Tuesday, October 14, 2008

condiments

Steve Jones wrote to ask me a question--which was kind of confusing, as I know three Steve Joneses. Turns out he's none of them, but he still has a good point:

From an off topic post on a practice US nationality test on one of the web's leading technology sites is this statement.

>>1. What condiment applies to French-fried potatoes?
>> Vinegar... no, mayonnaise... no wait, it's that red stuff.

>No credit for not being able to name the red stuff. Negative points for even thinking of the
>words vinegar or mayonnaise.

Now even in the sixty comments nobody mentioned salt and pepper which is what I would use. Is there a difference in the meaning of the word condiment between British and American English?
Better Half and I have visited this particular transatlantic chasm. I'm struggling to remember the details, but it involved him claiming to have put out condiments on the table, and me saying something like "You can't call it condiments when there's only a jar of mustard there", and him retorting that there was mustard and salt and pepper. At which point we began a particularly pointless argument about whether salt and pepper can be called condiments. It's at these points in a mixed marriage at which a spouse like me can do one of two things:
  1. Attribute his use of the word to his adorable Englishness.
  2. Assume he's a culinary cretin who just doesn't know the proper meaning of the word.
Then along comes Steve to save BH from fate (2). BH didn't even know that he has such a guardian angel.

To me, salt and pepper are seasonings but not condiments, and condiments are things that are usually wet and require a recipe to make. Let's compare some BrE and AmE dictionaries to see whether they differ on this point, starting with the British:
a substance such as salt, mustard, or pickle that is used to add flavour to food.
(Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd edn)

Seasoning added to flavour foods, such as salt, or herbs and spices such as mustard, ginger, curry, pepper, etc. ...
(Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, Oxford University Press)

any seasoning for food, such as salt, pepper, sauces
(Collins on-line)
All of the British sources I checked explicitly mention salt and often pepper. And the American?
A substance, such as a relish, vinegar, or spice, used to flavor or complement food.
(American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edn)

something used to enhance the flavor of food ; especially : a pungent seasoning
(Merriam-Webster on-line)
While the AmE definitions could apply to salt and pepper, neither dictionary mentions them.

Searching online for the phrase "salt, pepper and condiments", I got 1,550 hits. Searching UK sites only (using Google.co.uk), there were four. So, it is looking like the urge to separate salt and pepper from condiments is not a particularly British urge.

Why is it this way? I don't know. I can't think of any seasoning-related behavio(u)r that would make salt/pepper more or less prominent in any group's collective mind. In fact, the only salt/pepper cross-cultural difference that I can think of has to do with the number of holes in the containers in which they're served. In the US, a (AmE) salt shaker has several holes, whereas the shaker for ground pepper has fewer holes. In the UK (and elsewhere) a salt-cellar (a term also found in AmE, but not as frequently; see the comments for corrections re this term) has one biggish hole and the (BrE) pepperpot has several smaller holes. Thus, those visiting one country from the other almost invariably put the wrong condiment/seasoning on their food on the first try. But in both countries, salt and pepper are expected to be found on a table and are provided on restaurant/cafe tables--except for those restaurants in which the waiter presents a huge pepper-dispensing phallus, generally after you've had the first bites of your food and when you're in the throes of a really interesting conversation, troubling you to ask "Fresh Ground Black Pepper, Miss?" (you can hear the capital letters there). Obviously, we mere consumers are not to be trusted with the Pepper God fetish. But that happens in both countries too.

There's a strange disagreement between the British and American dictionaries on the etymology. While Collins and Oxford give the Latin condire as meaning 'to pickle', AHD and M-W give it as 'to season'. You'd think it'd be the other way (a)round, given the interpretations of condiment in the two countries.

32 comments:

circeus said...

Etymonline gives condire as "preserve, pickle, season", Wiktionary gives it as "season, spice, make savory, embalm", so I suspect both definition are simply part of a broad meaning.

Steve said...

In Italian, 'condire' is to season, flavour or spice, but not pickle ('mettere in salamoia').

John Cowan said...

Lewis and Short (yeah, they're obsolete, but they're freely available too) give both senses:

I. To put fruit in vinegar, wine, spices, etc., to preserve, pickle

II. Of food, to make savory, to season, spice

Extended and figurative senses include "to make fragrant", "to embalm", "to ornament", "to polish or ornament (discourse)", "to soften", "to temper". A verb of broad meaning indeed.

Licia said...

As Steve already mentioned, in Italian condire does not mean pickle. All four Italian dictionaries I checked indicate etymology ("dal latino condire") without further explanations, i.e. no no change of meaning.
Condimento in Italian is "any ingredient added to food to enhance its flavour", and for us salt and pepper are indeed condimenti.

BlueBottle said...

As a British English speaker, I'm happy for salt and pepper to be either condiments or seasoning. If I had to come up with a rule of thumb as to which I might use, I suppose I'd be inclined to call them seasonings in the kitchen, where they're included in the recipe by the cook, and condiments when they appear on the table, to be applied ad lib by the diners.

biochemist said...

Music hall entertainers in the UK can be heard reminiscing about the Golden Age, including seaside landladies who would supply bed and breakfast, with an extra charge for 'use of condiments' - presumably all required to make the fried breakfast palatable...

Mid-20th century condiment stands (for B&B and greasy-spoon cafes) were made from chrome wire and included space for salt and pepper shakers as described by Lynne, plus a Colman's mustard jar and a small spoon.

Dunce said...

Lynne, my own usage (as another AmE speaker in BrE land) is just about the same as yours, whatever the US dictionaries may say.

For me, "condiment" applies only to liquid or creamy substances, not seasonings, herbs or spices. Not quite a sauce (although as a child I thought "condiment" was polite register for "sauce"); there's a distinction between condiment and sauce that I can't quite put my finger on.

I recall a legendary family argument about BLT sandwiches: whether bacon should be used as a condiment or as a full-fledged ingredient. Although this argument started out as a question of quantity (condiment = less), the terms of the cease-fire were that a condiment may be a customary part of a dish (and may even be a solid), but that dish retains its identity without the condiment, although it may not be any good. Bacon is thus not a condiment in a BLT, but it is a condiment on, say, a baked potato. And that we should just shut up and eat our BLTs even though they were short on bacon.

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biochemist said...

Having left a post (above) a couple of hours ago, I went and had lunch, where the word 'cruet' popped into my head. So the chrome device I described was a cruet stand, and mustard, salt and pepper are definitely [BrE] cruet - presumably originally French but now pronounced croo-ett.

lynneguist said...

In AmE we use cruet to refer to the type of thing that vinaigrette is served in. Definitely for a liquid.

The other BrE term that one sees for shakers is caster. Which could lead on to a discussion about sugar--but let's not have that discussion here, please, because it's a post that I'm planning!

Trinovante39 said...

I'm with bluebottle on this one. The cook adds seasonings, the diners add condiments...some of which are conveniently provided in a cruet.

What a cruet should consist of may be moot (in the BrE sense of moot): Oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard, and ketchup at least. On the congtinong I'd expect the ketchup to be excluded, and the mustard to be Dijon-style rather than American yellow sweet-and-mild or British yellow three-alarm.

DetailBear said...

My British-Canadian Mother would always remove the salt and pepper from the table at the end of a meal, and part of setting the table would be to bring them out again. My Canadian Father would insist that salt and pepper should remain on the table at all times, and that anything sauce-like should be put away after dinner. It's an interesting parallel to the usage you've described.

At a Canadian diner-type restaurant, you usually find that the chrome condiment set will include salt, pepper, sugar, white vinegar (malt vinegar in a fish and chip shop) and ketchup. Pepper flakes and grated cheese may be substituted for the vinegar and ketchup in an Italian restaurant.

At fast food restaurants or street stands, all of the packets or containers (including salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, vinegar and various sauces and pickled items) will be called "Condiments" on a neatly lettered sign.

Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and the like on a burger or sub are called "produce" by the workers, while the various sauces, salt and pepper are the "condiments".

Thinking of my own usage, I would say if it can be added to a finished product by spooning, shaking or squeezing out a variable amount of the substance, it's a condiment. If it's a discrete item that is either present or absent, it isn't one. So cranberry sauce, ketchup, bacon bits and pepper are condiments and cheese slices, lettuce, pickles and bacon slices are toppings or ingredients.

papamac said...

Having never seen salt and pepper on the table since I was a child (and with most chefs taking great umbrage at anyone daring to add additional salt or pepper to their carefully seasoned dishes), it would never occur to me to call salt and pepper condiments.

This Australian agrees that condiments are things you add, at your own discretion, at the table - usually liquids. Seasonings are things the cook adds in the kitchen -- usually dry.

Roger Owen Green said...

The question itself reminded me of the movie Pulp Fiction where they discuss that the most common condiment served with French fries in Amsterdam is (ugh) mayonnaise.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

My (BrE, elderly) mother removes the salt and pepper at the end of the main course; it is put away before the pudding. Salt, for formal meals, is served in a little glass dish with a spoon; you are expected to place a little heap on the side of your plate and use it as you have need - shaking salt over your food is Not Done! And the word "cruet" is used in inverted commas, if at all.....

Mark Etherton said...

As a BrE speaker, I'd make a distinction between a salt cellar, which is a small glass or silver dish from which salt is taken out with a spoon, and a salt shaker, which is an enclosed tube with holes in the top. I was brought up along the lines set out by Mrs Redboots' mother, with the additions that a) the salt can stay on the table if you are having celery with the cheese after the pudding course (since celery is eaten with salt and butter) and b) salt is always put on the side of the plate, whether from a shaker or a cellar.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Indeed, Mark - I wasn't clear on that one. Yes, shaking salt over one's food was definitely Not Done in our family. I don't know whether this was just a shibboleth, or whether it was to do with only using extra salt if you needed it, like chefs in posh restaurants being offended if people ask for extra salt!

Anonymous said...

Italy here! I have to disagree with licia above. To me, salt and pepper are not "condimenti" by any stretch of the imagination; oil and vinegar are bonafide "condimenti."

bill said...

In the US, it is rare to have salt in a bowl (in fact I don't think I have ever actually seen it served that way.) If I were to see that on a table I would automatically assume it was sugar.

And is the "cruet" (as it is being called by the BrE speakers) a more "formal" thing in the UK? In the US, we don't really have a name for it...I would just call it "That thing that holds the salt and pepper that might have the menus in it."

And like Lynne said, a cruet over here is nothing more than a bottle that holds salad dressing.

With the cruet and toast rack, I am getting a hint that the Brits love their food organization.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

A salt-cellar is very much smaller than a sugar bowl, as is the associated spoon.

Simon K said...

Some confusion here over "cruet", but that's probably because BrE is (as so often) thoroughly contradictory.

My personal usage - and Google seems to back me up on this - would be that a "cruet" is most likely to be a single vessel holding liquid of some sort, commonly oil or vinegar.

A "cruet set", on the other hand, is a matching pair of salt- and pepper-shakers. So the members of a cruet set are not themselves cruets (Bertrand Russell would approve...)

Anne T. said...

Hm. I'm American, and have always understood salt to be in the single-holed shaker and pepper to be in the multiple-holed shaker. Salt comes out readily, pepper not so much.

Zach said...

anne t. - That tends to depend on where you're from. I'm from Australia salt shakers have many little holes and pepper shakers have 2-3 larger holes. I have never seen a salt shaker with a single hole.

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Alexandria said...

In Fight Club, the narrator is distressed to lose his refrigerator "full of condiments but no food." This covers ketchup, mustard, relish, steak sauce, etc. but not salt and pepper.

Alexandria said...

Sorry to post again, but I just opened up my copy of The Joy of Cooking (a true home comfort to this AmE speaker living in London), and here's what they say about condiments, including Sauce Remoulade, which I'm about to make: "The characteristics of condiments tend to shift over time, but they do share a few attributes. All are used to provide flavor for food; all contain more than a single ingredient; all can be made in advance and most can be stored for at least a day or two, often much longer; and all stand alone, created independently and therefore able to add their distinctive flavors to a range of different dishes." I think the more than a single ingredient definition really sums it up for me.

flatlander said...

I [AmE] agree with alexandria and the Joy of Cooking's definition of condiment: flavorings with more than one ingredient. Powdered or grainy stuff is "seasoning". Larger discrete items (like lettuce or cheese) are "toppings" or, in meals consisting of processed meat cooked over open flame, "fixin's".

Anne T. said...

Hi Zach,

I seem to recall some salt shakers with one hole, when the pepper shaker has three. Otherwise, the holes are smaller or fewer for the salt shaker, as I understand it. Lynne wrote:

"In the US, a (AmE) salt shaker has several holes, whereas the shaker for ground pepper has fewer holes. In the UK (and elsewhere) a salt-cellar (a term also found in AmE, but not as frequently) has one biggish hole and the (BrE) pepperpot has several smaller holes. "

All I'm saying is that I would not have a problem in England as the salt would be where I would expect it to be. I do have relatives who were anglophiles, so maybe this understanding of the shakers descends from them. I think in restaurants it hasn't been a problem because they are in glass containers or are somehow otherwise identified (also, I don't tend to add salt or pepper to my food.)

Marc Naimark said...

Hypothesis: the British simply use so many more condiments than Americans. It is uncommon on an American table to automatically place anything more than salt and pepper, while in the UK (I think), there are any number of sauces and whatnot that are automatically offered.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Not necessarily, Marc; it rather depends. If you were serving beef you'd probably put out mustard and/or horseradish sauce, for instance, and then there might be the traditional accompaniments to other dishes, but by and large, just salt and pepper for every day.

Certainly in a café you would probably have tomato ketchup and/or brown sauce and/or vinegar on the table; and a restaurant might have oil and vinegar as well as salt and pepper, but in a private home, it would be salt and pepper, and the rest would depend on the meal.

conuly said...

All the salt and pepper shaker sets I've seen lately have the holes making the shape of an S for Salt and a P for Pepper, which (hopefully) keeps us all from getting confused.

AllieTheKiwi said...

I grew up with salt in a small bowl on the table, and a matching pepper pot. For posh dinners, the alternative set was silver with a blue bowl in the silver for the salt (since salt and silver do not work well together).

In the kitchen we had a salt pig (or pygg) for use during cooking. It wasn't until I was an adolescent that we were given a matching set of salt and pepper shakers. As far as I've seen in New Zealand, the salt shaker always has one hole and the pepper pot has several.