Thomas Edison legendarily tested potential employees by inviting them to dinner. If they sprinkled salt on their food before tasting it, he refused to hire them, viewing their thoughtless salting as a sign that their preconceived mindset would prevent them from analyzing a situation thoroughly before taking action. To be fair, this method of eliminating job applicants has also been attributed to Henry Ford, IBM, and General MacArthur, to name just a few.
And I think it’s bullshit.
I love salt. A dash brings out the subtle flavors of food. Salt is to the beefsteak tomato what Matt Damon is to Ben Affleck – the ingredient that makes it worthy of notice. Though I often taste my food before sprinkling it with salt, I like to think that my decision to pre-salt my bowl of Fly Bar’s truffled macaroni and cheese doesn’t make me incapable of critical analysis, but rather demonstrates that homo sapiens are able to learn and make choices based on previously acquired knowledge. Sure, it’s possible that the restaurant could hire a new chef who knows how to properly season food with what I affectionately call The White Devil, but an extra dash of salt never hurt anybody.
And pepper – make mine freshly ground and applied as liberally to a dish as Donald Trump’s self-tanner is sprayed onto his Oompa Loompa orange face. Black pepper is fine, but a gourmet combination of black, white, red and green peppercorns is sublime. If I had a dick, fresh ground pepper would make it hard.
Until recently, salt and pepper shakers squatted on every restaurant table – an interracial couple just waiting to bring a little spice into an often bland world. If you were lucky, the server would offer you a dusting of pepper on your pasta or mashed potatoes from a pepper mill the size of a redwood sapling. The only problem is that the server would then remove the mill from your table, leaving later bites of fettucini alfredo unsatisfactorily peppered. Call me
a control freak proactive, but I want to be in charge of my dining experience. Patrick’s in Sarasota is a favorite restaurant of mine and not just because its Caesar dressing is a creamy garlic orgasm in my mouth. Nope, the fact that they have sea salt and pepper mills on every single table tells me that they trust me to season my food the way I want, when I want and with the best possible spices. Patrick’s gives me the respect I deserve. And their Caesar is really fucking amazing.
So imagine my reaction when I dined at Mr. Bones BBQ on Anna Maria Island a number of years back. A little hole in the wall featuring hand-carved wooden masks and a real human skeleton rigged to piss into a beer-filled coffin, Mr. Bones is popular with locals and tourists seeking the integrity of Louisiana cooking in the middle of God’s waiting room. However, upon being seated, I was accosted with a sign that stated the following:
No salt, pepper, ketchup, etc. in dining room. Don’t Even Ask. Our food is expertly made by New Orleans trained chefs. No improvement is needed. – Bones
Oh, no that bony, dead motherfucka tinkling into the nearby coffin didn’t!
When our waitress arrived, withdrawing a pencil from her coppery, bouffant hairdo to jot down our order, I challenged the rules. Pointing, I asked, “What’s up with the sign?”
The Waitress-Most-Likely-Named-Flo replied in a thick Southern accent, “Oh, you cain’t have any of that in here. The chef’s serious.”
Glancing around at the kitschy tribal masks, peeling, bamboo wall-covering and strip mall quality tables and chairs, I nearly laughed out loud. The chef? My freshman year dorm room with its Duran Duran posters and borrowed milk crates from Winn Dixie used as shelving was classier than this dump. It’s a friggin’ BBQ joint, not Brasserie Les Halles. “But I’m gonna want salt on my fries. And pepper,” I said. With a jerk of my head in Matt’s general direction, I added, “My boyfriend – he’s gonna want some ketchup. He’ll go apeshit if he doesn’t get his ketchup.” Matt managed a menacing furrow of his brow, but I still think he could have committed to the role of Apeshit Boyfriend #1 more fully. I don’t know – maybe bared his teeth and screeched loudly.
Shaking her head, the most stereotypical Southern waitress in the universe replied, “I’m sorry, but I cain’t do that.”
I don’t respond well to the words no and can’t – particularly when the latter is pronounced caint. I’ve discovered that when either are preceded by the phrase I’m sorry, what the speaker is really saying is: I won’t do it. You are shit outa luck. And you were an ugly baby.
“Are you telling me that you don’t have salt, pepper or ketchup in this establishment?” I asked, my smile tight and toothless. “You know, playing poker back there in the kitchen with the mustard, mayo and garlic powder?”
Flo gulped. My persistence seemed to be wearing her down. “Umm. Well, I cain’t bring it out here. Them’s the rules.” Slewing her eyes, she added, “And too much salt’s bad for yer health.”
That fat ass, brassy-haired bitch! This was back when I was Version 1.0 of The Taller Than Average Woman – and a size 6. Miss Chore Boy Tresses had to be busting out a size 20 – and she was lecturing me on the health ramifications of ingesting too much sodium chloride? For a chick who looked like she’d been sucking down Crisco smoothies since birth, she had some nerve. “No, Sweetheart,” I finally spit, “me not getting salt when I want it is bad for your health.”
“But you ain’t even tasted it yet. How do you know yer gonna want all that stuff?” she argued, her chubby, dimpled hands taking up residence on her ample hips.
“Because an incontinent skeleton is telling me that I cain’t have it.” It was the principle of thing.
That was the first and last time I ate at Mr. Bones BBQ. Why? Because I wasn’t in control of my dining experience? Yeah, but mostly because the chef was a pompous ass without an ounce of humility. And my sweet potato fries definitely needed salt.
The incident reminded me of my alma mater. Built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in 1888, the Ponce De Leon Hotel – now home to Flagler College – was designed by the Carrére & Hastings, the guys who brought you the New York Public Library. Featuring stained glass windows by Louis Tiffany, murals by Tojetti and George W. Maynard, meticulously carved oak columns and marble floors imported from Italy, the hotel is deliberately flawed. A single marble tile in the rotunda is out of place – a symbol of Flagler’s humility in the face of God. The railroad pioneer was convinced that it was a sin to create something perfect, believing that only God could do so – and thus he ensured that his magnificent creation was marred. That’s his story, anyway. I suppose if my tile guy fucked up in the entryway of my hotel, I’d blame it on some random deity, too.
Though I don’t share in Flagler’s opinion that God – or any god or goddess for that matter – is perfect, I do believe that most things can be improved, whether it be a recipe, an essay, a hotel or a Justin Bieber song (when his balls finally drop, he’s gonna be HUGE). And I’m pretty sure that God likes salt; you didn’t think he parted the Red Sea just to help the Israelites escape from the Egyptian army, did you? I’m willing to bet Moses instructed his people to scoop up a few bushels of sea salt while they were traipsing between the gravity-defying waves. If you’re gonna be eating nothing but manna for the next forty years, you’re gonna want a little salt on it.
So when a chef declares that his recipes can’t be enhanced or that his preparation is perfect each and every time, my panties tend to get into a bunch. I hate when this happens because my inner thighs chafe easily. There is always room for improvement because there is always someone smarter than you, faster than you, funnier than you, and better looking than you. Need an example? My husband is smarter, Carl Lewis is faster, David Sedaris is funnier and Jane Goodall is better looking. And I’m completely content with this. Perfection is a myth created by Type A people like myself who’ve already transferred their DVD collection into leather bound books, catalogued the titles alphabetically in an Excel spreadsheet and now have nothing left to do. What? It’s an excellent system. Okay, fine…I’m sure it can be improved.
With food, perfection is particularly unattainable because the bar is so subjective. How many times have you read a recipe that instructed you to add salt and/or pepper to taste? The author of that cookbook was recognizing that your taste might be different from his or hers – not better or worse, just different. After all, there are people out there who actually like John Mayer; however, I don’t spend my time organizing taste interventions for love-struck women who think Your Body Is A Wonderland is some form of artistic expression, instead of the pervy ramblings of a narcissistic douchebag.
The palate is a tricky thing. Consider mine: A1 Steak Sauce is freaking amazing, lima beans are so tasty they can be eaten frozen and raw, and undercooked meat makes me gag. I’ve been known to eat salt and vinegar potato chips until my tongue literally cracks. Some of you might think that it’s my taste buds that are flawed – not the chef’s. However, it’s my Visa debit card that is paying for my meal and that means that my taste buds should have whatever they fucking want. When the chef is paying for my underseasoned food, I’ll consider whether or not I’m willing to eat something bland at his expense.
The absence of salt and pepper from the table is not a new trend in finer restaurants where classically-trained chefs insist that their food is perfectly seasoned and consider it a personal insult if a patron requests additional seasoning. As I’ve gotten older and more financially secure, Hubby and I frequent restaurants of this caliber more often – and I take the missing salt and pepper shakers as a personal affront. After all, restaurants are part of the hospitality industry – one in which the customer is always right. If I choose not to consume my meal in the exact manner the chef prefers, that should be my choice. It’s not like I go into his kitchen and insist that he remove those fugly orange Crocs he’s wearing. To refuse me this option or make me feel awkward about requesting salt and pepper is the chef’s passive-aggressive way of insulting my taste. Ask for salt and it’s an indicator that my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle seasoning of Chef Bitchypants’ cuisine.
And despite what many foodies recommend, I’m not going carry clandestine packets of salt and pepper in my purse to avoid offending the chef. Next they’ll be telling me to bring my own fork and knife – and perhaps some contraband foie gras as a form of bribery for the chef.
Thus, I’ve taken to ordering salt and pepper with my meal. Why? First, I shouldn’t have to wait for the server to deliver the necessary seasonings to the table while my meal grows cold. Second, it’s the principle of the thing; why am I having to work for my salt and pepper? Who are these people – the Spice Nazis? Third, it sends a message to the chef: I don’t trust you or your cooking, you arrogant prick. Why? Because you clearly do not trust me either.
The new and disturbing trend I’ve observed is that when salt and pepper are requested, they are often delivered in a small, divided dish – sea salt on one side and coarsely-ground pepper on the other – as if the spices are being rationed to me in itty bitty quantities so that I don’t abuse the privilege. It makes me feel as though the chef said to the server, Whatever you do, don’t give that woman an entire shaker. When she’s done, that bowl of truffled mac and cheese will look like Mount Kilimanjaro in better days.
I’m sure some foodies out there will tell me that the missing salt and pepper shakers should be perceived as confidence on the chef’s part that my food will be seasoned properly. Confidence is trickier than taste. Lots of people have confidence – like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, but that doesn’t make either one of them the Republican nominee for the Presidency of the United States. Steve Jobs was notorious for being so overconfident that he created a reality distortion field for both himself and his followers, but it couldn’t cure his cancer. In fact, he delayed surgery that many believe would have cured him of pancreatic cancer for nine months to pursue alternative therapies that failed. You might say his confidence killed him..though I still suspect Wozniak.
Wesleyan University professor and expert in social psychology, Dr. Scott Plous once said, “No problem in judgment and decision making is more prevalent and more potentially catastrophic than overconfidence.” It is believed that when a person performs a task repetitively, their confidence grows, but their accuracy declines due to complacency. Thus, the argument that I should feel good about the fact that I don’t have access to The White Devil because it means that the chef feels secure in his culinary skills just doesn’t cut it with me. Just because a two hundred pound woman feels comfortable wearing a thong bikini on a public beach doesn’t mean that I should have to sacrifice my right to reject that image by closing my eyes and going to my happy place. I mean, I’m all about self-confidence and the power of positive thinking, but when it comes to my food, I don’t really care if the person preparing it is an Anthony Robbins robot spewing optimistic propaganda or a bi-polar, emo cussing out his sous chef.
Particularly when that chef had previously prepared for me a filet mignon as tender as a slab of tanned leather and then had thrown a hissy fit when I sent it back to the kitchen. To add further insult to injury, the manager had intervened, informing me that because we were dealing with petite filets, I should have ordered them medium if I’d wanted them to come out medium well, a fact that was not indicated on the menu because who DOES that? If I say medium-well, the chef should take me at my word and not turn my fillet into a wallet. Fuck-a-doodle-doo! Was the manager really so terrified of the chef that she was willing to spin ridiculous yarns on his account, defending him to the point of becoming completely illogical. I was dying to ask her what I’d have to do to have my truffled mac and cheese properly seasoned – perform a special handshake with the waiter when placing my order? Give the Maitre d’ an erotic massage in the cooler before my meal?
Needless to say, we don’t dine at Fly Bar often – and now that I’ve adopted a vegan diet in order to improve my health, and decided to stop drinking hard liquor to boot (I’ll never forget you, Ketel One) – I doubt we ever will again. However, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t change the fact that I love well-seasoned food; in fact, the White Devil is my last remaining vice and one that I will cling to from my own piss-free coffin. Even a vegan hater like Anthony Bourdain can appreciate that; he likes his salt nearly as much as his Ramones. I’m already discovering that most restaurant hummus could use another bulb or two of garlic and most tabouleh would benefit from a higher bulgar wheat to parsley ratio. And everything’s better with a little fresh ground pepper and a glass of pinot grigio. Wine, after all, is not a vice, but the spice of life. After salt, that is.
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