At the peak of his influence as an arbiter of taste, Craig Claiborne got some bad news. The dizziness he was feeling wasn't just stress; it was high blood pressure. His doctor ordered him to cut back on salt.
It was like telling William Faulkner to watch the semicolons.
Claiborne, the late food critic of the New York Times, was a salt hound from way back. As a boy in Mississippi, he claimed first dibs at the ice cream churn so he could spoon out bits of rock salt that had fallen into the canister.
As much as it pained him, Claiborne tried to approach his new regimen like an epicure venturing into an unfamiliar cuisine. He even wrote a cookbook, hopefully titled Craig Claiborne's Gourmet Diet, to demonstrate that the palate doesn't have to be a slave to sodium chloride.
Two decades later, the American palate is still indentured despite all indications that eating too much salt is bad for the cardiovascular system.
Americans consume an average of 1 teaspoons of salt a day, far more than the teaspoon or less that nutritionists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend. Three-quarters of it comes from convenience food made outside the home and usually seasoned for the lowest common denominator, food such as snack food, fast food, canned and frozen.
For years, health authorities have told people to eat less salt because of growing evidence that excessive consumption promotes higher blood pressure, raising the risk for heart disease, kidney failure and stroke. The warnings took on a new urgency in May when revised federal guidelines lowered the bar on blood pressure readings considered potentially health-threatening. Forty-five million Americans with readings as low as 120/80 suddenly found themselves in a new category called, ominously, "pre-hypertensive."
But the news does not mean that they are condemned to a life of tasteless invalid pap. As Claiborne and others have shown, it's quite possible to eat well with less sodium.
"It's not that hard to replace salty flavors," says Edward Sun, chef and co-owner of the Cafe Sunflower, a vegetarian restaurant in Atlanta. "We get a lot of requests for no-salt dishes. I don't mind. It makes me go back and study. Herbs help a lot; I use more ginger and scallions and basil and mint."
At Bacchanalia, one of Atlanta's most popular restaurants, chef Anne Quatrano considers salt a harmonizer, not a soloist. "It isn't a flavor; it's a flavor enhancer," she says. "We never set out to make a dish that will taste salty. We use (salt) to bring out the flavor of something, like a piece of salmon."
When a customer requests a low-sodium meal, Bacchanalia's kitchen gets similar flavor-enhancing results from acids such as vinegar and lemon juice.
When it comes to reducing dietary sodium, high-end restaurants are hardly the problem. It's the day-to-day salt _ the canned this and the combo that _ that pose the real challenge. Part of the problem is that information isn't always easy to come by; nutritional labels aren't required for the takeout food that Americans eat so much of these days.
"When people ask me for a dietary analysis, I can't even estimate the sodium they're eating because so much of it comes from sources that aren't in my database," says Chris Rosenbloom, a nutrition professor at Georgia State University.
David C. Anderson, co-author of The No-Salt Cookbook, had to give up pastrami sandwiches when his doctor diagnosed him with high blood pressure and told him to kiss the sodium goodbye. Armed with a copy of Claiborne's book, he went to a store and looked at food in a harsh new light.
"If you're trying to keep your sodium intake under 2,400 milligrams a day (about a teaspoon of salt), you can forget about whole aisles of the supermarket," Anderson says.
He learned to bypass processed foods _ frozen entrees, prepared sauces and condiments, almost anything in a can _ because manufacturers add salt to help preserve their products and appeal to the taste of the mass market. Instead, he gravitated toward the outside aisles for fresh food with no added salt.
Dining out is tricky for sodium-counters. Though better restaurants usually honor requests for saltless dishes, the informal places where most Americans grab a bite aren't designed to cook to order. Certain genres are especially hazardous, such as Mexican, Italian and Asian.
People who want to reduce sodium can nip and tuck their diet. But people who need to reduce it for health reasons have to undergo a full nutritional makeover.
"You have to change the way you eat," dietitian Nancy Anderson says. "You have to make more of your food."