Conversation Starters: The wonder of Salt Cellars

blog photo of salt cellars on Fran's table

“Above the Salt” Idea: Entertain guests like a pro with great salt cellars for your table.

Do you know someone who can really throw a fabulous gathering no matter how large or small? I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to know some party planning geniuses and, to be honest, I spend a lot of time paying attention to them – what they do and how they get it done.

What I’m describing here is the subtle art of home entertaining. Creating an intimate setting where the drinks are flowing, the food is excellent, and the music sounds fabulous, but at the very heart of the party is the conversation: electric, happy, and memorable.

THAT’s the key, right there: the trigger for a great conversation. Without it, you could host a party with a five-star magician as the main entertainment, and still watch it flop. I know. I’ve seen it happen. So, what IS the secret? What’s the trick to triggering conversation and keeping everyone talking?

Consider these examples:

  • When friends come to visit a friend of mine’s home for drinks, he pulls out old AOL sign-up CDs from the 90s and uses them as coasters. Boomers laugh. Millennials gape at them as though they’re museum collectibles.
  • Another friend uses “vintage” Melmac cups, saucers, and plates from the 1960s – a very nice retro look that goes with her retro décor. Along with her movie posters (also from the 60s), her home really is like a museum, but you should hear all the conversation!
  • An author I know collects photos from pre-World War II Europe and has framed reprints all around his home. For people who have traveled to Europe – especially Italy and Germany – these are very precious images that never fail to trigger a conversation.

The truly cool thing about this “trick” is that, for it to work, you don’t have to go all out and redecorate your home. Add things that complement your existing décor and personal tastes. But, do your research and be THAT person who knows a bit about whatever you’ve add to make things just a bit more interesting. In my case and for my taste, I like curios that I pick up from estate sales, often for the tabletop or kitchen.

Recently, I rediscovered Salt Cellars, also called ‘salt pigs,’ which were used to hold and dispense salt. They can be either lidded or open and vary significantly in size, shape, and materials – from very simple to incredibly elaborate made out of precious metals and stones.

Salt cellars of various shapes and sizes have been found dating from the time of the Greeks and Romans. During the Middle Ages very elaborate salt cellars were placed at the head of the table as a sign of status and prosperity, so they were often crafted in silver and decorated with sea motifs (remember – it was sea salt that was being put into the salt cellars). 

In addition to the large bowl placed at the head of the table, smaller ones would be set around the table for the guests. Social status was measured by where guests were seated relative to the master’s large salt cellar. So, high ranking guests sat ‘above the salt’ and closer to the host while lower ranking ones sat ‘below the salt.’

Some of these master salt cellars were so large and ornate that they were called ‘standing salt’ because they weren’t passed around the table.  The tiny spoons first appeared in the 17th century as the use of these larger salt cellars increased. Common salt shakers didn’t appear until the Victorian era in England but remained unpopular because salt tended to clump up due to moisture in the air.  After anti-caking agents were introduced in 1911, salt shakers became more popular and cellars were eventually demoted off most dinner tables.

Salt cellars are now a collector’s item, but I like to use them around the table with different salts in them.  Sea salts come in many shades and flavors that can really add excitement to your food. Using different salt cellars with different salts is another way to kick-off conversations, and keep the memories flowing no matter how you’ve been “salted.”

Check out my video for more ideas on home entertaining.

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