Dining Etiquette Series – Please Pass The Salt



Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working
together is success. ~ Henry Ford, Founder of the Ford Motor Company

The famous American industrialist probably didn’t have salt and pepper in mind when he uttered these words. But they apply to this week’s topic. When part of the dining table — whether at a casual business breakfast or a formal dinner party — the salt and pepper shakers are placed on the table together, kept together when being passed and work together when both are used to season food.

That aside, there is a reputed link between Henry Ford and salt. According to business lore, when Ford hired a new executive he would take him to lunch and observe his table manners. One point of etiquette in particular was of interest to the automobile tycoon; if he witnessed the prospective new hire salting his food before tasting it, Ford summarily eliminated him from consideration!

History of the Salt Shaker

Salt has long been a staple of the dinner table, dating back to Biblical times. It was originally served in bowls in course chunks, which were chipped or broken off to season food. Salt grinders came next; they were similar to today’s salt shakers or pepper mills, but had a mechanism inside that ground the salt into course pieces onto one’s food. Shakers became popular after Joy Morton, of the Morton Salt Company, began adding the anti-caking agent magnesium carbonate to salt in 1911, making it easy to pour even in humid weather. This major breakthrough produced one of the most famous ads and brands in American marketing history, the Morton Salt Girl with her umbrella and the slogan, “When It Rains It Pours.” Without the need for an internal mechanism because the salt poured freely, the salt shaker was easier to use, and it was then paired with the pepper shaker and the rest is history. Today, there are salt and pepper shaker sets in an untold number of shapes, sizes, styles and colors. And, they make a popular collectors’ item. If you notice that your hosts have unusual or particularly beautiful salt and pepper shakers, pepper mills or salt cellars, don’t be afraid to compliment them. People love to receive compliments on their belongings and collections!

Together, Not Apart 

Getting back to the concept of togetherness, the salt and pepper shaker must always be passed together, and remain together. This practice began as a courtesy to the person who requested the salt, pepper or both. So, to look sophisticated and knowledgeable, pass the salt and pepper together. When you pass the two shakers to the guest who has requested them, place them on the table side by side in front the guest’s table setting, rather than handing them directly to the guest. If you are between the person passing the shakers and the person receiving them, do not under any circumstances intercept the shakers. If you also want them, politely wait until the guest is finished using both and then ask if you may have them. You might not wish to use both the salt and pepper, but you must accept both and replace them on the table near you until someone else requests them.

Small salt and pepper shakers should be placed above a place setting or between two place settings, depending on how many pairs are on the table. But, whether large or small, the salt is placed to the right of the pepper; the reasoning is that more people use salt than pepper, and as most people are right handed it is easier for them to reach the salt. If the shakers are identical and opaque, you can tell which is which by the number and size of the holes in the shakers; because salt is finer than pepper, the shaker will have smaller but more holes, and the pepper shaker will have fewer but larger holes.

Reasoning before Seasoning

Salting one’s food before tasting it is a faux pas, as it is considered an insult to the chef, cook or hostess, as well as a sign of one’s ignorance of table manners. But, it might also be a case of not analyzing the data before tinkering with it; at least this was the idea behind another business tale about a Chicago executive who turned down a job because the president of the company salted his steak before tasting it; in other words, the executive believed that the president used no reasoning before seasoning, and did not wish to work for someone with such a lack of judgment. Some people automatically season their food without tasting it first, often using copious amounts of both salt and pepper. In those instances, it’s not necessarily about the food, but just an acquired bad habit that it would be wise to break!

Variations on a Theme 

When at home it’s fine to have one set of salt and pepper shakers on the table; or not, whichever is the custom at your house. But, in large families and dinner parties, it is recommended that a set of shakers be placed at either end of the table to accommodate the expanded group. At more formal luncheons and dinners, enough sets should be placed so that every four guests can share a set of shakers. For very formal dinners and luncheons, a miniature set should be in included at each individual place setting.

Another variation is to provide pepper grinders and salt cellars. Here, etiquette experts vary on the passing procedure. Some believe the same procedure should apply to the grinder and cellar, that is, they must be passed together; others believe that because the pepper grinder tends to be larger, it may be passed separately from the salt shaker or cellar. You should do what is most convenient and graceful in any given situation.

Salt cellars will contain tiny spoons to be used to sprinkle your salt lightly over your food; don’t use up all the salt in the cellar if the cellars are being shared. At some very formal affairs, you might find an individual salt cellar by your table. With both the individual salt and pepper shakers and salt cellars, try not to deplete them; but if you do, do not ask for refills. If a salt cellar that is meant for your use only has no spoon accompanying it, you may take a pinch of salt between your thumb and index finger and sprinkle it on your food.

Where’s the Salt?

If there are no salt and pepper shakers on the table at a dinner party in a private home – or any other condiment is missing – do not ask for them! You never want to embarrass your host. The exceptions would be if you know the host well, you could subtly ask him or her – or one of their servers – where the salt and pepper might be. Or, if you are at your Aunt Mabel’s house and you notice the salt and pepper are missing from the dinner table, you could ask her quietly and out of earshot of others. Your host or her server, or Aunt Mabel might be grateful that you (very discreetly) pointed out the oversight.

At a business lunch or dinner in a restaurant or corporate dining room, it’s okay to ask the server for salt and pepper if it’s missing from the table. Just don’t interrupt your host, interviewer or client to do so!  Wait until the waiter asks if you need anything, or when there is a lull in the conversation and the waiter is nearby.

Remember that in business and social occasions, it’s not about the food; it’s about the people and the business

At the end of the meal, before dessert and coffee are served, the salt and pepper, as well as other condiments, should be removed from the table.

Salty Conversation

In addition to learning about salt and pepper shaker etiquette, I hope I’ve provided you with a few topics to spice up your dinner conversation!

Until next time,


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