Since she found herself a secondhand copy of Edward Behr’s 1992 gem The Artful Eater on a daytrip we made to Vermont back in December, Michelle’s been rather possessive of this recent acquisition. It was sitting there in plain view on her bedside stand as she methodically made her way through the text, and she was constantly talking about the book, bringing up this or that “lovely” and “wonderfully written” essay of Behr’s, all of which I was “going to love” at some unspecified time in the future, but she wasn’t exactly making the book available. Finally, I could take it no longer (I mean, The Artful Eater made it onto our Top Ten #3 list and onto our Best Food Writing 2005 list, after all). I had to take matters (or matter—reading matter—as the case may be) into my own hands. I waited for the perfect moment—Michelle was away at work, and would be for hours—and when I was sure there were no prying eyes lurking around—not even those darned cats of ours—I struck. Now I fully understand her behavior. Had I been the one to crack it first, I’m not sure I would have even left it on the bedside stand—I might have even toted it back and forth between home and work. I’ve since read a number of chapters—don’t worry, Michelle has been duly briefed on these goings-on—but it only took one chapter (okay, maybe one chapter + one preface) to make me a believer. As the subtitle—“A Gourmet Investigates the Ingredients of Great Food”—suggests, Behr’s book consists of a series of chapters on 18 different foodstuffs, ranging from “Atlantic Salmon” to “English Walnuts.” But what sets Behr’s writing apart here is his uncanny ability to invest insight and life into what might seem to some to be the most mundane of foods and beverages, from “English and French Mustards” to “A Cup of Coffee.” Fittingly, his very first chapter is entitled “The Goodness of Salt,” and what a perfect introduction it makes for Behr’s overall project, allowing him to touch on everything from its former glory and its beleaguered stature in a “health-conscious” and overly bureaucratized world (ca. 1992, when Behr’s book was first published), to its history, its effect on flavor and taste, and its metaphorical applications.
Having read Behr’s excellent preface, I started with his chapter on salt. I did so not only because it was Chapter One, but also because I’d found out quite by accident that it was the key to understanding one of my Christmas gifts. Sounds mysterious, I know. You see, truth be told, what had finally pushed me to illicitly grabbing The Artful Eater off Michelle’s bedside stand was an exchange the two of us had had the day before. I’d been teasing her about a gift she’d given me over Christmas—a package of the one and only Maldon sea salt, “the chef’s natural choice”—saying something about the fact that she’d really bought it for herself, after she quite brazenly pulled the unopened package off the cupboard shelf where it had been sitting since late December and used some in the salad dressing she was making. She responded by complaining that I hadn’t shown adequate interest in this venerable package of salt, and it was only then that I was informed that its purchase had been prompted by Behr’s salt essay. I feigned insult, of course—you know, “How could you?” etc., etc.—but secretly I cherished the fact that I’d finally been granted an incontestable excuse for surreptitiously reading Michelle’s book.
Salt-free cooking has been a pet peeve of mine for years now. I figured out a long time ago that salt was key to most flavor in food, and I’ve resented being told otherwise ever since. Of course, I’m partial to briny dishes—things like olives, and capers, and anchovies—and I know there are people out there who can’t stomach such flavors. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t crave smoked fish (in fact, I still remember the first bar mitzvah I attended being as close to heaven on earth as I’d ever experienced to date, in large part because of the smoked fish bar), but then again, relatively speaking (relative to someone who grew up in the Mediterranean region, say), I was a late-bloomer when it came to an appreciation of olives (18 or 19 years old, if memory serves). That being said, I’m definitely not someone who over-salts his food. I just understand that judicious use of salt, preferably good salt, is a crucial part of what distinguishes cuisine for something else. The fact that I lived with some salt-free folks in a shared house on the West Coast a number of years back explains in part why this subject is so meaningful to me. They never could figure out why my meals always tasted better, or at least they refused to face the music. The reasons had to do with my ability to choose a recipe, use it, adapt it, but mostly it had to do with salt. They never understood that salt is a pillar (pardon the pun) of civilization, that salting one’s food isn’t any more of an aberration than lighting a fire to cook it. Then again, there are those that find lighting a fire aberrant.
Behr comes down hard on those who’ve tarnished the image of salt solely because of the, “seventh or tenth of the population whose blood pressure is salt-sensitive.” There’s certainly an argument to be made that many of us have been living under an unnecessarily high in sodium regime (and poor sodium at that), but Behr doesn’t make it. Instead, he closes his chapter by honing in on those who have fueled distrust in something as basic, as essential as sodium chloride. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the anti-salt brigade ever seemed quite so menacing, but much of what he's writing here is rhetorical, stated in order to lay down the philosophy that underlies the book’s remaining chapters:
A salt grinder, shaker, or dish should always be on the table so that individuals can season food to taste, especially such food as roasts, which don’t come fully salted from the kitchen. I respect and sympathize with those who have to restrict their used of salt, but some zealous puritans would like everyone to cut down on salt because a small percentage would benefit from abstinence. These fearful proselytizers have no spirit, no joie de vivre. Does the sensual, the aesthetic, have no value in life? To those with high blood pressure it may be an injustice on the part of Fate, but it is impossible to enjoy food fully without salt. Salt is part of the structure of taste. Its use isn’t a weakness, but an intelligent application of the senses.
What does all of this have to do with Maldon sea salt? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Edward Behr’s The Artful Eater was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1992.
To find out about his “quarterly letter," The Art of Eating, check out www.ArtofEating.com, or write to: The Art of Eating, PO Box 242, Peacham, VT 05862, USA.