Are they just expensive bullshit, or something much more?
As my twenties shift from nights out at bars to save-the-dates, my friends’ kitchens have gotten nicer. The sticky countertops and grease-splattered stovetops of our can’t-afford-salad days are no more. People who invite me to dinner now have olive wood cooking utensils and unidentifiable grains in mason jars beside a spotless stove. They eat from matching plates and drink wine from stemware instead of broken-handled mugs. In an admittedly overtly bourgeois, wedding-registry way, it feels adult—a descriptor used almost exclusively by those still getting used to the feeling. The loudest virtue signaling of this late-twenties change is an object that has existed for centuries, but which only entered my consciousness about a year ago: the salt pig.
A salt pig is, basically, a bowl of salt. Most are ceramic or earthenware, and some have a wooden lid, but the basic design is unaltered. It’s an open vessel for storing salt in a way that makes it easy to add a literal pinch of salt to a soup, or scoop up a teaspoon while baking instead of fighting with the metal spout of the Morton’s box. It’s like set dressing for a cooking show, right in your own untelevised home. But for its extreme simplicity, a name-brand salt pig can run you almost $40 at a kitchen store.
The question begged by any such fancy kitchen object is: Is it just expensive bullshit? Maybe.
As with most kitchenware, the sky is the limit on both needless fanciness and ludicrous cost, but the simplicity of the salt pig concept, in the face of its price tag, is like a bad joke about the kitchen store industrial complex. It’s literally a bowl.
To be fair, a fancy salt pig can be quite an appealing object, and aesthetics for their own sake can be defended, to a point. Emile Henry makes a lovely version that looks like a dented, earth-tone Super Mario pipe popping up from the counter, and which retails for $39.95. Armed with a wedding-registry scan gun, who among us wouldn’t hope to dupe some guilty relative into buying us one of our very own? The Le Creuset version will save your poor aunt a few bucks, but at what aesthetic cost?
In my own increasingly adult kitchen, my salt pig is a small bowl my brother made in a ceramics class, about the size of a cupped palm. I’ve gone so native with it that I’m not sure I even own a salt shaker anymore. Why shake when you can pinch? When the salt supply gets low it tends to clump, but otherwise it’s been a game-changer, and makes cooking for people just a bit more theatrical.
One obvious advantage of a salt shaker is that salt can be dispensed without using one’s fingers. My dinner guests are often hesitant to dive in to the open bowl of salt to alter the meal I’ve cooked for them, less out of consideration for my feelings than out of fear of touching everyone else’s salt, like pawing through a tray of cookies for just the right one.
New Yorkers may be both uniquely conscious of their exposure to others’ germs, and at the same time refreshingly lax about the risk. No self-respecting city dweller would pull their hand up into their sleeve just to grab hold of a subway pole, or douse their grocery basket in hand sanitizer before picking it up off the stack. Life is too short, and germs are too unavoidable in the city of Pizza Rat.
The concept of a salt pig feels European in the way of unrefrigerated eggs, or pitchers of drinking water left out on the counter to dechlorinate. Salt is a mild antiseptic—think warm salt-water rinses for a sore throat—and reduces the amount of water in an environment, which can hinder bacterial growth. An open container of salt on a kitchen counter is hardly germ-proof, but neither is it a petri dish.
Germ fatalism may be poor hostmanship, I realize, and a small spoon is the simple, conscientious solution to potentially dirty fingers. The design of many fancy-bullshit salt pigs take this into consideration. The bent Super Mario pipe of Emile Henry’s model keeps the salt it contains somewhat shaded from things that might fall into it, be it dust or a stray fleck of soap from the furious washing of New York hands. My improvised salt pig is totally exposed to the elements, but other than a stray crumb from an especially crispy boule, it hasn’t attracted much in the way of non-salt.
My confidence in the cleanliness of my salt pig has less to do with science than with the residual undergraduate logic that convinced you binge-drinking with a cold would be a good idea, since alcohol is a disinfectant—lol—but choosing to use a salt pig in the first place is an assertion of adult-kitchen ownership. It says, My kitchen environment is stable enough to leave an open container out without wondering what might fall into it. Even if that’s not entirely true yet—I still have two roommates—the salty maw of my little bowl is an encouragement, a pinch of adulting bullshit that, to be fair, is just really, really cute.