Salt, It's the New Pepper 

Exotic sodium is the next hot sauce -- and Lynne Rose saw it coming.

The Web site of the nonprofit Salt Institute (www.saltinstitute.org) is either a fascinating fount of knowledge or the most boring thing ever invented, with your point of view probably depending on how sick you are of scrolling through Craigslist's Missed Connections. The salt site is packed with arcane knowledge and tidbits of dubious import. Example: The average person consumes 402 pounds of salt a year. Besides such facts, there's a rib-slapping salt-themed cartoon (imagine a gigantic salt shaker de-icing a frozen road), a beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda appropriately titled "Ode to Salt," and a huge number of recipes in which salt plays a starring role -- pretzels, "tender salt sticks." It's puzzling that they failed to mention the most obvious salt-themed song, "Margaritaville," with its refrain about a guy searching for a lost shaker of salt, but they must have had their reasons.

The first sentence of the site's "History of Salt" section practically bowls you over with its urgency: "Most people probably think of salt as simply that white granular food seasoning found in a salt shaker on virtually every dining table." They are correct in that assumption. "Most people," however, are not on the cutting edge of a new food trend. "Most people" are not visionaries of the food world. "Most people" are not Lynne Rose.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to possess magical powers, to know about food trends before they exist, to be the Anton LaVey of the food world? The power to proclaim: "I have a vision that Caesar salad and tiramisu will be on every menu in America by fall!" Imagine the heady rush, the feeling of omnipotence. "Most people" have no idea what that would feel like.

Well, Lynne Rose has the power. And the local salt fetishist and amateur foodie has long known what many in the food world are just now discovering: that salt isn't just for tequila shots anymore. In the past year, food magazines such as Cook's Illustrated and Gourmet have been boasting about salt with wild abandon. Kitchen outfitter Sur La Table now sells a French salt that fetches $10.95 for 4.4 ounces, $44.95 for 35 ounces. "Because each harvest is unique," crows the store's Web site, "the 4.4-ounce package is labeled with the name of the master salt-gatherer." Sorry, Morton's just doesn't have the same cache.

Why salt? Why now? That much is a mystery. But to get a handle on the growing hysteria, think back to the 1980s, otherwise remembered as the era when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting something blackened. It's about to be like that with salt.

Rose insists, albeit briefly, that she is not a soothsayer or a shaman. But how else could she know that salt would be the it seasoning for 2003 and possibly even 2004, without some kind of culinary voodoo? Perhaps she peered into a crystal ball and saw a giant salt shaker poised and ready for its close-up. Or maybe she pointed a dowsing rod at the big fat gut of America and it rumbled, "Feed me better salt, preferably with the name of the salt master on the label."

Rose does, however, modestly admit that she enjoys her view from the vanguard. As we sit in her sunny Alameda cottage with a cold sixer of Miller High Life (and a few Anchor Steams which the Titian-haired and rather striking saline matron hogs for herself), she tells me about how she first fell in love with sodium chloride. "I've been touting salt for at least five years now," she says. "At first, I just really liked the packaging, how a normal everyday thing translates into something so exotic.

"For so long salt was vilified far and wide, but I was its biggest fan and advocate," Rose continues, taking a dainty bite of an unsalted chip. "I'm glad that people are validating it now in our culinary vocabulary; I feel sorry for people who are sucked into that low-sodium myth -- it makes no sense. Now it's all about brine."

The body of research is out of date when it comes to salt's virtues, insists our Lady Brackishnell: "For awhile, I fell prey to the medical myths like high blood pressure, and lately I've been reading all this research that says it's not that bad for you. Now I go all the way. I totally indulge. I love salt. I love it a lot. The only thing better than salt is salt mixed with sugar. It's like the poor man's speedball."

Rose knew, although others scoffed and laughed, that there was something out there beyond the bland mediocrity of crap American salt. So bored was she of the stuff in her shaker that whenever friends traveled to far-flung points on the globe, she pleaded with them to bring back salty souvenirs.

The first acquisition in her prized -- and too multifarious to quantify -- salt collection came from Egypt. Soon after, salts began pouring in from everywhere: Friends and acquaintances brought back samples from Holland, France, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Thailand, and other exotic locales.

What about American table salt? "I don't even bother with table salt," our host replies imperiously as she tosses back a lock of curly hair. "Like if I go out, I will eat the salt that I'm given, but generally I like pretty fancy salt for my everyday use because it lends a richer taste to food."

What would her all-time fantasy salt be? Rose considers the question and takes a long pull of her Anchor. "I'd like to try African salt," she says thoughtfully.

We decide to have a taste test, using the beer and saltless tortilla chips as palate cleansers. She tells me that some of her salts have never even been opened. This is an incredible honor.

The first sample is from the Dominican Republic. It has very fine granules and a tangy aftertaste. Actually, it's a little on the giggly, effeminate side. "You'd expect them to have a tiny salt; I don't know why, but you would," our tipsy salt expert says.

The next contestant is Egyptian. It's in a big red-and-yellow box and the swirly Arabic writing makes it seem there's something a lot cooler then just salt inside -- maybe a genie waiting to escape. It's sort of a disappointment when a bunch of salt pours out. It's grainier than the Dominican stuff and has a very manly swagger on the tongue. "A pleasant texture, but none of the tang of the Dominican salt. This is a grounding salt," Rose says. We agree that the salt makes us feel strong and historical, whatever that means.

The salt from Thailand is not as assertive as the brazen Egyptian. It's medium-grained and, oddly enough, doesn't taste particularly salty. It tastes somewhat shy, as if it would prefer the fish sauce to take over and do all the work. "I feel like I want to tell it to shine," Rose says. "This salt needs to assert itself."

With the beer kicking in, we begin assigning genders to the salts. The Dominican is male, but a little light in the loafers. The Thai salt is also male. We decide that he would perhaps like to make friends with corned beef for St. Patrick's Day. "That would be very daring," Rose exclaims.

The Dutch product isn't the greatest. Her granules aren't particularly large, and the flavor has a dull, brackish quality. "I think that they're proud of how bland their food is, even the salt, but salt in Holland is really important because the food there really needs it," Rose says, then lowers her voice conspiratorially, "if you catch my meaning."

We'd been looking forward to the French salt and it didn't let us down. She is a fine and spicy lady. "You could take a spoon and eat it raw. It's very clean and completely versatile. Very friendly," raves Rose, now impassioned. "Not foreboding or overpowering, but she seems confident. She is very tender."

The Italian salt has the texture of Salinas bathtub crank and possesses a big lusty macho flavor that lingers on the tongue with all the subtlety of a pinch on the ass from a train-station pervert. It's almost like a food and not like a spice at all -- actually, salt isn't technically considered a spice, but what the hell. Anyway, we decide it's our favorite.

America may be a superpower, but we have super-lame salt. The weak ejaculate of granules sits meekly on the plate looking very small, even smaller than that of the Dominican Republic. The salt seems to sense that it's surrounded by wiser salt with more substance and integrity; it has only the slightest aftertaste of salinity. As far as texture, the American salt has the consistency of refined sugar, which is okay if you're a sugar, but not so good if you're a salt. Our domestic product seems downright pitiful next to the more earthy and robust salts of the other nations. "That, to me, is tragic because that's what Americans think about salt," Rose says mournfully. We agree that this McSalt is the worst salt ever and we are ashamed and embarrassed for our nation.

You're probably wondering what other food trends Rose sees in the future so you can go out and buy stock. Like Stevie Nicks, she usually keeps her visions to herself, but she graciously makes an exception in this case. "The straw is about to become the new chopstick. I'm talking totally adult, totally sophisticated, jewel-encrusted, gold-plated straw implements as accessories," she predicts. "People will bring their own straws, in their own cases, to the hautest dining establishments. Within the decade, I predict restaurants everywhere will offer the straw as an alternative flatware with entire suckable menus."

You heard it here first. Rose has seen the future, and it sucks.

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