What my grandma taught me about salt (and life)

Salt and life

Ask anyone that knew her, and they will tell you that, without question, my Grandma Lucy was one of the best home cooks to ever live.

She could make something delicious out of any assortment of ingredients. ANY assortment of ingredients. Including Ensure Original Complete Nutrition Shakes.

Grandma Lucy would bring home bottles of the stuff after visiting my great-grandma, Lillian, in the nursing home.

Lillian wasn’t drinking them, Grandma Lucy would explain.

(I’ll note here that Grandma Lucy would have gone grocery shopping wearing only a cheetah print thong before she’d have let anything go to waste.)

Instead of simply drinking the Ensure as a Complete Nutrition Shake—as the manufacturer obviously intended—she’d mix it up with some pudding, pour it into a from-scratch pie crust, and top it with some Cool Whip.

IT WOULD BE THE BEST PIE YOU EVER ATE.

I am not exaggerating.

When I was about 19 or 20, I decided I’d get her to teach me to cook. Maybe not the Ensure pies, but certainly the sausage gravy and the cole slaw and the beef stew and the blackberry cobbler.

I followed her around her small kitchen with a notepad and pen, trying to write down her recipes.

The problem was, she did not have any recipes.

“How much of that are you adding?” I’d ask.

She’d offer a vague answer, like, “until it has enough,” or “until it looks right,” or “until it tastes how it should.”

These were thresholds I did not understand, and asking her for more clarity just annoyed her.

She’d been cooking for such a long time that it was all second nature. It was so ingrained in her that it was pretty much part of her physical presence. She couldn’t tell me how much flour to add to the sausage gravy any more than she could explain to me how to breathe. It’s something you just do.

The one direction she was clear about, though? Salt.

I remember it being the only thing she actually stopped what she was doing to turn and tell me, like it had a real gravity to it.

She looked me right in the eye, and said, “You can’t never go without the salt.”

I recalled this 20+ year old memory recently as I read Samin Nosrat’s book, Salt Fat Acid Heat, in which she writes (within the 40ish pages on salt):

“Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient.”

Of course Grandma Lucy was right.

And perhaps it was the feeling of youthful joy colored with the pain of loss I felt as I remembered Grandma Lucy, but that sentence made me think about the similarities between salt and emotions.

Emotions have a greater impact on our lives than any other ingredient.

Further, just as Nosrat tells us, the “primary role that salt plays in cooking is to amplify flavor,” so emotions amplify our lives.

I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding emotions I’ve always considered “negative.”

Like fear.

Like sadness.

Like anger.

Like guilt, shame, and regret.

Like awkwardness and discomfort.

Instead, I’ve been in pursuit of what I considered more attractive emotions:

  • Happiness.

  • Safety.

  • Belonging.

  • Thinking things are hilarious (I don’t know what that emotion is called but it’s my favorite).

Grandma Lucy and I, ‘round about ‘83

Grandma Lucy and I, ‘round about ‘83

What I’ve come to understand in just the last few months, however, is how well all emotions serve us. “Negative” emotions—when we let them—keep us safe, shine a light on ways we could behave better, inform our decisions, and show us what we need to learn. They also amplify attractive emotions.

Bad feelings make good feelings shinier in contrast.

Letting all the emotions in can be tough because we often find lots of ways to avoid them (drinking, eating, keeping your schedule crammed, working all the time, [fill in yours here]).

And, like salt, it’s about balance. More advice from Nosrat:

“Does this mean you should simply use more salt? No. It means use salt better.

Too much salt is inedible.

Too much fear encourages inaction. Too much anger creates an inability to think rationally.

You see how it works.

One of the most difficult and fulfilling things we can do for ourselves is to learn how to use our emotions better.

Or as Grandma Lucy might say, you can’t never go without your emotions.

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