the third shaker

In At Home, Bill Bryson examines many aspects of domestic life we usually take for granted:

[P]laying idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?

Prior to reading these words a few years ago, it had never occurred to me to question why salt and pepper shakers sit on nearly every table. Even on a plane or a train, your meal is served with tiny little shakers—or at least packets of salt and pepper. Why?

Salt, as Bryson notes, is essential for human life, and we each prefer varying amounts on our food. Fine, give us a dedicated shaker—but why pair it with black pepper, the dried-and-ground-up fruit of a flowering vine native to India? We keep plenty of once-exotic dried herbs and spices in the pantry: cumin, paprika, oregano, garlic. Yet it’s black pepper out on the table with the salt, as though the two condiments were of equal value. Who decided that, and how did this specific pairing become ubiquitous in Western culture?

Stranger still, Bryson reveals that there used to be three shakers at the dining table as recently as the 19th century. Historians have no idea what went inside the third shaker. Maybe powdered mustard? Whatever it was, it got demoted. (You thought the third wheel had it rough.)

For all of our schools and books and cuneiform tablets, mankind has a short memory. We’re good with fixed-date occurrences—wars, inventions, births—but when it comes to gradual but sweeping cultural change, we turn a blind eye.

“Turn a blind eye”—an idiom that must date from a time when people walking around with a non-working eye or two was normal. (According to the OED, at least as early as 1698. Sounds right.) Blind eyes are vanishingly rare today, yet we keep on using the phrase.

Call this boiled-frog change. (Speaking of which, we no longer believe a frog will allow itself to be boiled if you raise the temperature slowly enough.) Boiled-frog change is hard to spot unless you compare and contrast two widely separated points in history: “Hey, we all went from three shakers to two at some point in that century.”

It’s for this reason I like to read out-of-print books—not classics but books that have long fallen out of public awareness. It’s the closest thing to time travel. All the miscellaneous and seemingly unimportant details of daily life in a banal novel or travel guide from the 1920s offer a specific, fascinating glimpse of that moment in history.

Christopher Columbus’s son Hernando Colón, an avid book collector, had his entire 15,000-volume collection summarized. Only a quarter of the books remain, but the summaries provide an extraordinary glimpse into the kinds of everyday books (literate) people read 500 years ago. (Yes, they’re writing a book on the subject.)

What I find most intriguing about older books is how articulate everyone seemed to be only a few decades ago. Not just the scholars and academics but authors across genres and of disparate backgrounds. To my eye, the bar for written expression has gone way, way down. But it’s boiled-frog change. I can’t pinpoint any one year or even decade and say: that’s where writing went south. Clearly, though, the average book saw a precipitous drop in terms of pure compositional skill in the 20th century, from the sophistication of the syntax to the, um, bigness of the vocabulary.

Our sentences don’t sing like they once did. Why? My theory is memorization. Read about the upbringing of nearly any writer of previous generations and the one common educational element you’ll find is rote memorization and recall, i.e. that they were forced to memorize and recite vast quantities of material. I see this pattern in so many biographies. Almost without fail, people born in the first half of the 20th century and earlier remember being forced to memorize poems and monologues during childhood and recite them before the class. While these recollections are often tinged with resentment, inevitably the memorizers give credit to this experience for refining their prosodic capacity (if not their capacity to think properly in general).

Educational theory turned away from memorization and I suspect this was an enormous mistake. Good things clearly happen when you memorize and recite great writing. It gets in your head. It rewires you. In fact, I believe there is no pedagogical substitute. There’s an entire category of learning that we’ve missed out on.

This line of thinking leads me to wonder: if I were going to memorize a few things—just to sharpen up the old quill—where would I begin? A stretch of epic poetry? A monologue from Shakespeare? (In middle school, we learned the prologue from Henry V: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention…” Good stuff.)

Memorize something. I strongly suspect it feeds the brain. Better yet, bore your friends by reciting it. Standing up. Make it a toast at dinner so you can hold a goblet aloft. Yes, even if you’re at a restaurant. Wear a turtleneck and a tweed jacket for the occasion. I sure will. And if you have any suggestions for my first assignment, chime in. My knowledge of poetry begins and ends with Homer and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. What are your recommendations? Something substantial, even McKellan-esque, would be ideal, though nothing too obvious like “Kubla Khan” or “Ozymandias” or anything from Dead Poets Society. I’m not standing on any chairs.

If you’re intrigued by the concept of boiled-frog cultural change, definitely read Sam Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts, one of my favorites from my publishing days. And if you haven’t yet discovered Maldon salt, it’s time for an upgrade.

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