Recently, we were eating at a nice restaurant, one with white tablecloths, silverware bound in cloth napkins, flowers in a crystal vase and a basket of warm bread flanked by a small bowl rimmed with cool pats of sweet butter.

The table had everything — except salt and pepper shakers.

Americans are salt and pepper people. If a table doesn’t have the shakers, we get nervous. We wonder what could go wrong next.

It could have been that the salt and pepper shakers were hiding. They do that sometimes, taking refuge behind a vase or the water glasses. I moved the glasses and vase around like chess pieces to see if the salt and pepper were lurking.

They weren't there. They weren't on the other tables either. They had been banished and were, at the very least, in temporary exile.

It wasn’t the pepper’s fault. No one has anything against pepper. Pepper is guilty by association, guilty of being salt’s wingman.

“I feel like I’m being disingenuous when I ask somebody to pass the salt and pepper,” a friend said. “I only want the salt but I ask for the pepper too, to be polite.”

What my friend does is pick up the pepper grinder first and give it a few courtesy twists before setting it down and then he picks up the salt shaker and blankets his salad, meat or vegetable medley with a fresh snow-like covering of salt.

One of my earliest memories of Dad was seeing him take salt tablets in the midst of a long, hot tennis match. If he had been cramping, after a few salt tablets, the cramps would stop and he would finish strong. When Dad came off the court, his face was caked with salt and he looked like the Abominable Snowman.

Salt was amazing. It stopped cramping. It made white people even whiter.

Then for years, bad news about salt. This study, that study, if you even looked at salt, you had a stroke. When red meat joined the do-not-eat camp, Americans had two less reasons to live.

My mom, an otherwise sensible person, began serving her salt loose in one of those shallow ceramic dishes with a wooden spoon so small you could perform microsurgery with it.

“How am I supposed to get enough salt with this spoon? I can barely hold it between my thumb and index finger without tipping over the salt that I have scooped up.”

I could use my fingers and settle for the pinch of salt approach but I was used to monitoring my salt intake by how many times I shook the salt shaker. I like to give the shaker five vigorous shakes in the first round. If there a second round, and often there is because salt disappears like fairy dust, I might go back in for three.

“Could you please bring us some salt and pepper?” I asked at the nice restaurant, making sure to keep my tone neutral, suggesting that this was not the chef’s failing but mine.

The server was gracious about it, as they usually are. I gave the pepper a few courtesy shakes and then benched it and picked up Mr. Salt. Mr. Salt wasn’t working too well so I examined the number of holes in the top of the shaker and realized that although it could have had two more holes than it did, its lack of sprinkability was due to the salt having picked up some ambient moisture.

I unscrewed the top and dumped a clump of salt on my hand, which I then dropped on the salad.

What a dish. What a restaurant. What magic.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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