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Edward Bottone: Sprinkle, Sprinkle Little StarEdward Bottone
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Sprinkle, Sprinkle Little Star

by Edward Bottone

Just when you thought it was safe to sprinkle a little fleur de sel on you chocolate caramel, salt is once again, under attack.

Upon reading the headline in the Dining section of the New York Times, Throwing the Book at Salt, I was distraught. In spite of consistently inconclusive medical evidence, New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, (having succeeded on smoking, trans fats and calories), was now setting his sights on sodium. Mostly sodium in manufactured foods and food sold in restaurant chains. OK, so he isn’t snatching the shaker from your table, but he is giving salt a bad name and I don’t like it.

No Salt; no taste, is my mantra. I can still see my grandmother whirling the box of salt one slow turn around the cauldron of boiling water before dropping in the macaroni. It seems only yesterday when a German girlfriend admonished me to put ‘a leetel zalt in za batta to make za sveet sveeter.’ I still revel in the simplicity of piquant radishes served with sweet butter and a dipping pile of fleur de Sel. The best part of a margharita, everyone knows, is the rim bejeweled with salt. A French fry without salt is a dud spud. Salt, older than history, is inextricably imbedded in our culture, in our sensations, our desires. But evil?

Long ago a friend made me aware that there was salt contention.
There on his kitchen table were two ominous objects: a bag of unsalted potato chips and a paperback with a towering saltshaker on the cover. As if confronting salt free Potato Chips was not a sufficient abomination, the title of the book shouted out like the broadside for Reefer Madness — KILLER SALT.

Three decades ago, Marietta Whittlesey, author of, Killer Salt, attempted to whittle away at our national salt “addiction”. In a question and answer format she set out to demonize dear sodium chloride and imbue the ubiquitous salt shaker with all the attractiveness of a radioactive isotope. The “crystal monkey” is a craven craving, she claimed, drawing on faux and real science corroborated by many personal experiences from her now salt-free life. I wasn’t buying in then; or now.

To every bodily secretion and to every human cell salt is a necessary component. Deprive someone of salt and they die. Deprive anyone who enjoys cooking and good food of salt — and they may as well die.

Salt pervades ever corner of our lives. Everyone knows that salt is the only rock we eat. Salt, the first preservative, gave us salt fish (especially cod,) salt beef (corned beef, pastrami, jerky), salt pork (ham, bacon, salami), sauerkraut and more. It was the way in which refrigerator-less societies fended off starvation in winter months.

Until relatively recently, salt was money; a precious commodity. The Latin for salt, salus, gave us the word salary (salarium argentum) and for soldiers (sal dare) because Roman soldiers were paid in salt. In ancient Rome a man in love was deemed salax, to be in a salted state, hence the word salacious. And speaking of salacious — when Lot’s wife was transformed into a pillar of salt one can only assume her value skyrocketed.
Salt long ago took on religious and ritualistic significance. The Egyptians preserved mummies in salt. The Torah speaks of God’s covenant of salt with David. Since the Middle Ages Jews brought bread and salt to celebrate a new home. Ancient Greeks and Romans sealed a bargain in salt. How close you sat to the salt cellar differentiated your prestige at a grand table. To be ‘below the salt’, or ‘not worth your salt’, was humiliating indeed. Salt was also a guard against evil. Spilled salt has meant bad luck since Judas Escariot upturned the saltcellar.

Far more than a condiment, it is said that there are more than 14,000 uses for salt including ice melting, fertilizing fields, manufacturing textiles and soap, softening water, use salt to put out grease fire, soothe a bee sting, clean a copper pot, keep apples and potatoes from turning brown, brine a turkey, remove a stain or prolong the life of cut flowers.

Recently a new world of salt has revealed itself in a range of colors and flavors. Artisan Salt in Woodinville, Washington offers no fewer than sixteen ‘artisan’ salts from well known French Fleur de Sel (flower of salt/$15.99 for 5 oz) and Sel Gris (grey salt) Hawaiian red ($14.99 for 8 oz) and Peruvian or Himalayan pink, Cyrpus Flake, to smoked salts and Black salts and Murray River salt from Australia. ($15.99 for 3oz). And there are flavored and “finishing” salts like sagemary, smoked paprika (3.2 oz for $14.) Sumac Pepper, Porcini, and vanilla salt (1.2 oz for a mere $8.50) from Salt Traders in Ipswich, Massachusetts (an old salt making town). Giant Morton’s salt (now owned by Rohm and Hass) belatedly got into the act with sea salt from Spain’s Costa Blanca (17.6 oz for $3.19). Morton’s started out as sales agents for Onondaga (NY) salt works in 1848.

Since New York lead the charge on nutritional labeling in restaurant menus, at least ten other states including Hawaii and Maine have been raising the specter of full nutritional disclosure. Morals or taste cannot, however, be legislated. All the new noise about salt has to be taken with — a grain of salt.

Early in the year, the Grocery Manufacturers association, in a preemptive strike, came out with their own white paper (pardon the expression) on Sodium and Salt. Call it self serving, but its seventeen pages does review much of the recent history of salt and dietary considerations. Most importantly it points to recent studies that remain inconclusive on the effects of sodium on hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Subjects who modified their salt intake in most cases did not have a significant fluctuation that exceeded the change in blood pressure from visit to visit. As with cholesterol drastic changes in diet provide minor, if any, changes in readings.

In a culture ever more concerned with duration over quality; life extension over a pleasurable life, fear of food is rampant and misplaced. Mostly it provides dieters with an attention getting device that gives them some sense of exclusivity, even moral superiority. Life is meant for pleasure. Are we to enter into another era of controversy over salt? Nay, I say! No salt; no flavor. Salt is life.