The taste of waves

September 23, 2008 01:17 pm

Who can ignore the announcement the white square on the calendar brings: Autumn begins.

The first days of fall makes me wonder if I have enough pairs of wool socks, flour to bake lots of loaves, a rake wide enough to collect the leaves that will all be on the ground before I know it. Makes me wonder if I should burrow.

I think about all the versions of orange and the yellow spires of leaves from the neighbors’ cottonwood trees that will, as they’re meant to, fall indiscriminately and cover my striped hammock and the gravel driveway that separates our yards.

Some morning soon, before anyone gets around to the raking, the cottonwood leaves will be a frosted yellow, blanketed in a fine crystalline frost. They’ll crunch as I make my way over the sidewalk and because my mind is always wandering, the look of it will remind me of salt.

Recently, my partner, Lucas, gave me a gift of finishing salts. I had been drooling over the inventory of chocolate and salt from a shop in Portland. I opened the small shipping carton at the dinner table, with dinner before me (his plan), and soon we were salting our sweet potatoes and parsnips and the juicy roast.

I’d never claim to have a sophisticated or prescient sense of taste. I grew up on rough food from the underground oven, shoyu and rice, loco mocos, and the hard pounded kalo that makes poi. Yet, the finishing salts focus attention on square-inches of food and made me chew savoringly.

The filo-like layers of maldon or the compact crunch of sel gris (like a Pop Rock from the ocean) that we sprinkled from our fingers here and there melted slowly on different parts of our tongues as we chewed.

The salt is like a mediator, introducing the indescribable flavors a sweet potato holds but never pinning it down. They hint, unfolding slowly and then fading away as in the Doppler Effect.

Also included in the box was a glass container of alaea salt from Moloka’i. Ground fine, the salt sparkled through the dark ochre-colored clay and tasted like the earth.

I have my own store of alaea salt, reddened by fingers of the clay collected in the ‘90s by my Granduncle Tom and more recently by my brother, Alika. My Uncle Tom gave us the clay to help when one of us was feeling sick. Uncle Tom is gone now, and yet, I use his alaea salt almost every day. Just a rub of the fine finger of clay is needed to color a handful of salt, so it will last a long time.

The salt clicks on a scene from my childhood in my head: salt pools.

I have a thing about passing iced-over puddles in La Grande. I can’t resist them. No matter that the cold water seeps through the unsealed seams of my shoes. I tap them with the toe of my shoe to gauge how thick the ice sheet is, to make the air bubbles stretch and rebound. Being a thin and delicate thing, this frozen water, it usually breaks and this is where my experiment ends.

My carefully salted dinner reminded me that I have always been this way. In Hawaii, with the rest of my family swimming in the surf or sun bathing or cooking, I walked the rough rock ledges that tended to collect sea water delivered by waves to basalt bowls. I was in search of cracked crab shells, pipipi, marooned fish and other mysteries. Depressions that were farther away from the water held the tide pools for longer and sometimes I would find ones that had turned into brine, and then formed a sheet of salt on the top, that looks similar to the icy puddles here.

Without fail, with my rubber slippered-foot, I would tap the sheet. The hot, thick water would coat the bottoms of my toes and slide down the textured slipper to my heel. If there wasn’t a salted fish revealed at the bottom of the pool, I would taste the sheet and it would taste like waves.