A meditation on salt

Why do I crave what hurts me?

I am sitting

in a booth at one of Atlanta's favorite breakfast spots, The Silver Skillet (200 14th St., 404-874-1388) and I am feeling like a very bad boy. I have come to this diner, open since 1956, to defy my doctor, to fall into some pleasant memories of my father and, as it turns out, to look into a face that could be my mother's.

Specifically, I'm here to eat country ham; a big fat slice of the salty meat I have loved all my life. I've always liked the Silver Skillet's. It's tender, a generous portion with a bone you can dig a bit of marrow from. On the plate, the ham is awash in a bit of redeye gravy, whose crystallized residue of salt and brown sugar — the main ingredients in curing the ham — are clear to behold. A little bowl of the redeye is on the side for dipping crusty biscuits. I ladle a bit of the gravy into my grits, too, which turns up their salty flavor.

This is good ham. Of course, it's a commercial product, but far better than the usual grocery store ham. Still, it's not as good as the hams my Uncle Inch used to cure at his home in Rocky Mount, N.C. He gave us one every year for Christmas. My father used to torture us Christmas morning by not letting us open our gifts until we'd eaten a huge breakfast starring Uncle Inch's ham, redeye gravy and my mother's biscuits, the very thin kind you can't find anywhere anymore.

But this morning, I am reminded too of my father's continual caveat the rest of the year: "No salt!" If I so much as looked at a saltshaker when I was a kid, he chastised me, knowing that consumption of salt was linked to hypertension and heart disease. It's one of the few rules my father made that I've followed. Besides my taste for country ham, salt is not something I've ever craved and I rarely cook with it. I hardly ever add it to my food in restaurants.

But here I am, adding salt to my grits, sopping up every ounce of redeye and licking the salt off the hambone. At the table next to me, I suddenly hear the clanking of glasses. I look up and a trio is toasting one another. "We're all lucky to be alive," one person is saying. "You've survived cancer, you've survived a stroke ... ."

Now I feel sad. My mother had a stroke 12 years ago and has been unable to talk or walk since. When she was in her 40s, she had major arterial surgery and was warned that if she didn't change her diet and give up smoking, she would end up like her parents — both dead of strokes at a relatively young age. In her paralytic state, she has managed often to convey her wish to be dead.

And all of this is troubling since, not an hour earlier, I took a beta-blocker — a drug to slow my heart rate — because a few months ago I suddenly developed high blood pressure. I've regularly checked my blood pressure for years, but it's as if my mother's genetics switched on overnight. My doctor, of course, immediately prescribed a low-salt diet. And I, of course, immediately began craving salt after a lifetime of indifference. That is at least consistent in my life. If it is taboo, I want it. I want the Bagel Palace's glossy bagels glazed with pretzel salt. I want Bien Thuy's salted plum soda. Suddenly, I'm dumping kosher salt into frying pans, turning the heat to high and throwing in a steak. Next stop, McDonald's?

Having a background in depth psychology, I had to ask myself why, confronted with my mortality, I'd suddenly begun craving a substance that could hasten my death. It's not just a personal question. After all, Americans have sued fast-food chains for the unhealthy effects of fat, sugar and salt in food they choose to eat.

Salt has been so beloved in history that its wasteful spilling invites bad luck. Thus when Da Vinci painted "The Last Supper," he put an overturned saltcellar in front of Judas. Salt reveals everything: We may see the world in a grain of salt, according to Blake.

Salt, according to the ancient alchemists, who arguably are the progenitors of psychology, represents fixity. Because it is a substance necessary to life and exists in every cell of the body, its taste grounds us in our mortal condition. But, as the Buddha noted, our natural condition is suffering. Thus salt — sharp, stinging, burning, corrosive — reminds us of our suffering. Salt is eaten healthily only by the pinch, and, consumed in this way, reminds us of our condition without fixating us upon it. By offering contrast, it also intensifies the experience of sweetness.

Too much salt means we are fixated upon our pain, which is the condition of our culture of victimhood. Perhaps it seems overblown to see so much of our collective psychological condition in a grain of salt, although we would say no such thing in relation to alcohol or drugs.

Is it coincidence, sitting here at the Silver Skillet, consuming the saltiest meal possible, that I face my mortality and perhaps my fate in a surrogate of my mother's face? Is it coincidence that my heart burns with nostalgia for a positive memory of my father and I am thrown into paralytic grief? No.

There is, of course, a paradigmatic story: Lot's wife. To look back acquisitively on that from which we are separated or lost is to become a pillar of salt, that bitter substance which transmits nerve impulses and saturates our tears.

And so, my lips sting and my eyes burn a bit with tears. As I leave the Silver Skillet, I remind myself that my life is bigger than my grief. At the register, I pop a peppermint in my mouth.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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