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1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 4 of 6)

There is a special and unmistakable liquid, a staple of the chef who must maintain his so-called standards but still is to busy to start afresh for each patron, which at this very moment is being doused indiscriminately upon veal cutlets, filets of beef, and even slices of salmon, in uncountable kitchens all over the world. It is thinner than thick, browner than red, a consummate mixture of mediocrity which baffles and impresses the ignorant and nauseates the knowing. Its sparing use denotes a clever restaurant cook, its prodigality a reckless one…for even the dullest diner will in the end revolt and go elsewhere, if every entree he orders swims in the same questionable flood.

Perhaps gastronomers of a few hundred years from now will consider it the universal food of our century. Meanwhile, I prefer to think of an older and much simpler one: the bread that has been broken, for countless years, and the salt that has been eaten with it, as well as sprinkled over the doorsteps of our ancestors and offered with incense to the gods, even unto now.

Salt, sodium chloride, NaCI, is perhaps too much a part of today’s table, or so at least many of our doctors feel, and rightly, when they can point to their patients who have hardened arteries and palsy and less often, but with equal poignancy, to the palace-deadened children and traveling salesmen and such who whip themselves at every meal the way a cow must in the spring, licking at salt to stimulate her glands.

It has always been vegetable- and cereal-eaters, cows and humankind alike, who most crave the taste of salt, and men who live on roasted meat, like the Bedouins, need never touch it, for natural flavors can appease them without any help. But once meat is boiled, with its goodness in part drained from it, salt must be added to make it decently palatable. There is a sensual satisfaction about the rough, bitter crystals of rock salt that are sprinkled over a true pot-au-feu, at least as I used to eat it in Burgundy, that no grilled kid could equal. .. and yet I never put salt on beef to be seared and roasted over the coals in my patio barbecue, and people who in restaurants would automatically reach for the salt cellar eat it blissfully, incredulous when they eventually learn what they have done.

I was taught when very young that it is an insult to the cook to salt a dish before it has been tasted, and in spite of my adult knowledge of the reasons for such an unthinking gesture, I still resent it when anyone at my table seasons something as soon as it is put before him. I know that his tongue is jaded, calloused even, by restaurant sauces and a thousand dinners that have had to be heightened with anything at hand in order to be swallowed at all. Still I wish, silently most of the time, that he would take a chance and eat just one bite before he sprinkles the ubiquitous salt and pepper upon whatever has been prepared for him: I have great pride in my culinary knowingness and feel, with good proof of my rightness, that some things need salt and some do not. Green beans in butter, for instance, as opposed to my patio steak: the first need an ample touch of salt, ample sweet butter, and then an ample grind of fresh pepper, while the second never sees anything but herbs and wine.

Bread is another thing again, a cereal which in one way or another carries itself most easily with salt somewhere about it. I know a man of parts who, when he can eat reddish-brown Russian rye bread, will spread it thickly with sweet butter and then to my own private horror coat the whole with an impossible load of table salt. He likes the odor, texture, taste…it makes him feel good, again like the cow in springtime, to eat this honest, enriching fare and to feel the stimulation of the sodium chloride.

Bread made without salt has a strange sweetness about it, almost a nutmeg taste, much more of a chemical difference than the one small omission would be expected to make. And in the making it does not smell so yeasty and irresistible, somehow. It still is good, and worth the bother, if indeed it can be called bother to mix the whole and then pound it and let it rise and pound it again, in the age-old ritual of baking.

It is too bad, I think, that fewer and fewer people try its classical rhythm. It brings a mysterious satisfaction with it, which I saw not long ago when a fine woman was told never to touch salt again, and suddenly her whole house became more peaceful, all because the cook had to make salt-free bread twice weekly.

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