In ‘Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History’ Ian McMillan uses simple language to discuss themes such as memories, history, and relationships. Depending on one’s idea of what “history” entails and how one interacts with it, this poem can read in very different ways. The main question, “Do you want history with that?” is memorable and will stick with a reader long after finishing the poem.
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Summary of Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History
The poem is set at a chip shop and depicts a simple interaction between the woman working there and the speaker who’s getting something to eat. He gets his food and thinks about it briefly in the first lines. Then, with a question from the woman, a reader is asked to consider what “history” is and how one engages with it.
You can read the full poem Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History here.
Structure of Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History
‘Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History’ by Ian McMillan is a two stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but the lines are quite similar, visually, in length. This gives them a unity on the page that makes the poem easy to move through from stanza to stanza.
Literary Devices in Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History
McMillan makes use of several literary devices in ‘Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and a simile. The latter, simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, in the third line of the first stanza, the speaker compares himself to “some kind of weather” as the woman in the chip-shop shakes “salt, pepper and vinegar” over chips.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line one of the third stanza reads: “Shiver in and out of time. ‘No thanks’ I say”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem due to the fact that it reads as one narrative description. A good example is contained in the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza.
Analysis of Salt, Pepper, Vinegar, History
Steaming chip-shop and the red-hot chips
All over them like I’m some kind of weather.
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker begins by describing himself at a “chip-shop”. He lists out actions and parts of the setting, creating an overall picture of the scene and what he is experiencing. He is shaking out toppings on top of his chips. This makes him think of himself as “some kind of weather,” as if he’s bringing down rain, hail, or snow on the people (chips) below. This is an amusing and thoughtful observation and sets the tone for the lines that follow.
Stanzas Two and Three
‘Do you want history with that?’ The woman
Or maybe it’s just the way steam makes the shop
Beside the pickled eggs on the top shelf.
The next stanza of the poem complicates the experience. At first, the moment seemed simple, amusing, and even commonplace, but then with the dialogue in the second stanza, things change. While it is still a mundane moment, the speaker is taken into a different state of mind. The woman asks him if he’s like “history with that”. This is a strange and very unusual question which he responds to in the third stanza with “No thanks”. He doesn’t seem confused by why she asked it or what it means. In fact, he embraces it as part of the interaction and moves on.
A reader should consider this question along with the speaker’s description of the woman’s tattoo. At first, he thinks it’s laughing. But then he considers the steam and how it makes space hard to judge, perhaps creating ripples in the air. He decides that it looks more like the tattoo is moving “in and out of time” along with the woman and the shop. The reference to “time” connects to “history”.
This interaction is meant to embody the continual presence of one’s past. That “history” can come forward at any time. The woman offers him some, suggesting that she might be part of that history or is only reminding him of someone who was. As the poem progresses and the speaker finishes his sentence it becomes clear that the offer of “history” was one for the future. If he’d responded yes, they might’ve interacted more. instead, he decides to “eat it here” and she “puts away the history”. It goes back onto the shelf with everything else as if it’s a choice when one engages with memories and when one does not.