A Touch of Class : In Britain, One Is Known by the Condiments One Keeps

As an Englishman who has now lived in Los Angeles for 18 months, I am sometimes asked, “What do you like best about living in America?”

I usually answer: “Being able to unjack my telephone.” In England, for the most part, you can’t; and if you leave the receiver off the hook, you are quite likely to be visited by an officious man on a motorcycle, asking you why. Freedom from the tyranny of the telephone is not the least of life’s freedoms.

But if I tried to answer the question more seriously, my reply would be something like this: “I like best the absence of arbitrary class distinctions determined by birth and education.” Of course there are distinctions in America, between the rich and the poor, and those who get a “good” table at Chasen’s and those who don’t. But if a multimillionaire leans out of his Rolls-Royce to ask a garage hand the way, he will often begin: “Excuse me, sir . . .” In England, no man dreams of addressing another as “sir” unless he considers him much older or far above him in the social scale. (I did call Prince Charles “Sir"--the correct alternative to “Your Royal Highness"--when he granted me an interview this year.) And in America, this “sir” is not merely polite lip service to the concept of equality; it represents a deep-felt maxim that all men are equal before the law.

Class infects everything in Britain. Especially it bedevils industrial relations, for in British management the cult of the “gifted amateur” with the right accent still exists. It affects all social relations. As Alan Jay Lerner wrote in “My Fair Lady,” his adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s “Pygmalion":


An Englishman’s way of talking

absolutely classifies him;

The moment he talks he makes

some other Englishman despise him.


American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux makes a perceptive observation in his recent book, “The Kingdom by the Sea” (an account of his travels around the coastline of Great Britain). He suggests that the reason English people do not talk to each other in trains is not sheer curmudgeonliness but that each is afraid the other will turn out to have a more “upper-class” accent than himself.

British class-consciousness penetrates into the minutiae of life. The late Nancy Mitford, in her grammar of snobbery, “Noblesse Oblige,” laid down the law as to which words are “U” (upper-class) and which “Non-U” (lower-class). For example, it is U to say “table napkin” and Non-U to say “serviette.” U people say “writing paper,” while the Non-U use “notepaper.” “Looking glass” is U; “mirror” is Non-U. Sensible people take no notice of these edicts; and even people with a good claim to be considered U have called some of them into question. The late Sir Iain Moncrieffe of That Ilk (that was his full, absurd title) wrote to Mitford: “One of my ancestors was known as ‘The Mirror of Chivalry.’ Do I now have to call him ‘The Looking Glass of Chivalry’?”

One of Mitford’s obsessions was that salt, pepper and mustard sets should be called “condiment sets,” not “cruets,” which apparently is hopelessly Non-U. And here, perhaps, she hit on a real, not imagined, social distinction. The English upper classes dispense salt from a little silver or glass container with a small silver spoon. (The ancient Chinese used something rather similar for stuffing snuff up their noses.) With the spoon, they place the salt in a miniature pyramid at the side of the plate. Then, each morsel that they require to be salted is dipped in that one deposit.

The so-called lower classes, by contrast, have their salt in a sprinkler with one hole (pepper in a sprinkler with several holes). They shake it over the entire meal with a fine impartiality, salting meat, potatoes and Brussels sprouts alike--very much the system that God, in His wisdom, has devised for sending down rain, which, as the old rhyme says, falls “upon the just and unjust fella.” The upper classes claim that this lacks discrimination; not every morsel may need salting--the potatoes may need some, but the beef may be too salty already.

Most condiment sets / cruets are of this second type; but the more expensive sets, of silver or silver plate, do tend to have a container with spoon for the salt, not a sprinkler. I have seen a silver-plated set with the containers placed in the back of a miniature rickshaw. Another is a “jockey” set with riding boots and cap. A third, of silver, is in the form of a roller skate, which must make passing it up the table a smooth, if rather ridiculous, operation. Another point for sociologists is that the more-working-class cruets do not boast a mustard pot (exceptions being a “Toy-let” set and a set in the form of a large pottery mushroom with smaller fungi as containers); hence the makers’ ingenuity in finding “doubles” for the salt and pepper--binoculars, kangaroo twins, or two large eggs held by an Indian woman. Mustard used to be mixed from Colman’s powder, which was advertised in splendid posters by John Hassall and also was used in baths. Today you can buy mustard in a tube, like toothpaste--a horror undreamed of by Mitford.

If it was U to eat mustard, it was Non-U to manufacture it. I was born in Redhill, Surrey, England, where the hideous Colman Institute, containing the public library, was named after Sir Jeremiah Colman, the mustard king, who lived in a big house nearby, Gatton Park. “Made his money from what people left on the side of the plate, " said the townsfolk of Redhill knowingly as they looked down upon the Institute from the tops of double-decker buses. Lord Frederick Hamilton tells the story that Sir Jeremiah and his wife were once invited to dinner by the prime minister, W. E. Gladstone. Gladstone’s wife warned him: “Whatever you do, don’t mention mustard. Sir Jeremiah is rather ashamed of being ‘in trade.’ ” Gladstone promised. That evening, his guests gathered in the great hall of the Gladstone home, Hawarden Castle. Gladstone came down the stairs to greet them. “Well,” he said breezily, “are we all mustered ?”