had lots of spoiling meat around:

That said, I do think the spoiling meat story is likely a myth. Especially as pepper was probably a luxury item; those who could afford pepper could also afford fresh meat. At least I’d think so.

Meat wasn’t particularly difficult to keep fresh back then - this was achieved by keeping it alive until it was required.

Also, if the meat was rotting, I don’t think pepper would disguise it too well.