amy azzaritopast & presenttabletop

past & present: gravy boat, tureen & salt cellar

by Amy Azzarito

Illustration by Julia Rothman

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays — no gifts to worry about, just lots of good food. I love that the pieces on the table are just as traditional as the food they hold. Here’s a little tableware history — if there’s a lull in your dinner-table conversation, it might come in handy. And if you’re looking for the perfect gravy boat, salt cellar or tureen, I have you covered with a few of my favorites below! Happy Thanksgiving! — Amy A.

Image above: Mme. de Pompadour’s saucière from Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Gravy Boat
It’s a fairly good bet that there will be a gravy boat somewhere on your Thanksgiving table (if not, you should most definitely start your protest now!). The gravy boat comes to us from those sauce masters, the French. The 17th-century saucière was an oval-shaped vessel with double spouts and two handles (like Mme. de Pompadour’s saucière above) but because the meat was carved at a sideboard, the sauce had often cooled and congealed by the time the meat was on its way to the table. So in 1780, the Duke of Argylle invented a container that preserved the heat with a double-layered sealed jacket that was filled with hot water. In the 19th century, gravy boats were fixed to a small platter in order to protect the tablecloth. The gravy boat on your Thanksgiving table will probably more closely resemble those early oval vessels found in the French court.

Image above: 1741 Paul de Lamerie Silver Soup Tureen from 1stdibs

This covered dish was named for Marshal Turenne of France, who supposedly used his helmet to hold soup during a lull in battle. The tureen was the centerpiece of dining service à la française, where all the dishes were placed on the table at the same time. When the style of dining changed to separate courses (service à la russe), the soup tureen carried in a serving platter would open the meal. During the mid-18th century, tureens in naturalistic shapes, such as tureens in the form of a head of cabbage, were popular. That notch in the tureen to accommodate a serving spoon? That’s a 20th-century invention.

CLICK HERE for the rest of the post and a great roundup of modern tabletop vessels after the jump!

Image above: The Burghley Nef salt cellar made in Paris (1527–1528) from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Salt Cellar
I am overly fond of condiments, from Japanese mayo to spiced ketchup, so don’t even get me started on salt (or count the packets that end up on my salad at lunch). Considered a precious commodity in the Middle Ages, salt was often locked up in elaborate objects made of precious metals and jewels. Salt cellars were luxury items, owned by kings and nobility. The ship above is a type of salt cellar from the 16th century called a nef and would have been placed on the table to the left of the principle diner. A guest’s proximity to the host, who sat at the head of the table — “above the salt” or “below the salt” — reflected his or her importance. Salt cellars for individual place settings weren’t developed until the early 17th century and prior to that, everyone used a communal salt cellar. Etiquette books advised diners not to dip their food directly into the communal salt cellar but rather to use the tips of their knives to transfer the salt to their plates, taking care not to spill any salt on the table. The pierced salt shaker commonly used today was a 17th-century French invention but wasn’t fully adopted until the 20th century when moisture-absorbing agents were added and ground salt could be sold.

Image above: 1. Wood Salt Cellar, $14.95; 2. Versailles Fluo Soup Tureen, $249; 3. Marble Salt Cellar, $22; 4. Salt Bowl, $38; 5. Spice Block, $56; 6. Beast’s Feast Tureen, $148; 7. Chef Salt, $11; 8. Marble Salt and Pepper Cellars, $108

Image above: 1. Tiny Basket Bowl, $28; 2. A Pinch of Salt, $48; 3.Porcelain Lion’s Head Tureen, $39.96; 4. Antique-Silver Gravy Boat, $39; 5. Noritake Colorware Graphite Gravy Boat, $44.84; 6. Margo Gravy Boat, $27.95; 7. Brass Shell Bowl, $26; 8. Pink Peppercorns; 9. Great White Soup Tureen, $50; 10. White Porcelain Salt Cellar, $15.99; 11. Pear Salt Cellar, $45; 12. Pewter Salt Cellar, $28

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