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A Saucer Story

November 15, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

A saucer is a teeny, tiny plate for holding a cup. How does it have anything to do with sauce, which comes in a sauce boat, preferably as deep and capacious as possible?

In the Middle Ages, "sauce," which comes from a Latin word meaning salted or salty, could mean flavorings, and not necessarily liquid ones. A 14th-century Spanish recipe for salsa fina was just a spice mixture: about half ground ginger, with smaller quantities of cinnamon, pepper, cloves and saffron. For cooking, you would mix your salsa fina with one of the usual sauce liquids, either almond milk or vinegar thickened with toasted bread crumbs. Wet sauces, and sometimes even just spice mixtures, were served in little bowls the way mustard is today.

When saucers first appeared in England, they were rather shallow condiment bowls, like the little bowls in which we serve olives and such. (We also give a cat a "saucer of milk" in a shallow bowl, because it offends a cat's dignity to stick its whole head into a deep bowl.) When the need arose for something to put under a coffee or tea cup to prevent drips, saucers were pressed into service.

The Romans had also had a sort of saucer (salsarium) for holding condiments, but it's not at all clear that it had anything to do with the medieval saucer. When it first showed up in the 4th century, it was the utensil into which you poured "imitation salt fish" (salsum sine salso), a mixture of ground walnuts, cumin, pepper, fish sauce and sweet wine. Though it would probably have been all right to put real salt fish in it too.

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