Worth His Salt: The Well-Seasoned Passion of Mark Bitterman

Where arugula and iceberg used to be the politically defining culinary bellwethers of choice (you figure out which party goes which way), it's now, alas, salt.
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I have to say, right off the bat, that I'm not too big a fan of weird food trends. I hate foam, for example, and have written about my fear and loathing of it extensively. The problem is that when some trends, which are best kept to the confines of the professional kitchen (see foam, above. And molecular gastronomy. Let's not even go down that road.) start to worm their way into the home kitchen, very bad things begin to happen. Instead of focusing on roasting a nice chicken (stuffing it with some tarragon, and maybe a little bit of garlic slipped under the skin), or slow-braising a spice-rubbed pork butt, the trend-focused home cook suddenly finds herself perusing the latest cookware catalog from that ubiquitous glimmering mall store, in search of replacement CO2 cartridges so that she can foam steelhead trout skin for junior's dinner, right after he comes home from pee-wee soccer.

This, my friends, is not good.

Which is why I've never much taken a shine to the concept of what is known, annoyingly, as "gourmet" salt. On the one hand -- probably because I am one of millions of food loving Americans who takes a beta blocker every morning to keep my blood pressure in check -- I find it disconcerting to present even more salt to an already oversalted population that really can't wrap its collective brain around the concept of moderation. (I think of my mother-in-law, who at almost 90, practically unscrews the cap on her table salt shaker and pours its contents -- to a beat of 1...2...3 -- over nearly everything she eats, without ever tasting it first. Does this sound familiar? I thought so.) On the other hand, why should the average culinary consumer, while trolling the aisles at the big chain supermarket in his neighborhood, be made to feel guilty if he opts for a three dollar box of kosher salt instead of artisanal finishing salt from the Himalayas, at a cost of $12.00 a jar, even as 1929 redux is lurking right around the corner?

This isn't good, either. Where arugula and iceberg used to be the politically defining culinary bellwethers of choice (you figure out which party goes which way), it's now, alas, salt. Do you go for pink finishing salt, or the stuff in the round cardboard box with the pour spout? We know who you are. Feh.

I have been delighted to make public mockery of this phenomenon, and then, as if in a heaven-sent gastronomic slapdown, I met Mark Bitterman, an extremely humble participant at the Greenbrier Symposium for Food Writers, where I was a panelist last month. At this remarkable annual event, scores of fanatical food journalists and writers from all walks of life gather together for four days of constant talk about our all-consuming, relentless ardor for everything culinary; much pontificating goes on, as does much eating. And a lot -- and I cannot stress this enough -- of drinking, usually after hours when manners are shelved and the most animated conversations take place.

It's an exhausting, invigorating, glorious few days for panelists, who are constantly at work from the time they arrive until the time they depart. So, when I was informed that this Mr. Bitterman -- a young, exceptionally handsome man, probably in his mid 30s, who owns a small shop in Portland Oregon where he sells personally selected salts from all over the world -- was going to hold an after-dinner salt tasting in the dining room of the Presidential Suite, I groaned. How precious. I wanted to let loose and go bowling with my panelist colleagues, food television host Tori Ritchie and author Diane Morgan among them, but that was not to be. Led by baking author extraordinaire Dorie Greenspan, we dutifully trudged off down the long cabbage rose-covered hallway into a fanciful room hung with Dorothy Draper(y) on every window; the long, high-polished table was laden with somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen or so different salts, from all parts of the world, each in a small precious glass jar outfitted with a small precious glass cap. And Mr. Bitterman began to talk about his passion for salt, and why it should -- why it must -- be ours, as well.

Rare are the instances in a culinary journalist's life when she is lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and to hear first hand, the unbridled obsession that a single, universe-changing event and subsequent devotion can breed: for Julia Child, it was her dinner in Rouen. For Alice Waters, it was a period of study in France. For Mark Bitterman, it was, to hear him tell it, the sprinkling of a certain sort of salt on a steak, also in France. It profoundly changed his life; it changed every preconceived notion he had about good food and taste and flavor and the power of this great mineral that comes from the earth, and that, like most things, is at its best when untouched by chemical or the modern human desire to shoehorn it into something it's not.

As he went on and on, I looked around the room, bleary-eyed and nearly inebriated with the corporeally delicious, passionate run-off that poured from every fiber of this man as he talked about his discovery. My colleagues, male and female, were agape; two of us had hot flashes and virtually every woman in the room was fanning herself like Scarlett O'Hara on Spanish Fly. I ran down the hall to get a glass of ice cubes for a well-known San Francisco food celebrity, who promptly dumped them down the inside of her shirt.

And then we sampled the salts: one tasted of flowers, another of brine. One provided a robust explosion of flavor, another was grapey and fruity, round, voluptuous, and decidedly unsalt-like.

"All you need is a small pinch," Mark said, "and the right salt for the right food can elevate it from just okay to being like the best sex you've ever had."

"I think I need to leave," one of my friends whispered, touching the tip of her finger to a small bowl of Tartufo Nero, a black truffle salt sold by Bitterman's store.

Laugh, we did, at the irony of it all: the wild saltiness of the evening, presented by the kind of unassuming guy who (one of my colleagues considered) probably carries his baby in a Snugli, makes furious love to his wife as if every time is the first time, and then transfers those earthy and provocative passions to something that Americans -- myself included -- take for granted every day of our lives.

This decidedly Gallic sort of sensual fervor for an omnipresent ingredient as old as the earth itself is what's missing from the American culinary lexicon; it only becomes weird trend, I realized, when it's mass-produced, hyper-packaged, overpriced, and presented by people who don't understand it, respect it, or take the time to convey its powerful importance and inherent value, even as we begin to slip into Depression, and our culinary needs and abilities must be re-considered, and re-ordered.

As for Mark Bitterman, he is, unquestionably, worth his salt.

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