A Growing Salt & Pepper Collection

by Ari Weinzweig

The ever-growing number of salt and pepper shakers at the Roadhouse do get a good bit of attention. My partner Paul thinks I’m crazy, but humors me. A lot of people love them. A few barely notice them. Kids, I’ve noticed, are very into them. Parents walk them around and see which are their favorites and play games like I Spy. Design people get really into them. Every once in a while someone comes in, who has their own collection or who knows someone who did. Mostly people are intrigued, at the very least curious, which comes out most often in the form of two questions: a) how many are there? and b) how long have you been working at gathering up what’s in there?

So, How Many Are There?

To get to the most data driven question up front, I think there are currently like 1010 sets (plus or minus a few – there are a couple singles) sets in the Roadhouse. As always though, I’m really not going for volume for the sake of volume. (See Bo Burlingham’s book, “Small Giants” for more on that subject—copies are for sale—or for browsing—the Roadhouse counter.) For me at least, there’s a lot more to these little sets of ceramics, plastics, stainless steel or whatever than just finding something to put up on the walls.

How Long Has our Collection Been Growing?

In terms of how long… I can’t actually remember right now exactly when it was that we put the first few sets of salt and pepper shakers into the Roadhouse. Three or four years ago, I’d guess. Either way, if you’ve been coming in for a long time, you’ve no doubt noticed that the collection has… shall we say, grown a good bit? Because there are so many sets now, a lot of people assume that I’ve been collecting these thing for some significant portion of my life, but the reality is that it’s really only been in the last few years that I’ve gotten going with it. As with most everything I end up expending high energy on, the more I learn about it, the more interested I get, the more I start to pursue it. And if you didn’t already know this about me, I’m not real big on doing things half heartedly—I mean, if you’re going to do something, why not really do it, and do it well? It’s true for me with food, it’s true of writing, public speaking, leadership, building organizations, travel and self-reflection (hey, I started journaling one day nearly 30 years ago and I’ve done it almost every day since), and running. In this case, it’s the same sort of situation with salt and pepper shakers. If you’re gonna gather some up, you might as well make it memorable!

As with everything else in life, context and caring are a lot of what give meaning to the people, actions, and relationships in our lives. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that I’ve invented some new belief system based on salt and pepper shakers, nor are they even remotely the most important thing in my life. Not even close on that one. But, as one more small side note in all the things that I do . . . they are fun, and they are interesting. And I like them—they’re a unique-to-the-U.S. bit of pretty cool commercial art. And because salt and pepper historically were very costly and hard for most people to get, there’s something I like about most everyone here in this country having access to them. (There are many other issues about getting food to the many people still in need today, but insufficient salt and pepper certainly isn’t one of them). And I like them because many were made by very interesting studios, led by very creative people who made these little pairs as just a bit of fun kitsch to go with their main lines of pottery.

Going back a bit in time, I actually started out with what is now this rather voluminous collection back in the late ‘90s at the time that we had our little fresh produce market in Kerrytown. It seemed like a fun thing to do to buy up produce-oriented shakers and put them on display above the fruits and vegetables. I probably had, at most, about fifty pairs back then. While the produce market ultimately didn’t last, the shakers did—they stayed in boxes in our offices until a few years ago when it dawned on me that they’d be a fun addition out at the Roadhouse. And that’s when the collecting really got going. They looked good, I liked them, other people did too, and like I said, once I get going I might as well really get going. So the literal answer to the question “How long have you been doing this?” is that I probably started ten or twelve years ago, but in truth, most of them have been gathered up in the last three or four. It’s been a lot of fun actually, both finding them, sharing stories about them, learning their history, watching people of all ages check them out and marvel at their diversity. Like I said, many have great stories behind them, both historically in terms of design, or personally, in terms of the people from whom I got them.

A Little Salt and Pepper History

Aside from the fact that I like the way they look, there is actually this very interesting culinary context that draws me to the salt and pepper sets. See, the thing is that if you go back into history both salt and pepper were, up until modern times, generally very costly ingredients that only rich people could afford to use regularly. As you may already know, back in the days when there was no refrigeration, salt and smoke were the two most common methods of food preservation. If you didn’t live in an area where salt was easily found—i.e., away from a sea coast with a hot climate) or living above a known underground salt deposit (like Detroit actually)—you generally needed to be fairly well off to afford salt in any kind of generous quantity. In general salt cellars (the dishes in which salt was served at the table) were considered a sign of wealth and status. The grandest salt cellar was always placed on the table in fairly close proximity to the host. Those seated on the host’s side of the saltcellar were honored; if you were seated “below the salt cellar” you were one of the common folk. As recently as the Civil War, salt shortages were a big problem right here in North America; the Union Army strategically cut off the South’s supply of salt, causing considerable spoilage of meats and other foods. In the Dictionary of American Food and Drink, John Mariani reports that Southerners resorted to scraping the floors of smokehouses to gather drippings of salt-cured meats in an attempt to preserve foods during the shortage. In his classic, “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier reaffirms this: “The most valuable trade, though, was the five-pound sack of salt they had gotten, it having become so scarce and dear that some people now dug up their smokehouse floors and boiled and strained the dirt and then boiled it down and strained it again.”

Similarly, for most of Western history pepper, has been a super hard to get commodity. The Romans loved it and went to incredibly great lengths to get it. Over time it often became a medium of exchange as well as itself an item of trade; much like cacao beans in Central America, people actually paid in peppercorns instead of coins. After the fall of the Empire pepper consumption dropped drastically and stayed down for many centuries. During the Renaissance, Venice grew to become the major pepper port of Europe, and from the 12th to the 16th centuries, the pepper trade helped to build the city-state into an international power. While these days buying a diamond may set you back a couple months salary, medieval pepper purchasers were in much the same boat. The more pepper that was popped on a guest’s plates the more prestigious the presenter was considered to be.

The power of pepper peaked in roughly the 15th century. Demand had risen so high—and supply had become so short—that pepper prices were off the charts. Some adventurous souls sought out new sources to help meet unfulfilled demand. In this sense, the lust for pepper became the driving force of European expansion. You know the names of those who went after it—Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama. Although the Americas proved to be pepperless—other than the misnamed “chile peppers,” which weren’t really pepper at all—it was actually the Portuguese who finally arrived in India by sea in 1498. Their success established new trade routes, and more plentiful supplies. Slowly but surely, pepper prices fell; by the end of the 17th century spices lost their supremacy in world trade. Gradually pepper became more affordable, and hence more readily available to the middle classes.

(For a more in depth bit of info on both salt and on pepper (with no mention at all of shakers) see the chapters in “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating.”)

A Few Favorites of the Moment

So it’s with all those centuries of context in mind that I think about the significance of the American popularization of salt and pepper, and with it the idea of the shakers. Because it’s actually quite an interesting symbol of social import as well as being rather fun that anyone in America could have salt and pepper, being really something that until modern times was mostly only for rich people. That, of course, fits really well with our whole approach here at Zingerman’s that says that good food is for everyone who’s interested, not just for some chosen gourmet few. And that, combined with the fact that they’re fun, and that life is short, and that I’m interested in great design, and obscure history, and a good story, has me intrigued with each passing year.

Next time you’re in I hope you get a minute or two to check out the ever-growing collection. Although the list will, I’m sure change over time, here are the ones I’m most intrigued by at the moment.

1939 Trylon & Perisphere

– In the case on the wall en route to the restrooms, by the entry to the “Fireplace Room” there’s a white and black plastic “Trylon and Perisphere” set that dates to the 1939 NY World’s Fair. You might recognize the shapes—they’re fairly famous in the architectural world. Although the design is now over 70 years old, I still think it looks pretty timeless-modern, the way all that great Frank Lloyd Wright stuff still does. The Trylon and Perisphere were big draws at the Fair, and millions of people went to see them. Inside the Perisphere (the round one) was an exhibit called “Democracity” which represented what the designers imagined to be the sort of place we’d be living now. The Trylon , right near it, was 700 feet tall. Although you can’t see it on the salt and pepper set, the two were connected by what was then the longest escalator in the entire world. How’s that for worthless but sort of interesting trivia? I’ll top that though with a bit of a local touch. The Trylon was actually incorporated into a song by lyricist Yip Harburg, famous father of Earnie Harburg, one of the leading creative and leadership lights that made the Del Rio what it was for so many years here on the corner of Washington and Ashley downtown. Harburg’s song was called “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and it was made famous by Groucho Marx who sang it. Anyways the song was, as most all Harburg’s work was, politically topical and references Grover Whalen, NYC politico, pr man and power-enforcer of Prohibition “unveiln’ the Trylon.” Turns out “Lydia” was also the favorite song of Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets. Wild.

Washington Monuments

– A bit to the right, there’s a set of light brown, Bakelite, Washington Monuments—probably from the 1930s—that I think are really great. If you’re aren’t already familiar with it, Bakelite was one of the first plastics to be used commercially. It was invented by a Belgian guy name Leo Baekeland, hence the name of the product he put on the market in 1907. Apparently it had a great reception right off the bat—it was pretty heat resistant, didn’t conduct electricity, and wasn’t all that expensive to make. To give you an idea of context, Dr. Baekeland was actually on the cover of Time magazine in September of 1924! And FYI, the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington has a set of Bakelite salt and peppers (not of the Washington Monument though) that once belonged to Dr. Baekeland.

Mini-Sunbeam C-20 Coffee Pots

– There’s also a little silver set that looks like two coffee pots one sitting on top of the other. It’s actually a salt and pepper version of the Sunbeam C-20 coffee set from the 1939, same year as Trylon and Perisphere were unveiled. in NYC the set—both the original and the salt and pepper—turn out to have black Bakelite handles. The actual coffee maker was for vacuum pot brewing, which is still one of the best methods any of us could use for making good coffee today. The coffee maker was designed by Alphonso Iannelli. Italian by birth he immigrated to the US in 1898. He went on to work with Frank Lloyd Wright on all sorts of amazing designs including the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, from which there’s also another set of silver, embossed salt and peppers on the wall on the way to the bathroom.

Rosemeade and Laura Taylor

– Then there’s all the stuff from my favorite studio right now, Rosemeade. This amazing American pottery studio was started and run by a woman named Laura Taylor, native of North Dakota, graduate of ND (which out there is University of North Dakota, not Notre Dame) and then the state supervisor of the WPA (from the last time we had a big government stimulus program to help the economy). Ms. Taylor was invited to NYC for the 1939 World’s Fair in order to demonstrate her pottery making. It’s pretty likely that while she was there she’d have gone to see Trylon and Perisphere, but we know for a fact that she did meet her husband to be, Robert Hughes. Together they went on to open what they called the Wahpeton Pottery Co. (named after her hometown in North Dakota) in 1940. Later they changed the name to Rosemeade, which was the ND county in which she was born.

There’s a bunch of her stuff above Table 107 in the Fireplace Room. I really love her design and the entire spirit of what she did. all the clay used was dug from a bed near Wahpeton, then aged for a year before they used it, and she developed a special technique that of glazing over metal oxides that gave them a special look. The detail on the dogs—setters, boxers, spaniels just to name a few. And check those Chihuahuas!—is pretty amazing. They were done in 1950 as part of a tied to spread in National Geographic on dogs. There are also amazing gophers, elephants, pheasants, amazing black and white stallions, mules (check out the eyes), Siamese cats, coyotes, buffalo, prairie dogs, skunks, fish, and more. And she did make Brussels Sprouts and some cool cucumbers and corn shakers . I’m sure I’m forgetting some here but there are pretty incredible and, honestly, I pretty much love them all.

Laura Taylor also did a lot of other pottery—salt and pepper were just one little kitsch thing Rosemeade did to supplement the rest of its line. In particular, she made some amazing small boot figurines. I don’t have any here on display but you can see photos of them on my friend Anese Cavanaugh’s website. Check out the boots and more importantly her approach to leadership and life at leadingwithbootson.com

Ceramic Arts Studio

– Then there are the sets from the Ceramic Arts Studio. This was a spot in Madison, started by two guys Lawrence Rabbit and Reuben Sand, who had the good fortune to fairly soon after opening hire a woman named Betty Harrington. She went on to do some amazing designs for them. I don’t know how well known it was in its own time, but my mother went to college there during the years it was open. They did some amazing horse heads—there’s a whole series of them over booth 106, a few feet to the right of the Rosemeade stuff. Also a series of what are called snugglers—where one shaker sits inside another. You can see some next to the stallions and then a bunch more out by the door to the patio—great polar bears, brown bears, gorillas, coral and sea horse, a mouse sitting in a piece of cheese, etc.

Frank + Oklahoma = Frankoma

– Don’t want to forget Frankoma. While their styles are completely different, this studio was as rooted in Oklahoma as Rosemeade was in North Dakota—many Oklahomans who come in to eat know it well. John Nathaniel Frank, who was actually born in my hometown of Chicago, started Frankoma, he was an art teacher who took a job at OU’s ceramics department. He started making pottery in his house, then moved his factory to the town of Sapulpa on Route 66. Frankoma uses all Oklahoma clay and the style is very much sort of muted, Western . . . very unique I’d say. There are truly amazing pumas, very cool looking bulls, oil derricks, and my favorite which comes from the state semi-centennial—it’s a tepee and a skyscraper tower together as one set that says, “From Teepees to Towers, 1907-1957.” Oh yeah, I also love the Turner Turnpike one too. I was going to say “set” but it’s actually a one-piece salt and pepper—two overlapping highway stanchions. And the set from the First National Bank of Tulsa is pretty amazing as well.

Tuna by Bauer

Oh yeah, then there are the blue and yellow fish made by Bauer. They’re in the corner over table 106. If you don’t know it Bauer was one of the best known of the dozen or so mid-century companies that came to be called California Pottery in the design world. Interestingly the company was actually started in Paducah, Kentucky—J. Andy Bauer got going there but later opened a second pottery factory on the West Coast near LA to help distribution and also his asthma. Bauer does beautiful pitchers, bowls, plates, amazing teapots — pretty much everything in the style of American Arts and Crafts. Anyways, this set of blue and yellow fish was done in the 1950s as advertising pieces for Chicken of the Sea, as in, you got it, tuna!

Caped Don

– Further down, between the Frankoma stuff on their left and the Rosemeade on the right, there are a pair of black-caped Sandeman sherry ‘dons.” If you know sherry or admire the advertising work of the 1930s and 40s you might recognize them—it’s one of the most amazing bits of label art work ever done I think. The Sandeman house itself was established in Jerez in 1790. In 1928 a Scottish artist named George Massiot Brown went in to Sandeman to sell his design services. They asked for some sample sketches and this was one of them. It’s an old style Spanish caballero wearing the sort of cape that Portuguese students wear a bit to the west at the University at Coimbra. For people who don’t know either they might think this is Darth Vader but . . . it isn’t.

… And a Few Others

– Let’s see . . . don’t want to forget Fifi the Cat and Fido the Dog who were the mascots for Ken-L-Ration, Millie and Willie the Kool cigarette penguins, Elsie and Elmer the cows, Snap and Pop (not sure what happened to Crackle in this context) and the TV set– the salt and peppers shaker parts pop up when you turn the TV dials. And for entertainment check out the lawn mower, the washing machines and the grill, the ice cream cones, etc. in the case en route to the bathrooms.

Two last favorites and then I’ll stop.

Deco Planes

By the entryway to the Roadshow, on the right side as you head out of the bar, there’s a pair of small gray, art deco airplanes that are definitely one of the ones I love best. . They’re dated 1946 on the bottom and the style is totally of that era. They’d be easy to miss but if you’re up in that part of the restaurant and you like that sort of design, check ‘em out.

Genies

On the other side of the doorway (to the left as you go out) are two little gas company genies that are particularly special. They were designed by Disney and were used to advertise the Montreal Gas Co. in Quebec, Canada. Hence, their headdresses look like flames. I got them as a gift from my friend and (award winning!) animator Brooke Keesling. She in turn bought them from a distant relative of Walt Disney.

OK, enough already. I’m always happy to hear which ones are your favorites!

Community of Collections

I should add too that, in the context of community building, one really nice, unexpected outcome of having the salt and peppers on display that I hadn’t ever even considered, is that I’m starting to get sets of old shakers from regular customers. (Thank you to you all for being generous in your giving. I try to get them all up on display. Thanks in particular to salt and pepper supporter Sue Mitrovich.) Usually they’re folks whose parents or grandparents collected them. And they’re happy to give them to us where others will get to appreciate what their loved ones did for a long time—it’s a nice thing to be entrusted with small but emotionally significant family heirlooms.

If you head back through the hallway past the entrance to what we’ve come to call the “fireplace room” you’ll be looking straight at an entire case of shakers that came courtesy of Jim Metzler of Elkhart, Indiana. I met Jim and his family in one of those “six degrees of connection” stories that I love so much. A friend of his granddaughter’s had come up to Ann Arbor to visit and somehow had ended up at the Roadhouse for dinner. She loved her meal and went back home where she told her friend (Jim’s granddaughter) Jen Havlish about her experience. She also shared with Jen that we had all these old salt and pepper shakers on display—she knew that Jen’s grandfather was getting ready to move out of his house and was preparing to sell off a of his old stuff including his collection of shakers. Jen took the initiative to email me and invite me to come see if I was interested in buying some of them. For any number of reasons (like, I like a good adventure and I like salt and pepper shakers, especially those with a bit of history behind them) I said I’d be happy to check them out and offered to drive down to visit.

The only thing was that at the time I made the offer I was assuming that Jen and her grandfather lived in the Ann Arbor area. As the conversation progressed I discovered the rather large geographic error of my assumption—they were actually 2 ½ hours away in Elkhart, Indiana. For someone like me who closely guards every minute of time I have every day of the week, that’s a long lot of driving time. But . . . having offered to come and see the shakers I felt sort of obligated, and given that the family was about to sell all Jen’s grandfather’s stuff off in a matter of weeks, I just decided to go for it and headed out to Elkhart early one Sunday morning. Figured I could get there and back in time to work lunch. As you’d intuit from the fact that the shakers are now on display in the Roadhouse, the whole thing worked out really well. The Metzler family are great people, it’s great set of old salt and peppers, and now, there’s a really nice connection between us and the entire family.

Jim grew up in the town of Wakarusa, Indiana and lived most of his adult life in nearby Elkhart. His parents started buying shakers in the late 30s and a lot of the older ones in the collection are dated on the bottom from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Jim continued to buy them and built up quite a collection over the years. As someone who saves things and notices the little details of life, I can relate to the passion he had for this small sidebar of a thing he did for probably five decades. I’m probably just projecting, but if it were me it would be very hard to part with them (I know, I know, they’re just “objects”). Here he was selling the house he’d lived in most all of his adult life, and with it so many of the things (like these) that he’d collected, and that can’t be an easy thing to do.

For what it’s worth, there are about 100 sets in the case. All but one came from Jim. His favorite, if I remember correctly, was the Little Miss Muffet and her tuffet. I like the red and blue 1940s bombs. The one pair I added I put in there because a month or so after I’d been down to meet Jim, Jen and the family in person, I came across a little red plastic “advertising” set from “Weathermaster,” a company that happened to be based in Elkhart! Not sure exactly when it was from, but the phone number to call on the shakers only has five digits (2-3150 , to be exact) if that tells you anything! Given the Elkhart connection, they were too good to pass up so I’ve squeezed into the case along all the ones that we got from Jim.

As a history major, there’s something special to me in being able to take a family heirloom like Jim’s collection and put it out where other people can come and appreciate it. The entire Metzler family came up to Ann Arbor about six weeks after I’d been down in Elkhart to make their first visit to Zingerman’s. It closed the loop on that first set of interactions and hopefully was but the first of many visits they’ll make to see us and say “hi” to Jim’s collection. I hope you take a minute to check it out next time you’re out to eat.