I get home from work to find a snotty nosed toddler and a tired wife. This on-again, off-again cold season just won't quit. It's wearing us out. For a while the baby is fine, then green snakes of snot start to make their way out of his nose. Sick toddlers are whiny toddlers, all day. Kim needs a break.
We decide to get out of the house for a hour and get dinner. Take a breath. Have a drink. Change the scenery. We go to a small place down the street with an easy kids menu and good appetizers. After corralling the kid for fifteen minutes, they bring the food. It's good, but just a little bland. I grab for the salt shaker and sprinkle. What I get is the sharp tang of something that tastes mechanically-separated. At least the change of scenery is nice.
The next day some friends invite us over for dinner. It's been a long week and we're glad to see them. The kids play. The adults have a glass of wine. We're talking about the curiosities of our kids and the confusions of parenthood. We're talking about new music coming into town. We're talking about living our lives. We're sharing a table together. We're enjoying the evening. The meal is responsible. The produce is as local as you can get this time of year. Even the wine comes from a local vineyard. The table salt, however, comes from anywhere but here and it has the tangy, mechanically-separated, iodine enriched taste. It's salt designed to meet strict standards for crystal size and a consistent pour. It's industrialize salt. It's the standard on tables across the country. It's something I only notice because I've become preoccupied with salt. But these are not the thing to talk about at dinner. We're were not invited over to talk critically about the table salt. We are there to enjoy the evening, with our families, and share a table. So, that's what we do.
"Table fellowship" is what Michael Pollan calls it. Our time with friends, our connections around the table, the bonds we make eating together are more important that the moral hazards we create for ourselves through our judgments about the world. When given a choice, take the responsible route. When there isn't a choice that meets your standards, enjoy the time you have and the connection of a shared meal with the people you are enjoying it with. In this line of thinking, a shared meal has deep roots and is part of our common human inheritance. The importance of maintaining these ties and participating in the ritual, regardless of the food selection, is the stronger moral imperative.
It's late fall and we are spending a weekend at the beach with friends. The weather is typical Oregon coast weather--raining, windy, cold. The house we rented holds several families. Everyone has kids. The plan for the weekend is to get away from the city, to enjoy each others' company, to let the kids run wild (the couch is destroyed and converted into a pillow pit), and to cook meals together.
In the back of my car is the empty blue jug. We're out of salt again which means I need to go to the ocean. I bring this up and one brave volunteer comes along. We drive the 200 yards to the beach simply to save the work of carrying the full jug back.
Standing on the beach, the scene could hardly be worse. The ocean is rough and gray. The rain is coming down sideways. We're standing in the cold sand, pants rolled up, staring at the water. This sucks, we joke. Let's get it over with. I strip down to t-shirt and pants and wade out. The water is painfully cold. My feet go numb within an minute. The waves roll in and splash up my body while I try to keep the jug submerged so it can fill. My hands are turning blue. My hair is dripping with rain. When the jug is full, I tighten the cap and carry it back to the beach.
The weight is magnified by the awkward shape of the jug so we take turns carrying it back over the sand dune and down the path to the car. We laugh about how one 60 lbs jug of water takes both of us to carry. We complain about the wind and rain. We hurry as fast as we can back to the car.
Is this it? my friend asks. Yes, I say, now I just have to get it home and boil it down. I thought there would be more to it, he says, it's actually pretty cool--thanks for letting me come a long. Thanks for helping, I say.
We get back to the house. The wood burning stove is hot and the whole house is warm. Did you get what you needed? my wife asks. Yeah, i did, I say. The water is in the back of the car.
The warmth of the house is wonderful. I'm wet and salty and feel completely refreshed. I'll take this little scoop of the ocean home and reduce it down. It will make our food better. It will provide the sodium our cells need, from the most primal of sources. When it is gone, I will go back to the ocean to fill my jug again.
"A cloudy morning, I took 5 men and set out to the Sea to find the nearest place & make a way to prevent our men getting lost and find a place to make salt" wrote William Clark on December 8, 1805 when he set up a salt works on the Oregon coast at the place we now call Seaside. Clark knew the importance of salt. It not only seasoned their food, but also allowed them to preserve the meat for their long expedition across the country. Without salt cured meats, their long trip would not have been possible. In the end, Clark's salt works on the beach made 28 gallons of salt. That salt made it possible for them to make the long journey home. The salt was "excellent, fine, strong & white", said Clark.
We travel down to my mom's house and the problem comes up again. The little shaker is on the table. I want to enjoy the meal and not think about how many miles that little vial of salt has traveled. How much processing went into it. How metallic the taste will be. So I try not to. The meal is good. And the company is nice. But awareness brings its own conflicts.
The next day we are eating at home. My toddler son is eating noodles and occasionally feeding the dog noodles. My daughter is looking sideways at the strips of porterhouse steak on her plate and mostly eating everything else. We laugh about how much she used to like t-bone steak, when it was the only kind of meat she could name. This night we're having steak from cows raised on Mt. Hood and bought from a friend who had two cows slaughtered. My wife has made a recipe out of Mark Bitterman's Salted
. It's Porterhouse au Sel et Proivre. We have roasted beets, edamame, and rice on the side. A glass of wine too. The black pepper is freshly crushed. The salt is excellent.