At most diners and many restaurants you’re going to find a few things already on the table when you sit down, usually a mix of ketchup, steak sauce, sugar packets, and salt and pepper shakers. At first glance you might not think much of this, but when you really mull it over, are the salt and pepper shakers necessary?
Salt in particular is a seasoning that should be added to a dish during the cooking process and not after. When dining out, you hope that the food you ordered is prepared so deliciously that you shouldn’t have to make any adjustments to it yourself. It just makes sense that your meal should be properly salted before it’s served.
Plus, the shakers on the table are probably the least sanitary item you could be touching. A 2018 article from The Healthy notes that shakers at restaurants are usually not cleaned until they appear dirty. And even when the shakers are cleaned, they’re usually just wiped down and not emptied out to be properly sanitized. Although I’m sure cleaning habits at restaurants have improved since the pandemic hit in 2020, touching items left on a table that customers before you also likely touched still feels like a practice that can and should be avoided.
If the restaurant you’re dining in has black pepper in a shaker, that’s a red flag. This means that the pepper is pre-ground and essentially useless when it comes to adding more flavor to your dish.
To make table black pepper worth anything to your food, it should come from a pepper mill. A pepper mill grinds up whole peppercorns turning them into a more usable spice to be added to food. Freshly ground peppercorns have a much stronger flavor to them than the pre-ground stuff. The oils from the ground peppercorns is what gives you flavor; ancient dried black pepper on the table is never going to make anything taste better.
Other condiments like ketchup, sugar, or even red pepper flakes make more sense to be added after the fact—those condiments have earned their spot on the restaurant table to add a little kick. But the salt and pepper shakers send a message that your food might need some help.