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The Digressions of dr sanscravat

Adventures in Gastronomy
(e-pistle: 2 February 98)

In the distant past -- when I and two friends were impoverished art students, living illegally in a studio above a small barn, with neither heat nor running water -- even the idea of culinary perfection was not on the menu -- we lived on a very simple diet.

Our "kitchen" consisted of an electric hotplate, one pot, and three staple foods. As I recall, the core of our diet was ziti, sauced only with Tabasco. For entertainment, we had tea bags. One of our number had previously been afflicted with ulcers -- but they went away after a month or so on our Tabasco-based dietary regimen. I seem to recall some protestations that I had "burned them out." Now the truth is revealed:

"There was a blurb in the sunday paper (Parade) about capsaicin inhibiting the growth of H. pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers!"

Regular readers of these messages already suspect that the information above is meant solely to introduce some other subject entirely, one that is related only by the most tangential and flimsy of literary excuses. Such readers can compliment themselves on their perspicacity, and let their minds wander freely during the remainder of this screed.

To be fair, we did -- occasionally -- have some treats in the studio. There was one time, for example, when we acquired a large can of peaches. We were very excited by the prospect of eating them, and were anticipating something special because -- what incredible good fortune! -- the can seemed to have been overpacked. It had a cheering, roly-poly quality, its sides and top fairly bulging with goodness.

Even though a certain unfruit-like presence burst from the can when the can-opener was applied, I was reluctant to discard the can's contents. My studio-mates lacked the gastronomic sense of adventure that I, even at that early date, already possessed. I argued that we had saved it for a special occasion, and this was GOING to be a special occasion. The flavor I encountered in that studio lives with me to this day.

In fact, the intoxicating taste of those peaches has been matched only once.

A student from India brought in a special seasoning that is traditionally used where he grew up. It is called Black Salt. It is so highly esteemed, that certain restaurants in that region feature dishes made with it on their menus. I had to try this regional specialty, of course. I dipped a moistened pinky into the grayish crystals, and touched the front of my tongue. Instantly, I was transported to the subcontinent. The incredible complexity of the Indian experience flowed through me like an electric current.

What was this magical ingredient?

It was simply sea salt, harvested from the tidal flats at the mouth of the Sacred river Ganges. Yes, the holy river that carries the waste and ashes of the largest and most disease-ravished population in Tropical Asia -- in a part of the world that is famous for its large and disease-ravished populations -- the blessed stream that spreads its riches on its delta to ripen in the tropical sun. If all the rotten eggs in the history of the world were reduced carefully, concentrating their distinctive properties, focusing their quintessential queasiness into a few plain-looking ounces of salt, one might have something very like Black Salt.

There is, indeed, a tide in the affairs of men -- a tide that rises even as I think of it today. I like to think that I learned something when I placed those crystals on my tongue -- a lesson I should have learned from the peaches, when what I did not know about food poisoning would have filled volumes.

Or basins.

Or toilets.

But the truth is, I will probably go on tasting things that more sensible people avoid (perhaps literally) like the plague. For example, there are tacos served by street vendors in Mexico City that I've been meaning to try -- they are filled with live green beetles or roaches and one is supposed to chew them quickly before they start running around in one's mouth...

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