From R., 10 December 2009, The secret ingredient is salt.

Q: So this is a little out of the usual “help me cook” question, but what the hell.

We were talking over dinner the other night, and wondered why it’s traditional in the US/West to have salt and pepper on the table, but no other seasonings. I know you see other seasonings on the table at various ethnic restaurants (fish sauce, hot peppers, etc), and that some high end places don’t put out salt and pepper on the presumption that everything from the kitchen is done perfectly, but these exceptions really just seem to point out the oddity that is the salt and pepper shakers.

A: That’s an interesting question.

I don’t know that it’s entirely true that, in the U.S. and the West – which I take to mean European countries – salt and pepper constitute the only usual items at the table. Take diners, for example. In addition to salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard usually feature on the tables of American diners. In the South, you often see little bottles of pickled peppers or hot sauce on the table. In some parts of France, there’s sometimes mustard, and in Britain, brown sauce.

I think it may come down to the sense that salt and pepper are seasonings, and salt in particular is essential to bring out the basic flavors of food. Without salt, food tastes bland, and without the brightness of pepper, food often tastes dull. In East Asia, soy sauce takes the place of salt. In Southeast Asia, fish sauce plays the same role. So although those items provide umami and contribute other flavors besides pure saltiness, their presence on the table fills the same role as salt does on American tables. Leaving any of these seasonings – salt, pepper, soy, or fish sauce – on the table allows the diner to adjust the seasoning to his or her palate.

In contrast, items such as ketchup, mustard, chile peppers, vinegar, and herbs are condiments, which vary the basic taste of the food by adding acidity, sweetness, heat, or herbaceousness. Whereas potatoes and eggs are unappetizingly bland without salt, they take on a different quality – perhaps slightly spicy, sweet, or acidic – with the addition of ketchup or hot sauce. In other words, the condiment becomes another ingredient. Depending on whether the underlying cuisine encourages diners to vary the taste of their food at the table, and depending whether condiments must be prepared fresh or can remain on the table, you may or may not see condiments. For example, I rarely saw condiments on Italian or Spanish tables. In Japan, condiments (such as ponzu or wasabi) tended to be presented with specific dishes. In parts of China, however, chiles in oil seemed to be present on most tables.

From J.M., 8 December 2009, Apologizing with food?

Q: What could Tiger cook for his wife to get him out of this mess?

A: You know, speaking as a married woman, I can say that absolutely nothing Tiger Woods can cook up will get him out of this mess. This is a cooking blog, not a Judging the Colossal Screwups of Others blog, so I’ll just limit my comments to YIKES.

Some have offered helpful menu suggestions for such a feast, including such knee-slappers as “clam dip.” I’m not going to touch that one with a ten foot stripper pole. No, actually, I think the only suitable dish is humble pie, baked and eaten by Tiger in front of his wife.

Humble pie isn’t a real dish, you say? It is, although you’d probably not want to eat it, which makes it a spectacular apology dish. Humble pie originated in around the 14th century, as a means of serving the “umbles,” or deer offal. As the pie included suet, apples, and spices (intended perhaps to mask the strong flavors or any spoilage), it probably resembled mincemeat. Michael Quinion has written:

Eating Humble Pie is an example of a shift in spelling of a word under the influence of another. (umble – humble) The umbles were the innards of a deer: the liver, the heart, entrails and other third-class bits. It was common practice in mediaeval times to serve a meat pie made of these parts of the animal to the servants. Though this was definitely lower-class food at the time, it seems to have gone up in the world later, to judge from Samuel Pepys, who mentions it in his diary for 8 July 1663: “Mrs Turner came in and did bring us an umble pie hot out of her oven, extraordinarily good.”

The word humble was frequently spelled and pronounced umble from medieval times right down to the nineteenth century. So the figurative sense of umble pie could have appeared at almost any time since the Middle Ages. It was not until the nineteenth century that eating humble pie appeared in the sense we know now, of apologizing humbly, of humiliation as a result of error. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1830. Charles Dickens turned it back to the older spelling in David Copperfield in 1850 as an indication of uneducated speech when he put these words into the mouth of Uriah Heep: “When I was quite a young boy… I got to know what umbleness did and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite.” (Quinion 2004)

So there you have it. Deer innards may be Tiger’s only shot at forgiveness. Good luck with that.


Quinion, Michael. Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004.

One thought on “Erudition.

  1. Pingback: Tiger Woods, humble pie. « The Upstart Kitchen

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