I’m not super self-aware, except at times–though even then much of my sense of self-awareness stems from the recognition that I often have no idea what I’m doing or thinking.Jennifer has called my attention, more than once, to a habit I have of cracking my knuckles when approaching someone who has just asked me a nice plump salt question. Walking from behind the counter–or descending the ladder from which I have been arranging wine bottles or fixing the frame of one of Roger Hallin’s beautiful nudes that are hanging some 10 feet up the 17-foot-tall walls of the shop–I interlace the fingers, flip the palms forward, and flex them, releasing a quite pleasant crackling of cartilage and tendon. Opening up the energy. I think Jennifer is concerned that there is an air of fiendish glee in the gesture that visitors might find… disconcerting.
Anywhere between five and five hundred times a day, someone stands before the wall where we have about 75 salts arranged in little apothecary jars and asks, “If I want to have just one salt, which one should I choose?”
The question taken lightly is easy, and I could just stab a finger randomly in the general proximity of some jar filled with oyster-white shavings and say, “That one will do you just fine.”
And it might.
This is the same type of almost-irrepressible advice given by men (and I imagine women, too) to friends seeking a worthy mate. Leaning an elbow into a pool of vermouth, you nod toward to where, six stools farther down the riotous bar, three women chat together over their mojitos. “There you go, my friend, a woman with the neck of a Modigliani.” But you may just as well have gestured to her companion: “A woman with eyes like rainclouds over a lake.” Sometimes that is enough. Your friend drifts over to the three sirens, talks for a minute or two, miraculously does not fall flat on his face, and presto! three years later he has a child with the neck of a Modigliani and has lost all use for your bar room company.
But more likely, the best that could come of such advice is a rapidfire sequence of doubt, dread, terror, excitement, bewilderment, bliss, bewilderment, and remorse. We call such forays “taking a header.”
This is strange. We must steel ourselves against the tendency to conclude that we have failed, or worse, the tendency to learn lessons from such debacles. The willingness to fiddle with things is the hallmark of the scientist, the entrepreneur, the artist, and the stuntman. Outside the domain of sex, dalliance is both seemly and substantive.
Salt must be approached like a tryst without the shame or recrimination. Everything you do with a salt–even one you later abandon–will teach you more about the foods you like and the ways you cook. You may find one evening’s pleasure in the company of a pale gray salt from Cervia on ropes of beef loin, but realize you need something leaner and meaner like Sel Gris de Guerande in your life. You may spend years of mornings in a country sunroom eating poached eggs salted with briny-fresh Fleur de sel de l’Ile de Re, only later to spurn that love in favor of an Asian beauty like Shinkai Deep Sea salt with warmer, less decipherable nuances.
I don’t know for sure, , but it’s my best guess that this is what flashes through my head as, knuckles cracking, I approach a customer to discuss That One Salt that will make her happy for the rest of her life. If we luck out and fall upon true love, she will eat the best food of her life for the rest of her life, morning, noon, and night. If we don’t luck out, the corners of her life will expand, the hues will deepen, colors will saturate, she will utter c’est la vie under her breath one morning and venture back again with fresh optimism, looking for the perfect salt.