“A garment, an automobile, a dish of cooked food, a gesture, a film, a piece of music, an advertising image, a piece of furniture, a newspaper headline—these indeed appear to be heterogeneous objects. What might they have in common? This at least: all are signs…this car tells me the social status of its owner, this garment tells me quite precisely the degree of its wearer’s conformism or eccentricity.” Roland Barthes
Once I had a Dansk peppermill. It was short and squat, like a snowman, one teak sphere mounted atop a larger one on a thick neck. It looked to me like the image of the Venus of Willendorf on a slide we had viewed in my undergraduate art history class. It was actually a dual salt and pepper shaker with holes in the top and a removable wooden stopper over the opening in which salt was to be poured. Early on the stopper got jammed into place; and anyway, in our journey toward gourmet cooking, we had moved from fine salt to coarse kosher or sea salt. It didn’t take long for the family to forget salt had ever shaken from the peppermill. Peppercorns trickled from the hand into an opening in the bottom round that closed with a little rubber plug. I had to use the point of a knife to pry off the plug when the mill needed filling. When filled with peppercorns, the device ground out variably coarse bits of pungent pepper.
No one can remember a time when the peppermill did not do duty in the kitchen and then appear on the table at every meal. I do remember buying it in Hall’s Department Store in Kansas City in 1966, the very first of the many “modern” kitchen implements that marked my kitchen as different from my mother’s. My then husband and I, like so many couples in those pre-Yuppie days, had embarked on a mostly happy cooking collaboration that actually sustained our marriage a year or two beyond its destined end. In the final years of our marriage, as we entered middle age, watched our babies grow into teenagers, and felt the floor of our union falling out from under us, we held our center together for a while longer in the kitchen and at endless dinner parties. In both settings, the peppermill played a central role. When nothing else could bind us, food did. When we could sustain no other conversation without verbal violence and vitriol, we could calmly discuss the texture of veloute, the savor of orange sauce for a crisp duckling, the heft and gleam of a perfect eggplant.
Our love affair with cooking began when my young husband came home with Dionne Lucas’ The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook, our introduction to French cuisine. Dionne Lucas launched us; the better-known Julia Child refined us. From Dionne I learned to make Creme Olga, a lovely scallion and raw mushroom soup topped with cayenne-fired whipped cream. My first caesar salad recipe came from Dionne’s book and also her Poulet Marengo. With Julia I moved on to cassoulet and boeuf bourguignon. Volume I of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking still sits in tatters on the shelf, pages stuck together with splatters of beurre blanc and bechamel. Into both of those sauces and and many more I ground generous twists of pepper from the little teak totem. When we first bought it, it was pale, almost blonde, teak, the grain of the wood striated through in darker stripes and swirls. Over the years it darkened, greased daily by kitchen fallout and the regular touch of human hands. At one point, it developed a deep crack down one side. I can’t recall which of us, enraged to violence, hurled the peppermill across the kitchen. The top stopper became permanently wedged in, and the grinding mechanism grew creaky. The marriage ended; the husband left; the peppermill remained with me for many more years. I am sad to say that the mill disappeared somewhere along those years. It held on long after the divorce, after the kids left home, after the sale of one house and the purchase of another. Somewhere starting around the turn of the century, it was replaced by a series of other peppermills, none as resilient or effective at grinding. Now I have a practical OXO kitchen peppermill and a supposedly top-of-the-line Peugeot peppermill for the dining table. Despite its pedigree, it does not grind as smoothly as the old Dansk model.
Like many homely, domestic things, that peppermill evokes the memory of many meals and feasts and celebrations; of my marriage’s happiest kitchen times; of other forms of human connection around the backyard grille and at well-laden tables. What interests me most as I think about the peppermill is not its function so much as the thought of how many hands handled it over the years, rotating its smooth, wood-warm circles to activate the grind. How often someone stopped to gesture across a table– bare wood kitchen table, tablecloth-spread dining room or porch table, patio picnic table – in anger or argument or laughter. So many hands –warm, sweaty, dry, oily – left their invisible cellular messages in the porous wood, hands that I have held, shaken, kissed.
We were so young when we bought the peppermill, equipping our first kitchens with things that reassured us of normalcy. They also, although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, served not only as useful tools but also as markers of a certain class assurance. We prided ourselves on grinding our pepper rather than shaking it out of a shaker. I can see my young husband’s hands, his long, beautiful fingers, the nails broad and flat at the slightly splayed ends. He held the mill with an elegant energy, ground it over the butter-rich sauces he favored, over the filets studded with truffles, the coquilles St. Jacques, the whole stuffed sea bass, its opaque eye staring blindly from the big wooden platter we also bought in Kansas. My children’s hands were tentative as they learned how to grind; they were sometimes embarrassingly vocal in their confusion at other peoples’ tables where pepper rained out of shakers, just like salt. (Later we would advance to individual salt dishes at dining room dinners. Where I got that idea, I do not know.) Some hands knew the contours of that peppermill as well as any family member; other hands touched it once or twice, then moved on. I remember the long, thin fingers of a dear friend who buffed her nails with a small buffer and balm from a tiny tin until they glowed pearly with no need of polish. Locked in a dementia ward now, she no longer remembers the holiday feasts our families shared or who I am. My sisters handled that peppermill; they are both dead now, one the victim of diabetes, the other of fronto-temporal dementia. A mother and father-in-law; my own mother, who handled the peppermill with a certain contempt for what she thought pretentious in my deviation from the way she shook her pepper and salt out of matching ceramic shakers.
Still among the living is another dear friend who taught me to cook with flamboyant disregard for smoke or flaming pans, under whose influence I moved on from the rigors of classic French cooking to the generous spirit of the Italian kitchen. I learned not to need an exact recipe to make spaghetti carbonara or broccoli rape with sausage and orecietti. Under his tutelage, I embarked on the Sicilian agrodolce. Who knew that raisins could enhance pasta dishes? That friendship blossomed in my kitchen where he energetically ground out showers of black pepper over pasta alla Norma or Veal Milanese.
The poignancy of memory is not inherent in the things I remember. The peppermill was an ordinary kitchen device made symbolically significant to me by its long connection to shared human experience. Not Keats’ urn nor Williams’ red wheelbarrow, nothing so literary, but of that same tradition, speaking mutely as a signifier of time stopped or gathered, speaking of how we can, if we wish, measure the passage of time from meal to meal, table to table, birthday feast to funeral repast, crowded buffet to solitary meal tray. Things like my peppermill invite us to leave tiny invisible scars on them to mark where we sat at those events, what we said or did there, and what we learned or left behind or lost in those years. It may be far-fetched to consider the human heat of sweat and oil left on a peppermill in an ordinary kitchen significant. But that’s just it: as human beings, we bestow on things their significance; in this case I bestow meaning onto a peppermill blessed over and over again by human hands, at many ceremonies of the table, those secular communions into which we vest both energy and love. The memory of the peppermill is thus invested by me with particular poignancy. In writing about its power to mean, I invite my readers to interrogate the ordinary domestic items around them as sources of meaning. I know what a peppermill does. Do I understand what it means to me beyond its practical utility?
That peppermill bore silent witness to laughter, mourning, fear and anger, to so much human togethering. Somewhere amid changing feasts, seasons, faces, it sat constant, often waiting in the kitchen for someone at the table to look around and say, “Where’s the peppermill? Someone get the peppermill from the kitchen.” I am quite sure that, over the funeral meats after my death, someone will be imitating my particular way of rotating a peppermill. There are worse ways to be remembered. I do wish, however, that I could recall when and how that first teak peppermill disappeared. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps I chose to discard it or give it away in a gesture of letting go of the past. I realize as I write that I am begging that small device to carry quite a lot of baggage!
Symbols reside when and where we give them permission to mean, to signify for us; to carry the weight of what we wish moments in our lives to mean to ourselves. Because I tend to overthink even something as humble as a peppermill, perhaps it was wise of me to send it packing. Remembering its history entwined with my own is the luxury and curse of an old woman’s memory.
I’ll just leave it here: sometimes a peppermill is a sign or a symbol. Sometimes a peppermill is just a peppermill. (With apologies to Freud, Barthes and Foucault )