Mark Bitterman is owner of The Meadow, world traveller, and renowned author and salt expert.
- Good thanks for coming down to meet us today.
- My pleasure, it’s fun to get in out of the rain.
- Yes well, if there’s on thing I want to be known for it’s getting out of the rain.
- You provide shelter to those in need.
- To the weary. There’s usually a crowd of people just sleeping on the floor here.
- So probably what you’re best known for is salt, is that a fair statement?
- Yes I think that people who are close to me always wonder, they always rush to my defense saying there’s so much more that you’re interested in than salt but not all that has had a chance to leak out yet and my public life in food is only about eight years old and salt was a thing that was burning a hole in my mind at the time and it came out first and it’s the thing that I think was also very timely.
I was uniquely passionate about something that no-one happened to know anything about. So salt I think is the main thing but I also have pretty defined interests in cocktails, mixology, bitters in particular, amaro or amare. I also of course love chocolate and we carry I think the biggest collection of chocolate bars in the world in our store and I like other oddball ingredients too. Maybe anchovy’s a big one.
- Well mostly salt anyway and prosciutto, everything that’s got salt in it (laughs) potato chips.
- So what was it that got you introduced to the world of the culinary world? Was it writing a book?
- No it was actually the other way around. I’ve always eaten and cooked and I’ve always loved food but I’ve never in any way considered myself to be a foodie. I think I was pursuing food through travel long before the term foodie really existed and I honestly had never identified myself as a foodie. I have to accept that mantle now that I’m in the swarm of people like I have to accept that I’m a Portlander now that I have facial hair and live in Portland, I guess I’m typical of everybody else here but no, I think I just found that food eventually became the one way that I was able to parse all of my interests.
I like people, I like travel, I like art, I like culture in general, I like conversation and so food is this medium that lets you parse any one of those subjects and have fun with it.
- Did the food come from the travel of was it the other way around?
- Yes the food came from the travel. I was born with wanderlust. In my childhood I would always take long hikes. I soon as I was old enough I was taking long bike rides and hitch hiking and as soon as I got a driver’s license I was taking trips fairly far afield throughout California, into the mountains, into other cities and the day I was financially able to do it I took off for places like Europe and Mexico and Canada.
I love to travel and I think you feel like you, it sinks in that you are someplace once you’re eating the food. Staring at the sights is beautiful, looking at a sunrise over a new city is wonderful but eating a fresh, flaky, buttery croissant as you’re walking through the streets of that town, that’s when it hits you, oh my god, I’m someplace new and spectacular and mysterious and it strums at something inside of you.
- So what were you doing for work this whole time when you went traveling so much?
- Kind of whatever.
- I definitely considered myself, I think I had some sort of a fantasy phrase back in the day when I called myself an itinerant dilettante or something like that. I loved to travel and do what I could as I traveled. I had always been very, very handy so I landed different kinds of construction work and restoration work along the years. Believe it or not I am not particularly skilled in this domain but I did design work for different people or writing work for different people and so to a large extent used my whits and the work was secondary to the experiential part of my life.
Where I was traveling I bought motorcycles and traveled all over on those, I met friends and traveled with them. So I think I really was, maybe I was sort of a wandering poet without the poetry.
- Okay, yes I like that. At what point did you decide to, was there a conscious point at which you transitioned into doing less of that or having a family?
- Yeah, I think it sunk in for one thing, I had left college early and was very dissatisfied with it when I first went to college but I’ve always been a pretty veracious reader and as my reading got more ambitious I became increasingly aware of the limitations. There were books I wanted to read that were hard to read on my own without better formal education.
So I came back to school and went to Reed College here in Portland in my mid-twenties and that signaled a bit of a transition as I started to become more interested in applying myself, accomplishing more lasting things. I also met my wife then, my now ex-wife and she and I tried to bite off bigger things. I started an import business in Paris and enjoyed doing that, ended up moving back to the States and taking on a job as, believe it or not, as a CEO of a French internet development company back in the dot com days when I think most people were CEOs.
- But that was fantastic and very challenging and fun and from there that put me on somewhat of a more professional track. I became a marketing director for a technology company after that. Again, I don’t know if I ever thought of myself as, I certainly was not a very straight laced professional. I had lots of other things in my life but I took on jobs that were, leveraging more of my life experience.
- So how did you go from that to being, as you say, a foodie?
- Yeah, it really happened to me. One of my favorite stories to tell about the Meadow, my store, is that people will come in and they’ll walk around and they’ll say wow, what a great concept and it makes me laugh every time because it might appear to be a concept but it’s not. It’s this organic outgrowth of interests and when the store opened, my ex-wife wanted to open a flower shop, I wanted to put my salts in there and that was it.
I was not going to quit my job, I was working for myself publishing a newsletter and I just put my salts in there and she put flowers in there and the salt took off and within months I was full time selling salt and running this business and that was as much of a surprise to me as anybody out there and right from there, the moment I was doing that I was talking about food, I was talking about my life experience in food and travel, day in, day out.
You work ungodly hours when you start running a business. So that’s all I was doing, was talking and writing and thinking about food and I was doing it professionally and suddenly it was making me money and I was very intrigued by that. So immediately just took the nearest things closest to us at the time, which was wine and vermouths and cocktails on one end and chocolate on another just to round out the shop and so it just fell together.
The concept really was just a beautiful place but what made the concept vibrant and meaningful to people was what was inside of it and those things just happened organically.
- It’s funny that you started with salt, why salt?
- Salt I think, was one of my major life epiphanies. I had been traveling for years and not necessarily, this is kind of a segway but when I travel I like to have a mission. So if I go to Rome I’ll just randomly say oh my god I have to go see Caravaggio painting in Rome and I’ll do it on foot and so suddenly I have an itinerary. I’ve got a week in Rome, I’m going to walk the whole damn city and hit every single obscure little chapel and find every Caravaggio. Now it’s not that I’m a Caravaggio scholar, I’m not, I don’t know that much about Caravaggio but it gives me a purpose and it lets me explore something new and meet people along the way.
Well I’ve done that with food and salt was the first and most vibrant thing that I ever found to do that with. I ate some food, I realized that salt was this distinctive amazing ingredient on the steak and I met the salt maker and I met the people who used the salt maker’s salt and I found myself in this kind of dialog that propelled me across the next 25 years with people just by looking at salt and I think that that alone was very compelling to me but more compelling still was the fact that no-one else ever seemed to pay attention to it.
So I was always talking to people about something that either was unknown to them or in the case of the salt makers or the chefs or the artisans that were using the salt, they were especially delighted to meet somebody who actually cared about this core ingredient. So there’s an amazing unique connection with this food that no-one else paid attention to and I guess I find that very compelling, very inspiring.
- Yes. Where did you first have this epiphany?
- In the north of France. I wrote about that in the introduction to my book, my first book but basically I was motorcycling through the north of France and I stopped by a truck stop and tried to get a steak and I normally would just eat cans of sardines or whatever but I decided to splurge a little bit and I ordered a steak and I take a bite and I’m just blown away. I’m transported, I have not eaten anything like this in my whole life and I’m like dude, to the waiter, so what the hell is with this steak and he’s like it’s the steak man, what can I say about it, it is a steak (laughs).
- I mean how do you prepare it? He’s like it’s the steak, it is grilled and I’m like well that’s not giving me anything at all and I’m like look, tell me what is the steak, what is the dish. He’s like it’s a steak, it’s from a cow, it’s grilled and he walks away and he comes back a little while later and I’m like look, you’ve got to tell me, just tell me what the ingredients are in this thing. He says look, all we’ve done is salt the steak.
And I look at it more carefully and there was these kind of chunky, luminous crystals of this silvery salt that are studding the steak and they’re kind of sitting in little wells of juicy steak moisture and I take a bite and there’s this explosive mineraly, briny crunch that just penetrates and defines and illuminates the entire flavor of the steak and there was this dynamic going on that was simpler and cooler than anything I’d ever tasted before and it was driven, yes I’m sure a Normandy grass fed piece of beef that was tip top but that salt was what was making this thing an experience that I had never had before.
So it woke me up to it and when you see something that clear that’s that exciting and you don’t have a lot going on when you’re traveling, you’re just goofing around. I was like this is something I’ve never even thought about before and I was like everybody else who thinks salt is salt. Salt is just a chemical, just stuff.
So it was compelling and exciting and by pure luck I went straight to the salt maker, by pure luck I had met this guy who was this evangelical, amazing, visionary salt maker who just talks about how beautiful the process is and he’s using salt pods that were carved out of this salt marsh by Trappist monks in the 11th century and he’s been making salt in the same manner continuously since the 11th century. It’s the only artisanal system of manufacturing of any kind in the world that is in tact since medieval times.
That’s too trippy, too crazy and furthermore there’s the story because part of that it was a Roman salt works and the Roman established solar salt making there some time in the early aughts 2,000 years ago and prior to that it was Celtics, the Celts making salt there. So since time immemorial people are making salt in this area and I felt this beautiful, profound connection to history and it was my own personal discovery.
So it’s way more compelling than just reading about some guy in history books who lived in a building. I was tasting food that was part of this lineage that went back as far as his earliest ancestors.
- Was salt just common back then, was it much harder to …?
- No it was not. Even the French had lost their salt making traditions and when I discovered the salt it was on the verge of extinction. In the mid-eighties French salt making had almost fully collapsed, their artisan salt making traditions. So it had been around for thousands of years and they almost lost it and you start to see development encroach on salt works, salt works being abandoned and a group of salt makers in a region called Guerande got together and formed a cooperative and started to market salt back to restaurants in Paris and throughout Europe and they were very successful and that’s right around the time that I met these people.
So no, it was in decline however it was just at that bleeding little spark of people becoming reawakened to it. So I later moved to a farm in the south of France where I worked restoring a chateaus for a number of years and these chefs would come down and visit and stay at the chateaus and cook dinner and these were Michelin star chefs from Paris and Loire and they would bring their own salt with them.
This was not being hoity toity, they weren’t showing off for anybody. They didn’t bring their own knives, they bring a little hamper with a bottle of champagne as a gift or whatever else and they brought a pot of salt and they had to cook what was at hand and I was really struck by that after I had already been keyed into salt.
- So no, it was very unexplored and frankly it was unexplored for the following 20 years. It percolated a little bit more and more and more people paid attention to it. The health food community in North America picked up on Himalayan salt as a natural unrefined salt and that became kind of a health food salt although not so much a culinary salt and little things happened here and there but the notion of salt being a valid subject or at least a fun one, a playful one didn’t exist at all, that’s really much more recent.
- Do you feel like perhaps that was just something that was missing from what good chefs, maybe in America or elsewhere did in, say the eighties versus now? Do you feel like chefs on the whole understand salt better now?
- At the risk of sounding too, I will say, I think the short answer is no, yes. Yes, they understand it better. The short answer is yes, they do understand it better. They’re still grappling with it because there’s still a tremendously conservative tradition amongst chefs and explanations as to why is really hard to interpret like psychology, who really knows but chefs are tasked with an extremely difficult set of problems when they’re cooking.
They’ve got sourcing different ingredients, the variation amongst ingredients, piecing up all these different ingredients within dishes, making those dishes part of a cohesive menu, making that entire menu profitable and salable. It’s a really complex task. In addition they have to manage a kitchen where they’ve got all of these different people with different backgrounds and different skill sets.
The one thing that you cannot screw up is seasoning. If you screw up your seasoning all of that goes down the tubes. So my own interpretation of the chefs’ attitude towards salt is, look, I’ve got enough to deal with already, the last thing I can deal with now is problems with salting and furthermore most American chefs have been trained to use kosher salt. So there’s this industrially refined chemical called kosher salt that is virtually free, that’s the same across, everyone’s using it so it’s a standardized ingredient.
So if you hire staff you can teach them how to prep vegetables differently or how to make a different sauce but the salting is the same. So they don’t screw up the one thing that they’re already trained in. So chefs are super, super hesitant about saying well, let’s just toss it out the window and bring in a whole new set of problems with our salt.
But, that said, they are doing it slowly. We have different cooks across the country that are doing two things I would say. One is looking at using high quality salt in general because let’s face it, it’s at odds with their values. If you’re sourcing natural, organic, local, super fresh, heirloom, tip top varieties of different produce and proteins and then you’re going and throwing the cheapest chemically, industrially made chemical sodium chloride on top of it you’re just demeaning, yes it’s demeaning the flavor, it’s also just demeaning the intention, the value systems behind your cooking.
So they’re getting it and they’re switching to better salt but in addition I think that they’re looking a salt a little bit more critically and saying let’s not just salt everything uniformly in the ways we were trained. Let’s look at how we use salt more effectively in everything we cook and what that’s meaning is they’re using salt more judiciously, they’re using specific salts to achieve specific results in cooking. That’s new but it’s happening.
- Do you consult with a lot of chefs, do you talk to a lot of chefs in your line of work?
- Yeah, all the time and it’s a matter of being very respectful because I consider myself to be very passionate about the subject of salt but I can never presume to know what a chef, and I kind of don’t think of chefs as artists so much as craftsmen and I think that as craftsmen you have to really respect them and say look, they have this trade that they’ve honed. They’ve learned how to do it, they’ve become masters at what they do. You can’t just come in and say do it this way. That would be really presumptuous and arrogant and stupid because they’re good at something because of how they learned how to do it.
So my job as a salt aficionado or a salt evangelist is to just give them ideas, to feed them some perspective on things like think about this salt as a beautiful, natural whole ingredient not as, a good analogy to a chef would be, well, the chef would say well I like to use kosher salt because it’s predictable and I would say well a more predictable form of protein would be a chicken loaf instead of a chicken but you like to buy whole chickens because you get this variation and you have the bones which generate flavor, you’ve got variations in meat, you can look at the whole animal and judge the quality of it.
So you’re not going for the most predictable, you’re looking for the highest quality and you should do the same thing with salt.
- That’s a good analogy. Is there, as time goes by, are there certain salts that you’re really passionate about, is there something that you’re just like you’ve got to try this salt right now kind of a thing?
- Yeah I think that there are. Two things that I think that are very exciting right now in salt, well I guess there are a few things but one of them of course, is salt blocks which is a fun subject. It’s a very specific niche and I don’t really claim that that’s the thing that everybody should use everyday but these blocks of pink Himalayan salt are a lot of fun to use, they’re really popular and I imagine that’s simply because they’re gaining so much popularity so fast. So even I’m kind of surprised.
- When I was first selling salt blocks I had piles of them stuck in the corner of the shop and I’m like they’re fun, they’re cool but I started using them to be more powerful and more versatile than I originally thought and I think that same impression is catching on. So it’s a big thing in salt.
Another thing that’s really fun is that some of the most ancient traditions in salt making are really reviving so, for example, the Japanese in particular are coming on with a vengeance. They used to be fanatical salt makers and there were thousands, literally, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of salt makers all around the shores of the coastal waterways of Japan. They were all wiped out when salt was monopolized back in the early 1900s by the government, it was monopolized and they wiped it out and then they thoroughly wiped it out by mandating only one kind of salt be made, I think it was in the ’70s and that basically destroyed the entire idea of natural artisan salt in Japan.
There was a big popular backlash to that because they believe that salt’s this natural, beautiful food and eventually it was just about the early 2000s, they dropped the monopoly and since then you have this burgeoning of new salt makers and it’s fantastic because they’re so varied. Some salts are these kind of shimmering, arctic blue-white, some of them are flaky and silvery, some of them are evaporated by boiling water out of salt sand, some of them are made by dropping water through bamboo cylinders and boiling air over it to evaporate off the water.
There’s all these amazing different innovative ways of making salt because in Japan they’ve had to be very creative over the centuries to make salt. So that’s a fun thing and I think the Japanese sensibility of just really caring, just saying look, it’s not all the same, it really does matter how much you care, how much heart and soul and exactitude you put into food, I love that attitude and so I think the Japanese make salt that kind of parallels like an Oregonian’s passion for quality natural ingredients.
We’re so passionate about finding, I mean we love, if you go to the farmer’s market and you’ll never see anything like it. The mushrooms there or the cheese now that are world class, the meats that are out of this world, everything is so beautiful, even the manufactured things, the preserves, the butters and all these things and to have a salt that matches the natural splendor of our own food here in Oregon is really rewarding.
So that’s a really exciting thing that’s new and then I like the new American movement in salt making too. That’s an exciting thing to see. It’s very recent, it’s only been a couple of years but suddenly all over America people are making salt and this is a return to the way that things used to be, we used to make salt. Salt has always been a rather local food and so people, because it’s heavy, so you don’t bring salt in from a long ways away if you can help it, you make it as close by at hand as possible.
The reason why there’s meatpacking in Chicago and it used to be in Carolina is because there were giant salt reserves there. So you bring the meat up there to pack it in the salt. The reason why there’s enormous salt cod industry in southern Portugal is because there was salt making down there and that’s how it worked. So in America you’ve got this whole great new resurgence of salt making. We’ve got a fantastic salt maker here in Portland, Oregon and we’ve got them in the Adirondacks, we’ve got them in Maine, we’ve got them in Florida, we’ve got them in Texas. They’re coming up everywhere.
- When you say salt reserves in Chicago, is this stuff that’s mined?
- Okay. So they’re not, I mean, they’ve been there since probably there was ocean presumably.
- Correct (laughs). That’s right, the salt reserves are ancient deposits from an inland salted sea.
- Do people typically run out – do these deposits, are they finite, are we hit peak salt?
- (Laughs). Have we hit peak salt, no. It’s an irony of human history. Salt has historically been the most precious substance on the face of the earth, something that has been a cornerstone and a limiting factor in human development for 10,000 years and it’s been extraordinarily precious. It’s traded ounce for ounce for gold for example in Mali in the 800s. It’s a story that everybody knows, that it was formed into ingots and it was given to soldiers as part of their pay, hence the term salary from the word sal which is Roman or Greek for salt.
So salt’s been very, very precious and very, very hard to find and what’s so funny about that is it’s always been just below the surface. It just took modern day mining techniques to be able to really get at it more effectively. So they’ve discovered absolutely vast salt deposits in so many parts of the world that it’s nowhere nearly rare plus we have modern day shipping which allows us to for example go down to Tierra Del Fuego and take just enormous, huge, vast salt flats and just scrape it all off and load it into tankers and send hundreds of thousands of tons of it at a time to different countries.
- So when you’re talking about this traditional way of making salt in France, is this by evaporation or what’s the name of this method?
- Yes, so the traditional ways of making salt in France and in many parts of the world is doing solar evaporation and in my opinion that’s the most responsible, best way to make salt. There are many very good salts that are made by using fuel of some sort whether it’s natural gas, propane, oil, wood, coal but the most elegant solution is to use the energy of the sun. Unfortunately there’s places where you can’t do that very easily. You need enough dry sunny days.
So the stuff in France is made by taking water from the ocean, which is about 3.5% salinity and you bring that in to a big pond, you let it settle, let all the organic debris settle out of that naturally, no purification just a natural settling and then you let that water pass through a series of additional ponds and as the water passes from pond to pond to pond more and more of the water evaporates out, concentrating it down until it gets to be a concentrated brine and at the very end of that long sequence of ponds, you have these perfect, very immaculately maintained roughly, what are they, they’re 20ft by 20ft or so squares, very flat think shallow ponds called crystallizing pans and they take that concentrated brine and they just pour that in there and they’ve now gotten to about 35% salinity.
So you basically concentrate it tenfold and when you have that concentrated brine, the salt crystals start to precipitate out and you just rake them gently off the bottom of the pond and you get that course filigree that I discovered that first day that I was motorcycling and ate that on the steak and when you have the right conditions, when there’s a nice especially sunny warm day with a little delicate breeze that ruffles the waters, a blossom of salt will form on the surface of the pond and that kind of salt is called Fleur de Sal because the salt flowers on the surface of the pond and you rake that gently off the top, pile it on the side.
That’s a very, very delicate, white sea salt that’s been renowned by chefs. That’s the one that’s kind of considered the caviar of salt.
- It’s beautiful because it’s just totally natural. It gets more exotic than that but one of the things I also love, the most elegant solutions in salt making have that grace about them where they’re using the natural elements around them. So with the French, for example, they’ll harvest all that water out of the ocean during the fortnightly high tides. So the waters get super, super, super high. At that point they open up a little dike and let the water come into the first settling pond. Then they close the dike and then the sea level goes back down, the tide goes back down but now you’ve got this above sea level pond so you can let gravity now feed all the subsequent ponds after that.
So it’s a gravity fed operation where you take gravity and basically tidal energy and solar energy making your salt, very elegant.
- Yeah and they figured this out, yes, it’s very clever and it’s very old.
- Yeah. You went on a month long sailing expedition?
- Yeah I did.
- Tell me about that.
- That was pretty nuts (laughs).
- My romantic interest in the trip was to discover, in a sense it was to do in reverse what I see as the migration in salt making technology. Salt has been made in a fashion similar to what I’ve just described, the solar evaporation of salts since Venetian times in the Mediterranean, since very, very early times, several thousand years ago and the Venetians were an extraordinarily effective trading ocean faring society and wherever they would establish an outpost they would set up a salt works and that was because they could then preserve the foods that they brought with them, they could sell the salt and barter it for goods.
They could basically make their currency on the spot some of the times and make their preservatives on the spot. So Venetian salt making technology found its way across the Mediterranean and some of the, by example, existing salt works in present day Sicily. There’s still Venetian era salt works there. There’s salt works on their way west across the Mediterranean all the way around the coast, north into central Portugal and it’s not proven scientifically or archaeologically but there’s a likelihood that they made their way all the way up the west coast of France and over to England and settled there.
So I was interested in just romantically or in my imagination reverse exploring that route. So a friend of mine invited me to jump on his sailboat and I said fine. I flew to London, partied, got hungover, drove down to Portsmouth, jumped on a sailboat and sailed straight into an absolutely horrendous gale force storm.
- I was extremely exhausted as you can imagine and finally went to bed around 1 o’clock in the morning and was woken up 15 minutes later or at least yelled at 15 minutes later that the emergency life raft had deployed, that the door was slammed shut to the cabin and we’re stuck and no-one knows what’s happening.
- The trip was an adventure like that for weeks on end. We basically had some of the worst weather that anyone had ever seen, stopped over in Cornwall, finally made the dash over the channel to a beautiful ancient totally woe begotten fishing village. It’s called La Barak in Brittany and crossed the Bay of Bisque which is this notorious rather bad stretch of sea to sail that we sailed in rather bad weather but along the way especially as it got warmer, the weather didn’t get better but it got warmer and we’d stop at these beautiful little towns, coastal towns, Finisterre on the north western coast of Spain and all the way down along the coast of Portugal.
Unfortunately for me I was gunning to make it to Croatia but the weather was so awful that by the time the trip was three quarters over we’d only made it to Gibraltar. So we’d made it just under halfway there.
- So at that point, and I had my plane ticket in Croatia, it would have cost me, I think it was $7,000 to get a plane ticket out of Croatia at that point, something really absurd, $4,000, I forget what it was, Lufthansa knows how to stick it to you and so I had to abandon the sailboat. I jumped on a bus, took one to Seville for the day and flew to Tuscany and poked around there where I know a bunch of really fun food destinations and then took a train over to Ancona and then a ferry to Croatia, spent a week and a half in Croatia and then flew back.
- Okay, so you made it there.
- I made it there by hook or by crook.
- Yeah, exactly.
- I didn’t drown and I was posting on Facebook about the trip the whole time and it looked like a fairly adventurous trip but my mom reads my Facebook page so I never put a tenth of how bad it was in it.
- Yeah, right. So the Meadow, you also have a location in New York is that correct?
- How long was it between Portland and New York locations?
- I opened up in Portland in 2006 and then in New York in 2010 and then we just opened up a new shop in north west Portland last year.
The Meadow Locations, from left to right, N Mississippi Ave Portland, NW 23rd St Portland and New York City
- Okay, what was the motivation to open in New York?
- It was really, really thought out at the time but I don’t know if I fully understand the logic in presence. I think the real reason deep down is that I love New York. New York is a fantastic city and it’s culturally so vibrant and I was born there and my ex-wife and I lived there and we both loved it so it was just a place – and we had a lot of friends – it was a place we’ve always felt a deep sense of belonging in New York and the Meadow is such an incredibly personal and passionate part of our lives that it felt like that was the place to live it and share it.
But in addition I’ve always been very interested and I think that Portland and New York are this fantastic polar opposites. I just love food culture and I think that Portland has one of the most defined, distinctive, vibrant food cultures in the world and New York does too but they’re so different. I wanted to play in both of those food cultures.
- Okay. Did you feel like it made an impact in New York? Do you feel like people are aware of it there?
- Yeah, it’s really different. I think the basic impulse of a New Yorker is to say I already know that and in some ways it’s justified. They are a cosmopolitan, they are exposed to much more than we are here culturally. It’s a very, very big place with a lot of stuff happening and people are pretty worldly and so to think oh yes, I already know that, I already have that salt, I already know about salt but beneath that there’s a real desire to enjoy things and that desire to enjoy things eventually pushes through that kind of assumption of knowing, assumption of already having lived something and they diet back in anyway.
And so it’s kind of beautiful and I think Oregon is the opposite. People are just wowed. They’re so excited and they don’t have this I already know this kind of attitude and it’s a real genuine gleeful excitement that we take in discovery and both in a sense gets you there eventually. I think New Yorkers are very good at really appreciating food and dining and company and cooking and Portlanders are too we just come at it with different attitudes.
- Yeah, I can see that.
- Does that make sense?
- Yeah that’s a good way to compare, I feel like maybe people in New York maybe come across more jaded but at the same time they probably eat out more on average than people in Portland. I don’t know, I’m guessing.
- So they probably, it’s inevitable that you’re going to taste more of a variety of foods and cultures it seems.
- I think New Yorkers eat out more than anybody in the world.
- I really do and I think that they eat out constantly. Most New Yorkers that I know eat out most days, certainly everybody who’s single. They eat out way more. They rarely, if ever even cook at home unless they’re entertaining and that changes as they get older and more established and have either a bigger kitchen or a need to be more economical and reasonable with their time and their money but no, people eat out a ton and I’ve always said that the defining way that I describe the two cultures in Portland versus New York is that New York is a dining culture and Portland is an eating culture.
We have food trucks and farmer’s markets and backyard gardens and backyard chickens and all this stuff and we just want to eat good food. The New Yorkers want to dine. They want to go to a restaurant, they want to be served, they want gorgeous atmosphere, they want beautiful service and they want a cohesive restaurant dining experience.
Another thing that’s changing is that that’s getting blurred now. New Yorkers are becoming increasingly ingredient centric, more and more farmer’s markets, more and more home cooking, more and more artisanal crafty food cultural things happening there and Portland is getting more and more bad-ass restaurants. The restaurants in this town have become ridiculous.
- So we’re merging but there’s still I think those real different identities behind it.
- If I walk into the Meadow and I assume some nights you’ll taste salt there?
- Maybe all the time, yeah.
- Just guessing. It doesn’t make sense, a lot of times people will use something fairly neutral on the palate like a soda cracker or something but obviously you can’t use that, what do you taste salt with?
- We have about 120 salts at the store that are open to taste.
- And probably another 50 that you could taste if you wanted to, if you knew to want them, sometimes it comes up. So the truth is the main way that we deal with it in the store is through discussion and imagination and we put some salt on your hand or on our own hand and you can look at the crystals and you describe what you think those crystals are going to do on food. So you’re looking at a big course chunky salt that’s got a briny mineraly flavor or you’re looking at a parchment fine flat flaky salt that’s bright and pungent or a delicate very fine salt that’s rich and buttery, all these different things.
You use a combination of talking about the tactics for salting like what does this salt’s behavior do or you talk about the flavor which is really more overt, put a little sprinkle on your tongue and what are you getting, is it burning your tongue, is it warming your tongue, is it more mineraly or more sweet or more sour or tart or bitter. Those things are really not so hard to taste all by themselves but that said, the ideal way I think to taste them, and we do this off and on in the store and I think we’ll be back doing it more regularly, is a slice of cucumber.
You take a little half round of cucumber and put a piece of salt on it and that doesn’t give you any sense of what the salt’s going to do on a rib eye steak but it does give you a sense of just the salt’s character in it’s own way, like oh that one crunched and was persistent in my mouth and it attenuated the bitterness of the cucumber or something like that, I don’t know.
Also the other reason why I think it’s nice to use something like a cucumber, just because eating salt by itself gets salty.
- You get palate fatigued really fast so you end up drinking a lot of water eating a lot of salt.
- It’s interesting that it makes sense to have to explain it, just sort of manage someone’s expectations of what they’re tasting.
- Otherwise you could certainly get overwhelmed quickly by that.
- Yeah and a big thing also is people use this term fancy salt which cracks me up because it’s like saying chicken legs are fancy chicken because it’s not just some homogenized chicken product or short ribs are fancy pork because it’s not just a processed ham. It’s just a specific salt is all it is, it’s not a fancy salt. So this idea of getting rid of this whole notion of fancy this and fancy that and it being a hoity toity thing is really central and the way we do that is by talking about it first off as something that’s just all it is is a salt that somebody made that has the character that that salt has and it’s a distinctive character, it’s unique to the water and the technique and the tradition that it comes from.
And then the second thing we do is say well let’s just look at that specific character now and see how that might play off of food to create more flavor and people always say well I don’t have, my palate’s not refined enough to taste the difference and that’s exactly what we’re not doing. If it’s so refined that you have to be some sort of a super taster to know the difference then why bother?
- What we want is salt to be really adding flavor, adding pleasure to the cooking. So of course it could have pleasure just because it’s got identity, it’s got a story behind it and that’s compelling sometimes but if you take a green salad and sprinkle a flaky salt on top of it, a dressed salad with no salt, so you sprinkle a little salt on top of it that has these delicate flaky crystals you get these little bright little static electricity pops of salt that just awaken your palate and play off the salad as opposed to just bury it under uniform saltiness and this is the wild, very, very dramatic improvement in flavor of salad and anybody can taste it.
So you can explore those ideas just by putting some salt on your hand and talking about it.
- That reminds me of Kandace, who you’ve met, used to work at a restaurant Bread and Ink.
- They make their own ketchup as a lot of restaurants will do and …
- Fancy ketchup.
- Yeah exactly, you see where I’m going with this.
- Some people will be like, could I just have the normal ketchup, like awe.
- And bring me a salt shaker too.
- A salt shaker which is the monument to the industrialization of food.
- And I think it’s, look, in one way maybe we are being fancy because if you really think that food should just be a trope, food should just be the word for what the food is then I guess that’s an attitude about food you can have but if you don’t, if you think that food should have character and quality and everything should have some tie to the earth and the people who make it and the traditions it’s prepared in then you need to dispel that and look there’s nothing wrong with Heinz Ketchup, I love Heinz Ketchup but that isn’t ketchup, it’s a form of ketchup and Bread and Ink’s ketchup is awesome and delicious and it’s tied to their food.
- And in that regard it’s not that it’s better, it’s just more fulfilling, more fun to eat.
- Yeah and the other thing I think of is, Bread and Ink, you don’t look it up in the phone book or Google under fancy restaurants, it’s just a restaurant.
- It’s a restaurant.
- A restaurant that makes it’s own decisions about food. When you go in there it’s like sitting down to watch a movie, you’re accepting the decisions someone else made, an experience someone else curated, they’re saying I’ve made this crazy take on a hamburger and it’s going to great with this ketchup and this side dish.
- Well if you go and have dinner at my house chances are that the meatloaf that I make for dinner isn’t going to be coming out of a package from a supermarket or a giant Swanson’s factory. It’s going to be something that I made myself, so you’re going to be having fancy meatloaf for dinner at my house.
- (Laughs) right.
- Very, very fancily prepared meatloaf with some very fancy scalloped potatoes or whatever.
- So when you think about, you seem like a fairly spontaneous person but I’m curious, you’ve opened the third location now, do you have any bold plans for the future?
- Yeah, I think that it’s a really exciting time in food and so I definitely would hope to open another store or two over time but I think that the other thing I’m looking at more and more is just other kinds of ingredients that I think are exciting and I guess bold plans, it’s hard to say, this was a year of settling, getting things to work better for me but big ones would be writing a new book. So I have a book that I want to write on cocktail stuff.
- Hopefully that will be happening soon. I have a proposal out for that and I have not been told no yet and I definitely have more plans for more travel in the future. I’m going to a crazy little, not salt related but somewhat salt related tour through Croatia and Greece and Turkey and Israel and Egypt this spring and I’m going to Japan and Thailand for salt in the summer and, for example, Thailand, it’s a place that has salt in its bones since prehistory and that’s a very fun place to explore and they use salt in ways that are very unusual.
The typical way that Asians use salt is just by liquefying it in a sauce but they actually make relishes and things like that with salts and peppers and herbs so I’m very excited about that. So that’s personal plans that are kind of fun. By my bold business plans, it’s kind of a funny year for that.
- Yeah. But as far as salt, you are definitely not taking your act to mainstream.
- No I don’t, I’m not. I think that the tendency might be to say okay, well salt has entered into the zeitgeist of the foodie population so that’s that, it’s done, it’s saturated, it’s story has been told. I think that for myself salt has been a path to discovery and food and to greater awareness about food and to greater pleasure in cooking and I think that that message has a long way to go before we it reaches mainstream America and it should.
I believe in my heart of hearts that every chain restaurant, every large scale food manufacturer should be using high quality salt and celebrating it and I think that will do a lot to take away this idea of salt being a demon and a nuisance in our food and it will also help people to become increasingly aware of the fact that there just aren’t crappy shortcuts in cooking and in food, aren’t really acceptable.
- As a salt guy, do you sometimes like to talk shit about pepper?
- (Laughs). Look I like pepper, I use pepper every day but it’s not salt, it’s not the same thing as salt. Pepper is one of tens of thousands of different spices. Salt is the only mineral you eat. It’s the only food that exists of any kind without which we all die. So it’s the only food of any kind that every single food culture in the entire world uses and eats and has since before time. It’s just in a totally different class by itself. It ends up on a table because of our strange British imperial history and out relationship to India, that’s fine, that’s a quick funny thing but I don’t give a shit though, I like pepper.
- (Laughs) that’s great that we got some shit talking. Cool well, thank you so much Mark for taking time and talking to me today.
- It’s been fun.