Sunday, March 4, 2012

Salt by Adam Gopnik

The newer cookbooks show two overt passions: one is for simplicity, the other is for salt. The chef’s cookbook from the fancy place has been superseded by the chef’s cookbook from the fancy place without the fancy-place food. Simplicity’s appeal as a religion is inherent. But the trend is in part a reaction to the cult of complexity of the Ferran Adria school of molecular cooks, with their cucumber foam and powdered octopus. Reformations make counter-reformations as surely as right makes left; every time someone whitewashes a church in Germany, someone else paints angels on a ceiling in Rome.

But simplicity remains the most complicated of all concepts. In one month we may stumble over six recipes for a ragout or Bolognese – plain spaghetti sauce, as it use to be known, when there was only one kind – with chicken livers or without, diced chuck roast or hamburger, white wine or red. Yet all movements in cooking believe themselves to be movements toward greater simplicity. (Even the molecular gastronomes believe that they are truly elemental, breaking things down to the atomic level.)

Simplicity is style, but salt is the ornamental element –the idea of tasting flights of salt being a self-satirizing notion that Swift himself couldn’t have come up with. The insistence on many kinds of salt – not merely sea salt and table salt but hand-harvested fleur de sel, Himalayan red salt, and Hawaiian pink salt – is everywhere, and touching, because, honestly, it all tastes like salt. And now everyone brines. Brining, the habit of dunking meat in salty water for a bath of a day or so, seems to gave first appeared out of the koshering past in Cook’s Illustrated, sometime in the early nineties, as away of dealing with the dry flesh of the modern turkey, and then spread like ocean water in a tsunami, until now both Keller and Peel are keen to brine everything: pork roasts, chicken breasts, shrimp, duck.

Although brining is defended with elaborate claims to tenderness, what it really does is make food taste salty: we’re doing what our ancestors did, making meat into ham. All primates like the taste of salt; that’s a feature, not a bug. Salted food demands a salty sweet. I read that in Spain recently one connoisseur had “a chocolate ganache coated in breads floating in a small pool of olive oil with fleur de sal sprinkled on it," while we can now make pecan-and-salt caramel-cheesecake chocolate mousse with olive oil, and flaky-salt sticky peanut cookie bars for ourselves.

The salt fetish has, I think, a deeper and more psychological cause, too: we want to bond with the pro cooks. Most of what a pro cook has to his advantage comes down to the same advantage that Caribbean sugarcane planters used to have: high heat and lots of willing slaves (The slaves seem happy, anyway, until they escape and write that testimonial, or start that cooking blog.) But the pro cook also tends to salt a lot more than feels right to an amateur home cook; both the late Bernard Loiseau and the Boston cook Barbara Lynch have confessed that hyper-seasoning and, in particular, high salting, is a big part of what makes pro cooks food taste like pro cooks’ food. The poor home cook, with no hope of an eight –hundred-degree brick oven, and lucky if he can indenture a ten-year-old into peeling carrots, can still salt hard – and so salt, its varieties and use, become a luxury replacement, a sign of seriousness even when you don’t have the tools of seriousness at hand.

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