A Matter of Voice
Salt & Pepper
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., May 14, 1999
Broadway Books, $25 hard
What would prompt a food writer to spend several years preparing a book about the two most ubiquitous components of our everyday diet? Californian Michele Anna Jordan recalls that she always preferred "salty flourishes" to sweet ones and that she chafed at the pontifications of the "salt police" when they tried to eliminate it from the American diet for health reasons. She devoted an entire column (The Jaded Palate, then running in the Sonoma County Independent) to her defense of salt and was so gratified by the positive response she received that the column eventually grew into a book proposal. When articles about salt began appearing in high-profile publications around the country, she knew it was time to put her proposal for a book on salt and pepper on the market. In the time from the sale of the book to its recent publication, salt has remained a hot topic, with sultry pepper in its wake. Chefs go on record about their favorite brands of kosher salt and designer peppercorn blends, while imported Malaysian peppercorns, Celtic grey sea salt, and the rare French fleur de sel show up in gourmet markets across the country.
Explaining her fascination with the topic, Jordan says in her introduction, "Salt dances naked on your table, makes you blush with delight. Pepper taps you on the shoulder and invites you behind closed doors. Both are shameless in the endless pleasure they impart." The first section of Jordan's extensively researched book features history, lore, and science about the two most valued spices known to man. From the days when salt and pepper were so precious as to be considered currency to the times when the search for more economical spice routes prompted exploration of the globe, the author shares enlightening anecdotes and hard facts about the mineral compound necessary for human survival and the King of Spices, its constant partner.
Exploring salt, Jordan interviews respected food scientist Harold McGee about salt's ability to enhance other flavors and describes the integral part it plays in the preparation of such foods as cured pork, baked bread, and brined cheeses. She describes how salt seasons languages as well as food. For instance, it's a good thing to tell someone you "love them more than salt," but unfortunate to be known as someone "who was not salted when he was born." Pursuing her muse, Jordan takes the reader along on explorations of the salt marshes on San Francisco Bay and the salt beds on the windswept coast of Brittany, the salt domes of Kansas and the Royal Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland, with vivid descriptions of each locale. Her passion for the subject is contagious as she extols salt's versatility (cleaning agent, skin exfoliator, drain sweetener, ice melter) and revels in the seduction of its varied flavors.
While it's obvious that pepper's effect on the author is neither as profound nor as evocative as that of salt, Jordan still presents an informative tale of her visit to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo and in the heart of pepper farm country. Along with the author, we learn about pepper farming from the vine to the commodities market. Based on her sensuous prose, we vicariously share Jordan's enjoyment of the nightly gift of pepper candy on her Malaysian hotel room pillow and imagine the black pepper-scented aromatherapy potion said to stimulate her senses while she finished writing the book. Returning from the wilds of Borneo, Jordan provides us with a quick recap of world history with the King of Spices as a motivating force. The search for pepper launched thousands of ships and paved many roads. In ancient days, pepper was so dear as to be demanded in tribute by governments and conquerors, while in the medieval world, a cache of peppercorns was a worthwhile dowry or a wealthy inheritance. Today, pepper is a traded commodity, something we tend to take for granted. What flavor would prompt us to search the outer reaches of the galaxy now?
The second half of Salt & Pepper is devoted to 135 well-seasoned recipes showcasing the culinary stars. Try the Shrimp Roasted on Rock Salt (p.63), where the salt serves as a medium to conduct heat efficiently rather than an overt flavor, or the classic Roman dish Spaghetti Carbonara (p.85), deliciously flecked with cracked black peppercorns and dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino cheeses. I was equally impressed by two rice dishes, Risotto with Zucchini, Green Peppercorns and Basil (p.92) and the Cajun Dirty Rice (p.93) with a very credible homemade Louisiana-style seasoning blend. Don't be put off by the recipes which feature fruit with pepper; it's a dramatic complement to strawberries and citrus fruits and the Black Pepper Dressing (p. 171) is the perfect dressing for an elegant chicken salad with avocado and grapefruit on peppery greens (p. 156). I'm looking forward to the first fresh corn of the summer to try Grilled Corn With Pepper Butter (p. 137).
With its lively blend of well-researched history, useful information, and delicious recipes, Michele Anna Jordan's Salt & Pepper should make a versatile addition to any serious cook's library. It might inspire you to seek out several different salts for a comparison tasting or to choose a new salt as your signature seasoning. After studying the book seriously, I'm determined to find a source for Diamond Crystal Salt, one of the author's favorites as well as the chosen brand of many chefs, just to see why they are so sold on it. However, the best aspect of the book by far is Jordan's distinctive voice, infectiously drawing the reader into her sensuous enjoyment of the spices of life.