Saturday, November 6, 2010

That's Entertaining: Ou Est Le Sel? (Where Is the Salt?)

by Barbara Burtoff

Imagine this situation. It’s Saturday night and four people have gone out to a restaurant new to them. The waiter brings their meals and goes to take care of other diners. One of the four looks to the left side of the table, then the right, then across and announces, “There’s no salt on the table.”

A second member of the group adds, “There’s no pepper, hot sauce or ketchup either.”

A third chimes in with, “Maybe the restaurant is cutting back because of financial problems.”

The fourth in this group disagrees, “Nope. I think they have a new employee who doesn’t know how to set the table.”

Mais non! (But no!) They are all wrong. The salt and other seasonings were left off intentionally. This group was eating at a restaurant specializing in French cuisine. The cook was trained by a French chef, and the thinking went something like this: “What is being served to our patrons is perfectly seasoned, so there’s no need for salt and pepper on the table.”

An affectation? I don’t think so. That cook went through many years of training to attain the position of top chef. However, I got to wondering what you are likely to encounter if you dine at a French restaurant in the greater Washington area. I called a few restaurants and asked.

Bistro Provence in Bethesda is one of the new French restaurants on the scene. It’s owned by Executive Chef Yannick Cam, who has run several previous successful restaurants locally, and his wife, Susana. She answered, “There’s no salt on the table, but we get one or two requests per night for it and bring it out.” (Bistro Provence, 4933 Fairmont Avenue, 301-656-7373 )

Lavandou in Cleveland Park: “Yes, we do have salt on the table.” That response came from owner Florence Devilliers. “Here’s why. In recent years, some of our patrons have expressed concern about the amount of salt in their diet. So we’ve decreased it in our kitchen. Those who want more can add it on their own.” (Lavandou, 3321 Connecticut Avenue, NW, 202-966-3003)

La Chaumiere in Georgetown: “Yes, we do keep salt on the table. We are here to please the customers and their tastes,” said owner Martin Lumet. (La Chaumiere, 2813 M Street, NW, 202-338-1784)

Bistro Francais in Georgetown: “In our kitchen, we taste everything so we know that it is seasoned correctly, but we still prefer to leave salt on the table. Some people prefer more but don’t want to ask. We don’t want them to be uncomfortable,” said Executive Chef and Owner, Gerard Cabrol. (Bistro Francais, 3128 M Street, NW, 202-338-3830)

L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, VA: “We stopped putting salt on the table years ago, but for a different reason. People would come in here, receive their meals and generously sprinkle on the salt before even tasting what they ordered. Then, sometimes, they would complain that the food was too salty, and want to send it back. If there is no salt on the table and a diner complains ‘too much salt,’ we know it is the fault of someone in our kitchen. We do keep a pepper grinder on the table and the waiter brings a larger one for those wanting freshly ground pepper on their salad,” said Jacques Haeringer, current owner. “Upon request, we will bring a sea salt grinder to the table.” (His father, Francois, longtime owner, died June 3, 2010.) (L’Auberge Chez Francois, 332 Springvale Road, 703-759-3800)

But this is not the end of this story. So let’s fast forward to a dinner party in someone’s home. You are a part of this scenario and notice that here, too, there is no salt on the table. Did your hosts spend their summer vacation at a cooking school in Paris? Have they now taken on the ways of French chefs? Again, mais non. There is something more fearsome at play. They’ve read the warnings from nutritionists, scientists and medical doctors that we are eating too much salt and it could lead to heart attacks, strokes, even an early death.

This is not exactly news. These dire forecasts have been around for more than 30 years. Only, then, not too many listened. There was much denial from people who liked to dine out as well as people who bought processed foods at the supermarket. (“If you can’t taste the salt, how can it be in the food?”) There was opposition from food processors who complained that it would cost too much to make new labels to list salt content for their hundreds of items in all size containers. At least, this reform has since taken place. Then, too, salt was more than a seasoning. Food processors turned to it as a preservative, thickener and creator of texture. They would have to make a lot of recipe changes.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest based in Washington, DC, has been spreading the message about the consequences of too much salt in our diet for many years. He says, “Sodium is an essential nutrient, but we would consume more than enough even if our diet contained no added salt (or other sodium-containing ingredients). Most American adults consume far too much sodium. The Dietary Guidelines recommend 2,400 mg/day for young, healthy, white adults. It’s 1,500 mg/day for African-Americans, as well as people with high blood pressure and people over 40 or 50.”

Jacobson went on to say, “People vary in their responses to high sodium levels, but because the vast majority of people do experience higher blood pressure, sodium levels should be reduced throughout the food supply; people who want saltier food could use their salt shaker. Ideally, though, lower sodium levels would accustom us to less salty foods.”

Jacobson published a report entitled “Salt: The Forgotten Killer” in 2005. A few highlighted points from this report: “Despite pleas from government and other health experts over the last quarter-century to reduce salt consumption, Americans are consuming more – not less.…Consuming more salt tends to increase blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease. The vast majority, about 77 percent, of sodium comes from processed foods and foods eaten outside the home. The foods that provide the most sodium to the average diet – because they are frequently consumed and/or rich in sodium – bread, cheese, processed meats and hot dogs, pizza, salad dressings, canned soups and cakes and cookies. ...Increased blood pressure causes an estimated two-thirds of strokes and almost half of all heart attacks around the world. About 65 million American adults have high blood pressure, an additional 45 million have pre-hypertension; about 90 percent of all Americans will eventually develop high blood pressure….African Americans rate of hypertension is 60 percent greater, and rate of stroke death is 40 percent greater than the general population. Americans spent $15 billion a year on medications to lower blood pressure….Reducing sodium consumption by half would save an estimated 150,000 lives per year. That, in turn, would reduce medical care and other costs by 1.5 trillion dollars over 20 years.”

One final thought: If you give up salt in cooking, will meals become tasteless? Not if you learn to cook with herbs and spices. Salt just makes food taste salty. Herbs and spices make foods come alive. They add appeal to everything from soup to nuts, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish, vegetables, salads, breads, even cakes and ice cream. Think of it this way: If you only season with salt, it’s pretty much the same as living in the same house or apartment all your life and only leaving it for the ride to and from your job, to and from the market and shopping center.


Barbara Burtoff spent 10 years as a food writer and editor for the Boston Herald daily newspaper. She visited farms and markets, attended culinary schools and cooking contests, and covered parties of all sizes from large, gala fundraisers to small gatherings at home. She then left to finish an M.S. Education degree, expanded from one paper to national syndication focusing on consumer/shopping issues, nutrition and psychology of eating topics.

That's Entertaining! is published by the Cleveland Park Listserv. (c) 2010 Barbara Burtoff.  Have a question? You can reach Barbara Burtoff at: Entertainingways (at) fastmail (dot) net. Your comments about this column are welcome below.

1 comment:

  1. Suggestion: Taste the food first, then - if you feel it to be necessary - take your personal salt grinder out of your briefcase or purse. . . .