Sunday, October 10, 2004

Salt: The Emperor's New Clothes

Sometimes I wonder why eating and cooking have to be so difficult. Eggs will kill you; no, eggs are fine in moderation. Fat is evil; wait, fat is good and necessary. Now salt--once banned from kitchens for causing high blood pressure and all sorts of ills--may not only be good for you, it's the latest rage in certain foodie circles.

Last week's Food Section of the San Francisco Chronicle featured salts that I had heard of but had never tasted. Tonight, while flipping through Gourmet, I found a page of recipes using different salts. With the exception of caramels that used Fleur de Sel, the salts were mostly sea and kosher--ones that a cook might actually have in the kitchen.

I don't know if these specialty salts are worth, well, their salt. Apparently, some of the pink and grey stuff can cost upwards of $30 per pound. My mother thinks I'm a spendthrift for shelling out $3 for a cannister of La Baleine Sea Salt. She still uses Morton's and is one of the finest cooks I know.

The Chronicle article quoted several chefs who insist that the salts make all the difference in their cooking and are worth their price. I am reminded of David Brooks' tome Bobos in Paradise. In it, he skewers the upwardly mobile, who will "buy the same items as the proletariat but paying hugely inflated prices for all sorts of things that used to be cheap..."

Many professional and home cooks know that your cooking is only as good as your ingredients. We search out high quality items that demand respect, so we handle and cook it minimally. But now it's not enough to have extra virgin olive oil from a small, artisan producer who toils on a small Tuscan farm. Or aged Balsamico that, by the ounce, costs more than Petrus. Apparently, it's come to this--unwashed salt from France.

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