Deeply familiar, as though residing in the very DNA of what makes us human, this flavor: smoke.
The flavor of early cooking, of that ancient process. Maybe it was an animal over a fire, dripping blood that makes the fire spark and sputter, and the smoke channeling upwards into the dark and staining the air with its scent. The cooks do not speak, for it's not the language of spoken words that's necessary, or even sight, but scent - an animal language. The flavor goes as far back as the myth of our imaginations will allow but is now infused into so many of our foods it's as though we need this flavor to survive.
And maybe we do, given that smoking is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, just as salt preserves food and actually serves to detoxify it.
But in addition to making the food more available to us through preservation, salt is a necessary nutrient to us as humans. It is a valuable ingredient, one that strings us all together as humans, just the way using fire to cook our food does too. As Mark Bitterman writes in his book Salted:
"We eat lots of things: animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Salt is the only mineral we eat. It is the only universal ingredient, and it is the most potent one." (p. 9, Salted, 2010)Potent, because it not only serves as a nutrient for our bodies, but also because it chemically interacts with food to enhance flavor. And in addition to that, it also serves as a medium for other flavors; it can be modified to carry flavors, such as wasabi or saffron, chardonnay, espresso, or smoke.
I just got back from a weekend in Austin, TX visiting some friends. It was hot—103 degrees hot. But it was also the dry, beautiful heat of Texas, and the wildflowers were still blooming, and the sky was a cerulean blue and there were cacti and live oaks and other plants rarely seen in Boston.
Hot weather equals lots of sweating, so after a walk through the wild basin outside the city, naturally a salty margarita was in order. Salt is an especially necessary nutrient in hot climates (and so are margaritas, I might argue.) But salt is even more delicious now that it's not as evil as everyone once thought (see this New York Times article). As Mark Kurlansky writes about sodium chloride in his book Salt: A World History,
"Chloride is essential for digestions and in respiration. Without sodium, which the body cannot manufacture, the body would be unable to transport nutrients or oxygen, transmit nerves or move muscles, including the heart." (p.8, Salt, 2002)
Smoked salt is like a metaphor for early days of preservation, when salt was actually a more valuable commodity and hard to come by. Using smoked salt (whether it's hickory smoked salt or just Mexican smoked salt) creates a flavor that otherwise would be achieved by smoking.
As Kurlansky writes:
"For both meat and fish, smoking was a northern solution to a lack of salt. Salt is needed for smoking but in smaller quantities, because the smoking aids in conservation. The origin of smoking is unknown..." (p. 136, Salt, 2002)
When using smoked salt, or really any kind of salt except the industrialized salt that is supremely processed, it's like a reminder to honor our food and our fortunate place on this planet. So go for a vigorous walk out in nature and then come home and make this delicious cocktail that I invented in Austin, TX. It's a satisfying blend of sweet, salty and sour; plus hibiscus is high in Vitamin C. Bring on the nutritious cocktails!
Mark Bitterman, Salted: A manifesto on the world's most essential mineral, with recipes. Ten Speed Press. 2010
Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History. Penguin Books. 2002.