In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the titular protagonist foolishly divides his estate amongst his three daughters based on their proclamations of love for him. Insecure much? Regardless of Lear’s questionable parenting and fallacious decision-making, his first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, make grandiose claims of their affection, laughable in their extravagance and insincerity, earning them each a significant portion of his estate. When Lear asks his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, however, for her proclamation of love, she replies, “Nothing, my lord.” Wait, what? The idea is that Cordelia loves her father so sincerely that mere words are incapable of giving it true justice. Or according to Cordelia, “Love, and be silent.” Yeah. Lear doesn’t get it either.
Interestingly enough, there are several, older variations of the tragic tale, in which the youngest and most beloved daughter responds, “I love you as much as salt.” Aghast, the father shares Lear’s consternation and fury, ultimately banishing his wonderful child and withdrawing his paternal affection. However, upon eventually tasting a dish devoid of salt, the misguided father holds his head in his hands and cries his repentance. He realizes that food without salt, regardless of its splendor and fine quality, might as well be tasteless mush.
Indeed, salt is so simple and commonplace that we often take it for granted. As a crystal compound composed of sodium and chlorine atoms bonded together, salt is all around us: underground, in the residues of dried out seas, caves, seas, and oceans. But in spite of salt’s seemingly mundane and inexpensive nature, most foods in every culture and culinary style mandate its presence.
Biologically speaking, salt plays a substantial role as well. Although the traditional tongue map has become widely disputed in recent years, researchers generally agree that the human tongue has adapted to recognize inputs that are bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and umami. Just imagine, the receptors on our tongues are already primed for our taste and consumption of salt! I hope that gives us an inkling of how essential this ionic compound is.
So in terms of my magic ingredient in the kitchen, it is indubitably salt. Now, I’m not talking about dousing my dishes in salt, for that would truly be unbearable. Indeed, just a spoon full of table salt makes the food palatable! In the most delightful way!