Earlier this week a middle-aged man sits down at the bar-top across from me and looks at the menu. When I ask if I can help him he says, Yes, I’m trying to figure out what I can eat because I have a salt allergy.
Now, I’ve been working in restaurants a long time and have come across a lot of different allergies. Occasionally these are legitimate, though I’d estimate that roughly 95+% of them are complete bullshit. The reasons for this rest upon the differences between an allergy, an intolerance, and a preference, three distinctly separate categories far too many people seem to struggle with.
The home run king of the past couple years has definitely been gluten, a wheat-based protein that suddenly everyone’s grown allergic to, this despite the fact that Celiac’s Disease occurs in less than 1% of the general population. (The math here is roughly the inverse of that which occurs at McDonald’s, where despite the fact that they sell a million hamburgers a day you’ll never encounter a person who actually eats them. Da-dah-dah-da-dah: lying to ourselves.)
Beyond gluten, I’ve heard about alleged dairy allergies, shellfish allergies, peanut allergies, grapefruit allergies, nightshade allergies, allium allergies, avocado allergies… You name it, someone is allergic to it. Now the tricky thing about working in a restaurant is that even if you think a diner’s allergy is garbage, you still have to take their word when they tell you they have an allergy. So if someone says, I’m allergic to peanuts, you have to take that seriously and be 100% certain that the food they’re about to consume comes nowhere near a peanut, because that’s for real: someone could get very sick or even die.
And so we return to this gentleman at my bar and his “salt allergy.” Somehow—and to this moment I’m still uncertain how I managed this—I’m able to question the veracity of his alleged allergy without being offensive. I don’t know how I pull this off, but I do. Stern-faced, the man assures me that it’s true—he definitely has a salt allergy.
Now, because our human bodies are composed of salt, I knew that this man was full of crap, lying, or, just very, very stupid. The odds are good that he, like American Pharaoh, earned the triple crown. We people are roughly 0.4% sodium by weight, which is the same salinity that is found in the oceans, a fact that makes sense because—if you believe science (and I know I’m about to lose any potential Republican voters with this line of reasoning)—the ocean is where we came from. And the thing about our bodies is that they excrete salt that we subsequently have to replenish in order to live. And we accomplish this by eating more salt. And so on, forever.
For what it’s worth, I’ve since discovered that some people are allergic to iodine, a common additive in table salt. This is very atypical and there’s a simple solution: you eat non-iodized, or sea-, salt. But this is not what this man said: he insisted, even after I gave him a non-judgmental You-sure-about-that?? opportunity to withdraw his nonsense, that he was allergic to salt. And given my position in his service I had to take that allergy seriously because, as he subsequently insisted, if he consumed salt he would become “violently ill.”
With patience I wasn’t aware I had, I explained that all of the food we served contained salt. Un-salted food simply wasn’t going to happen. The best I could do was ask the kitchen not to use finishing salt, which is that final dash of salt that often gets tossed atop the plate before it arrives at your table.
Here we come to several interesting side-points: if you’ve ever wondered why restaurant food tastes as good as it does, one of the main reasons is because it’s loaded with salt. Second, if you want to control your salt intake, cook your own food at home, because then you can use as little as you feel appropriate. And lastly, for those home-cooks who want to up their game: a heavy hand with the old NaCl is the easiest way to make your food taste better. You don’t need to buy another cookbook, sit through YouTube videos, or slog through The Pioneer Woman’s website: just add more salt. Far more than you think you should. Don’t be afraid of it—dump it in there. Like most diet plans promise, you’ll see dramatic improvements immediately! It really is that simple!
Let’s return to this man and his un-salted foods. After hearing that none of our food would be served salt-free, he looks at me, licks his lips, and begins to hedge. Well, he adds, I’m not really allergic to salt, you see…
At which point the stingy little bugger who resides in the shadows of my spleen raises its horned-head to give voice to several thoughts: Well then, why the hell did you just tell me you were allergic to it, you shitheel?!?! Do you not understand that an “allergy,” by definition, means that you cannot consume that which you’re allergic to?!? Is this how you go through the world, saying the opposite, or at least a highly-amended version, of what you actually mean?!
I do not say any of this. I remain Zen, or at least a fair impression of it, and look at him while he repeats that too much salt makes him “violently ill.” Now that sounds very dramatic, what with all the illness and violence and so on, and in a last-ditch effort to take him seriously as a human being I ask him how much salt causes him to become sick?
He replies that he has “no idea.” His body just “tells” him when it’s had to much.
I keep my lips tightly stitched together. He says, I’ll just have the sardines.
I’d like you to note the “just” in that statement, as if he were making some sort of compromise in the ordering process. I look at him and wish him dead. He doesn’t die, and rather than dwell on that fact I tell him that the sardines have been packed in salt. He thinks it’ll be fine. I repeat myself: the sardines have been packed in salt and oil. By definition, they are and will be salty, far more so than other food items.
The man assures me he’ll be okay, and as I look at him I begin to wonder to what degree the bar spoon I use to mix drinks will dismantle his brain if I cram it with enough force through his eye socket. I do not act upon this spoon-cramming, though it consumes my imagination for quite some time.
The man’s wife orders fried oysters. Now, these are exactly what you’re imaging them to be—breaded and deep-fried oysters, the french fries of the intertidal regions. And what makes french fries so good?—all the salt they’re tossed in.
The man eats his sardines, tells me they were delicious, and does not appear to be violently ill. He even eats several of his wife’s fried oysters, so much so that they decide to order another round of these salted buggers while I pray to Darwin or The Road Runner or whoever’s responsible for dropping those cartoon anvils to let loose on his head.
But nothing happens except what we’d all to easily predict: the man eats his fried oysters and remains in the same health he was prior to dinner. He gets his check and pays, and before he leaves I think about stopping him and saying, in all sincerity and with the betterment of my peers in mind, I pray you have and will never procreate, because you’re a giant moron and we do not need your genes in the future.
But again, I keep my trap shut, and the man walks off into the hot Seattle summer night, where he’ll likely sweat out enough salt that next the time he sits down to eat, he’ll have to replenish it. With more salt.