Salty Talk

One writer shakes in outrage at the killjoys who've demonized salt.
FoodandWine Recipe
A thorny dilemma: I'm sitting in the three-star restaurant of a close friend. He sends an amuse-gueule to the table. The dish is a single diver scallop floating like some saint's eternal soul on tiny Tiepolo clouds of gold and purple vegetable matter. My friend pokes his toque out the kitchen door to check my reaction. I sample. The combination of textures--cherub-tender mollusk against creamy, crunchy veggies--is exquisite. But the damn thing has no flavor. Not a grain of salt has been allowed to pollute it. My friend waggles his eyebrows expectantly. Do I indicate that his savory masterpiece has no savor or feign a modest orgasm? I take the latter course, and when he's turned happily away, I sprinkle nature's best seasoning where it belongs--after which I don't need to fake anything.

This lack of salt is not entirely my friend's fault. Like most chefs I know, he deplores the prevailing superstition that salt is a nutritional dybbuk lurking in the cellar. No, the fault lies with the diners around me, who flinch when the least hint of salinity hits their taste buds. ("Send it back, Harry! With your blood pressure?") They either don't know or perhaps don't want to know that salt fell off the Top 10 Toxins list years ago. They've long subscribed to the belief that if something tastes good it's bad for you and, conversely, that if it tastes of little or nothing it can't be doing you much harm. They've grown used to eating expensive dishes that are only marginally as delicious as they could be. There may even be an element of snobbery at work: saltlessness isn't a problem at down-market (that is, ethnic) restaurants, so there's a perception that properly salted food is unsophisticated or, worse, has something to hide. Sodium is the odium of the eating elite. 

Salt, a demon? Salt, a substance so fundamental to human survival that access to it has caused kingdoms to rise and fall? Salt, which every first-year medical student learns is vital to your health and to the proper functioning of your body's hydraulics? 

Consider this: the other morning, feeling hunger pangs, I found in the fridge something called low-sodium bacon, which my wife had purchased. (She and I see eye to eye on most modern food hokum, but she goes with the flock on this one.) Now, low-sodium bacon is an oxymoron. Bacon is Old French for salted pork. The Old French knew what they were doing: adding salt to pork preserves the meat and makes it uniquely toothsome. Over the centuries the Not-So-Old French, the Middle French and the Fairly New French upheld this practice, exporting it along the way to Britain, where bacon remains one of the very few things the British know how to cook. At no stage did anyone try to remove the salt. Why? Because bacon needs salt to be bacon. Salt is to bacon what money is to Republicans. 

I don't care that there have been some studies that suggest a link between sodium intake and hypertension. There has been just as much research suggesting there's no such connection. One hilarious instance of this face-off occurred in May 1996 when two eminent medical publications, The British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), ran mutually contradictory articles about salt and hypertension in the same month. BMJ was antisalt, JAMA pro. Who knows why? Maybe the Brits felt like paying us back for having better bacon. It's as good a reason as any. 

The only thing we've learned from a half-century of diet battles is that science can promote anyone's cause, whether the agenda belongs to the American Lard Council or the well-intentioned joy buzzards who built the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. (Beans over meat? Get outa here.) All science in the Great Diet War is junk science, and junk science is as bad for you as junk food. One study you'll never see: the link between our daily intake of dire nutritional "facts" and hypertension. 

As Marcia Angell, the executive editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, wrote last spring in The New York Times: "Science has hardly begun to touch the big mysteries about diet and other habits. We simply do not know much about what is risky and what isn't....We would all like to believe that changes in the way we eat and live can greatly improve our health, but with our present state of knowledge...most such changes will produce only small effects (and large profits for the burgeoning industries that thrive on health promotion)." 

Here is one incontrovertible fact: salt makes food taste great. Not to know that or to willfully unknow that should be grounds for revoking your dining license. It's an insult to your palate, your chef, the living things that died to give you sustenance. Salt turns the volume up to 11 on the orchestra of the plate. Science--bless its infarcted little heart--has figured out why: salt increases electrical charges in the water content of food, which encourages the release of aroma molecules and thereby creates the sensation of more concentrated flavor. But who needs a scientist to tell you what this fairy dust does to everything it touches? Ask a chef. Ask your senses. And trust them: if something tastes good, it's good for you. That's the way our bodies work and have worked since we got off our knuckles. To turn that thinking upside down--if something tastes good, it's probably bad for you--isn't nutritional wisdom. It's thinly disguised puritanism that ought to be slammed in the stocks and pelted with Olestra. 

Saltlessness may have further cultural consequences. Common sense tells us, and science has confirmed, that our various means of sensory perception (sight, smell, taste and so on) are inextricably linked. Doesn't it follow that people who grow accustomed to tasteless food would evidence the same propensity in other areas of perception? That a lack of taste at the table would lead to a lack of taste in music, presidents, ties and television shows? That a nation without salt would be a tasteless nation? Maybe that's why people who've eliminated salt from their diet no longer seem to be offended by RVs, Michael Bolton, books by Kitty Kelley and grown men who wear baseball hats backward. 

The bottom line: a substantial number of us will die young from untoward causes--car crashes, stray bullets, black-widow spider bites. Many more of us will die a bit before or a bit after the life-expectancy mark. A lottery-lucky few of us will live to advanced old age. But there will be no rhyme or reason for this last group's survival. Some will be resolutely dry Bible thumpers, some will be séance-holding vegan nut jobs, some will be supposedly self-abusive drinkers and carnivores. But rest assured that no salt-shunning worry weenies will be guaranteed membership in that long-living elect. 

Tony Hendra is a screenwriter who lives, works, eats and drinks in New York City.

PUBLISHED April 1998