Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Salt Cellar: Object Inspiration

By Photo by Nick Michael (Private collection)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On every visit, the salt cellar takes me back to our first meeting.   

When we flew from Washington, D.C. to London to meet my boyfriend’s parents, I was nervous and intimidated.  Their flat was in the upscale Mayfair area of central London.  Their neighbor was ‘Punch’ Sulzberger, former publisher of the NY Times.  They belonged to dining clubs.  

Their apartment overflowed with status, each museum-like piece reminding me of my modest experience in life. Persian rugs.  Original oil paintings.  When we sat down for dinner, there was so much sparkling crystal and silver, I felt the need to shade my eyes.

The intricately carved silver salt cellar (no, no, not just a bowl – a cellar) sat on the table mocking me.  The salt rested there, open-faced, fresh, clean white grains.  I LOVE salt.  I needed salt.  But…there was no spoon. 

I looked across the antique table inlaid with a bronze ribbon trim. I peered around the silver gravy bowl, and gold-rimmed serving dishes.

 I watched to see if my hostess took any for herself, simultaneously trying to comprehend the rapid trill of Irish-accented conversation, and use the appropriate cutlery (two forks, two knives, a teaspoon, and a large spoon above my plate – what was that for?)  The food was savory and hearty:  rack of lamb with gravy and mint sauce.   I didn’t think I liked lamb, but this was good.  And roast potatoes, yummmmmmm.  Crispy on the outside, flaky inside– perfect.  I lopped a large hunk of butter on top.  Salt – the only thing I’m missing is salt.  No one seems to be taking any salt.  The others are well into their lamb now. 

Hmmm. Potatoes are just not the same without a little salt.  Maybe I was just supposed to take a pinch?  Could that be?  We were in England after all, and maybe that’s where the phrase ‘a pinch of salt’ came from.  How the heck do I know – I grew up gnawing on fried chicken on paper plates.

Finally, I took a chance.  I reached in with my fingers and took a pinch of salt.  Mmm.  Great potatoes.

Still chatting, my boyfriend’s mother reached over, and retrieved the salt cellar.  With a quick glance, she found a tiny Thumbelina-sized spoon that she dipped in and used to gently sprinkle salt across her food. 

OH, WHAT HAVE I DONE?  I stuck my naked fingers directly into the food.  MAJOR Faux Paus! 
I already felt like a clumsy, boorish American.  I couldn't even understand half of the words tumbling around the table, even though I knew everyone was speaking English. I just wouldn’t fit in here.  I mean, if I couldn't even do the salt right, how could I make anything else work?  Oh, I was a fish out of water, a coarse middle-class American dropped into the refinement of an upperclass Anglo-Irish household.

That salt cellar was filled with anxiety, class differences, and the polite and charming tolerance of parents to a child’s new ‘friend.’

My boyfriend’s parents are now my in-laws, and we are very close.  My mother-in-law laughs at my salt cellar story, never letting on whether she noticed or not.  Over the years, I have refilled the salt cellar with laughter and joy, acceptance of differences, family connections, and of course, new and learned social graces (I ALWAYS us the tiny spoon).

My mother-in-law just arrived to stay with us for Christmas. On this visit, the object that strikes me as significant is the black ergonomic cane she leans on -- a new accessory for her and a very visible sign of her age. Now in in mid eighties (my father-in-law having passed on a few years ago) she is downsizing her living space, and has begun to distribute special items to family.  Maybe she’ll think of me when she decides to give away the salt cellar.  I hope so.  It always makes me smile. 

Objects are inspiration.  Objects can be imbued with meaning, stories.  It is the time of year when many objects emerge just for the season... so take notice of that platter, the sweater, the door mat that reminds you of cousin Anne. Why? What happened?  Writers, I wish for you this Christmas to find the stories in the objects around you.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


  1. "...I couldn't even do the salt right"-
    This I'll take with me, please. Thank you for a flavorful post.

  2. Julia,
    This was a great story. Thanks for sharing! I'm glad you became a part of the family. They're lucky to have you!

  3. Thanks guys! Happy Holidays to everyone.

  4. Julie, I love how this story illustrates the way that ordinary objects become invested with history, emotion & context! It also reminds me of something that happened to me shortly after college. At the time I was living in my parents' apartment in NYC, and they had this very sculptural Danish modern silverware.Well, one evening we had a visitor, this friend of a friend who had grown up on a farm outside Syracuse, who was trying to get ice out of an ice tray. I handed him a fork and he went deep red, practically dropping the ice tray. "I didn't know you had to use a special kind of ice fork!" It became a kind of family joke in our friend circle.

  5. P.S. This is the set. You can see how the poor guy got confused! http://www.danishteakclassics.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/odin_set_300.jpg

  6. A delightful, thoughtful description of the sort of thing we've all experienced - feeling out of place. You've made this event a perfect example of "showing" instead of "telling." Nice!

  7. Reminds me of the first time my mother met her future in-laws, who in the middle-eastern tradition had a bowl of hot peppers at the table. My mother, having no idea how hot they were and considering herself sophisticated enough to tolerate spice food, put a whole one in her mouth. She couldn't talk for about ten minutes.