With the customary precipitateness we’re swinging headlong into the fourth quarter of August, the late summer balmy days of emerald corn fields, waxed yellow beans, polished green zucchini and small ivory potatoes. All this beneath a vast ceiling of crystal blue, billowing white clouds and high air pressure. Spirited by an early morning cycle adjacent the Mississippi River on the erstwhile railway right-of-way and a subsequent unwitting siting of Hudson’s vegetable stand alongside the road we’ve arranged to have tonight a traditional meal of meat-and-potatoes – punctuated with butter, ground pepper and Maldon sea salt flakes.
“Once upon a time, salt was just salt. It was the stuff in shakers and canisters, the gustatory equivalent of the treble dial. You used more, or you used less. Whether it was a little girl with an umbrella, a toss over the left shoulder to ward off bad luck, or a nontaster’s affront to the chef, it was all just salt.
This was more than 20 years ago, but well after people learned that there might be finer coffee than Medaglia D’Oro in a can. Maybe the first inkling was the coarse salt on the rim of a margarita, or a salad invigorated by sparks of La Baleine, or a virgin bite of chocolate sprinkled with fleur de sel. For Mark Bitterman, the author of Salted and the coiner of the term selmelier (which so far seems to have been applied just to Bitterman), the epiphany was a transcendent steak at a relais in northern France in 1986. He deduced that the difference-maker was the rock salt provided by the owner’s brother, a saltmaker in Guérande in Brittany. Bitterman came to learn, as all chefs now have, that before salt was just salt—before it was industrialized and homogenized—it was a regional and idiosyncratic ingredient, perhaps the quintessential one, precisely because it was so universal. You could tell salts apart, prefer one to another, and pair them with different foods. You could acquire a salt vocabulary, tell salt stories. If you could be a snob about coffee, beer, butter, peppers, and pot, why not sodium chloride?Then I got wise. On a kitchen shelf at home, there was a small box adorned with the Royal Warrant of the Queen of England and some Edwardian-sounding patter in small print, attesting to the “curious crystals of unusual purity” contained within. The brand was Maldon—Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. It came from a 135-year-old family-owned salt works on the southeast coast of England.“
My late father had an undisguised passion for fresh seasonal veggies, preferably served at the kitchen table with warmed milk, butter and salt. Perhaps he was onto a secret medical concoction; it certainly kept him in good health for almost 96 years! The evidence of his passion – it was really his only sin – was akin to that of a small child with an ice cream cone; namely, he was completely absorbed in the consumption of the meal which he as often concluded with a deep breath and a push away from the place mat.
If and when one has exhausted the ceremony of alcoholic beverages – whether as a cocktail or as a lubricant at table – the essence of what remains of society is a good meal. There is only so much that can be said about the new buggy or the precious Persians or the debate concerning plate and sterling silver. Politics may however maintain its hover until the sweet.