Like a chapter from Jules Verne, my story begins with a squid. I was eight, very hungry and had just met my parents’ exotic new friend. She claimed to be from Yugoslavia, but to this day, I swear she was a Gypsy.
The Gypsy was eating squid. And, if she could do it, well so could I. I took my first bite. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten squid, but, aside from the Gummi Bear-like consistency, it is one of the singularly most uneventful gastronomic experiences I’ve ever had. Dining upon a “sea monster”, I expected to be transformed; I wasn’t. Seeing the disappointment on my face, the Gypsy smiled an enigmatic smile, put her fork aside, and began to tell me about Ivan.
“Now, Ivan was a young Russian merchant who hoped to win the hand of a beautiful princess, she whispered, her gravelly voice weaving a spell. “By ‘young’, I mean penniless. Ivan had no gold or jewels to impress the princess’s father, the Tsar. What he did have was a ship’s cargo full of ‘white sand’, a substance heretofore unknown to the Tsar’s kingdom. Salt.”
As The Gypsy continued, she sprinkled some grains on my squid — just as Ivan did with to the Tsar’s dinner. Suddenly, for both the Tsar and myself, the salt worked its magic and once black-and-white tastes shone with glorious Technicolor.
Salt. Who would think that a world of flavor exists in this innocuous little crystal? Yet, it works magic when combined with other ingredients, enhancing otherwise hidden flavors. Not only does it heighten the taste of starchy foods like potatoes, rice, and beans, but it adds a unique dimension to sweet treats, off-setting their sugary complexity. Ever forget to add that pinch of salt to chocolate chip cookies? Believe me, you’ll remember when you eat them.
The same goes for baking bread. Salt slows down the fermentation of the yeast, affects rising time and makes the grain’s richness come alive. Old-fashioned, hand-churned ice cream would be an impossibility without rock salt. Are you a fan of deli food? Well, you could say goodbye to those dill pickles and sauerkraut. Their unique flavors are made possible by the salty brine in which they cure.
Salt is perhaps the perfect “food” for, without it, no dish seems complete. I discovered it when my Gypsy friend anointed my squid. Ivan knew this and his insight awoke the palates of a kingdom and won him the hand of the princess.
Lest you think I’m waxing to poetic about the miracle of salt, consider this. What other food could have been used as payment for Roman Centurions or inspired Gandhi — yes, you heard right — to march to the sea to gather his own when a British monopoly curtailed its availability. Gandhi knew what all truly good cooks (and salt aficionados) know.
Salt makes food come alive, coaxing out the most reluctant and complex flavors, dancing across our taste buds, which, I’m happy to report, are designed to appreciate salt in all its singular, salty glory.