food On Salt and The Impossible Pursuit of Food Sanctity
What do I know about food if I didn’t know that Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt has been owned by Cargill since 1997? Perhaps nothing.
I think I just found out that I am, on this matter, very trusting: I trusted my mother, who’s always had the red box in the kitchen; I trusted even chefs, whom I’ve read and heard swear by it over the last couple of decades; I trusted the hype, the normalization of this salt.
Trust of this sort goes against pretty much everything I claim to think about food: I’m supposed to question everything; I’m supposed to consider all the angles. There’s a very good reason I am hesitant to ever name a brand: They’re almost always disappointments. But I have been disabused of this specific salty trust in recent months, and now I have to relearn how to cook.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that watching how someone salts their food tells you quite a bit about their entire cooking philosophy, and with Diamond Crystal, fingers have been trained to use quite a bit of it. As the common refrain goes, it is the least salty salt and dissolves readily in liquid, giving the cook quite a bit of control. Lately, there’s been more discussion about salt:
The L.A. Times decided to call for Diamond Crystal explicitly in savory recipes to avoid confusion, while the Washington Post decided to move toward fine sea salt for everything. To be honest, I watched the headlines pass through my Twitter feed but didn’t think much of it, because I don’t really follow recipes anyway. I cook to the crystallization of my own salt, or something like that.
Then, finally, someone told me the true bad news: Love for this brand supports Cargill, an agribusiness horror show of food contamination, deforestation in the Global South, dumping of toxic waste, and generally wielding its massive wealth and power for evil-doing in the many nations in which it operates. There is absolutely no reason to trust this company, which came to its fame with grain and now is one of the world’s biggest meat producers and processors, for which it’s under investigation about the scale of COVID-19 infection among workers. They’re getting into the plant-based meat game, too, of course, as they see the writing on the wall. I’m sure their operations in that sector will meet the same labor and environmental standards for which they’ve become known.
It’s also not like there isn’t already a robust salt selection in my pantry rack: There’s fine sea salt, usually used in salad dressings, as well as a bucket of Maldon that finishes nearly everything I make, plus fleur de sel for delicate dessert finishing. I love the black lime chile salt from Burlap & Barrel, too, especially to sprinkle on fruit.
But the salt in the cellar next to the stove is Diamond Crystal, though soon that will change. I began reading Mark Kurlansky’s best-selling book Salt: A World History yesterday while standing and sprinkling the last of it, making a breakfast hash of onion, potato, arugula, and cherry tomato, finished with local eggs, so the pages of its introduction are sprayed with oil and dotted by the water in which I boiled the potatoes. He writes, “Without water and salt”— the latter of which as a chemical compound is estimated to have at least 14,000 uses—“cells could not get nourishment and would die of dehydration.” I know this a bit more viscerally now that I live in the tropics. I feel my body’s need for salt.
Kurlansky goes on to write, “Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” Which is always a signal to source an ingredient with care.
I’ve already started to reach for fine sea salt more often. I am hesitant with it, fearful of oversalting. There is no coming back from oversalting. But that’s really the only adjustment, I’ve come to understand.
“I always say, ‘I’ll try to shame my customers into not using Diamond Crystal because it comes from Cargill,’” Jim Dixon of Wellspent Market based in Portland, Oregon, told me over the phone, and his own journey away from it wasn’t too bumpy. “Occasionally you’ll oversalt something,” he says matter- of-factly. I shouldn’t be afraid of that.
Dixon was the first person to reach out to me in this trying time of discovery, and he has done deep research into the matter after falling in love with a Portuguese fine sea salt; before that, though, he’d get whatever sea salt was at the grocery store and use Diamond Crystal, too, because it was just what everyone did. This Portuguese salt, though, changed everything for him.
But to Dixon, who started his business out of an initial appreciation for good olive oil, if you have really good olive oil and salt, you can otherwise eat pretty cheaply, and so it makes sense to take extra care with these ingredients.
“Most of my diet is beans and cabbage,” he says. “I love to eat that kind of stuff. You can spend your money on the things that are important like olive oil, salt, you know, that kind of ingredients that really can add a lot of flavor and then eat the rest of stuff can be fairly inexpensive—beans, potatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots—and those are available pretty much everywhere, and they're inexpensive.”
Here I realized that the dependence I thought I had upon Diamond Crystal was just a vestige of the same type of nostalgia I tell other people not to let drive their food lives, whether it’s because they really like peanut butter with palm oil in it or a cheap hamburger. How sanctimonious I’ve been while using Cargill salt! There will always be something, try as I might to be a saint of consumption, as though there could ever be such a thing in this fucked-up world. But I liked being reminded by Dixon of my own food philosophy about eating simply and trying to source the best, and that this kosher salt doesn’t fit it. We live; we learn; we pick a different salt. Without it, after all, we die.
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