Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is Good. It Could Be Better.
Do not get me wrong: I actively enjoyed Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The show and book are beautiful in imagery and wording, and Samin Nosrat is charming, approachable, and delightfully witty. One could watch the show for visual pleasure alone. It was absolutely refreshing to see a woman that is neither conventionally attractive nor conventionally performative enjoying food on television. Doubly, that it was not health food or something gimmicky, but rather established things like gelato and tacos. One can also learn a lot about the science of how these four basic elements shape our food, the way we eat it, and why it is good. Many of the tips that Nosrat dispenses are actually really useful things that people do not realize, especially in the Salt episode. (For example, that you probably need way more salt in your boiling water.) I think that is essential to have more shows and books like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, that combine social, artistic, and scientific knowledge to teach people the why, and not just how, of food.
The show has a lot of potential to teach people how to cook and about the origins of their food. It does a good job on some counts. There are places where it could be better. In this gentle critique, I want to bring up two matters: access and social equity.
One is access, broadly speaking, which I think could have been better taken into account. Some of this is because this is a Netflix show and a high-market book, and Netflix wants to market a certain sort of escapism, as does the book. And the TV version of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat does do better than some other shows (looking at you, Michael Pollan and David Chang) at acknowledging that people come in with different backgrounds, budgets, and needs. That said, I think Nosrat could have done a far better job of addressing the access barriers her audience might face. Many people do not have access to or cannot afford a well-equipped kitchen, or the amount of cooking equipment she suggests for certain dishes. (A pan for every vegetable!) Other people really do not have the time to cook nearly as long as she suggests. And the biggest gap is disability. As I have noted elsewhere, people with disabilities often have to cook in woefully inaccessible kitchens, or cannot do certain motions or stand for a long time. How can we apply the lessons of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat there?
Many of the ingredients that are suggested are really expensive, too. I wish that Nosrat used her incredible position to not just teach people how to get mind-blowing flavor from good sea salt and Italian olive oil, but also own-brand canola oil, iodized salt, and cheap vinegar on a crappy stove. I firmly believe that you can get mind-blowing food from these cheap, low-status ingredients. Other writers, like Ruby Tandoh, have said it better than I have. (Jack Monroe has even developed an entire career on recipes with these ingredients through Cooking on a Bootstrap!)
The blame for this attitude should not lie solely with Nosrat. I think some of this problem comes from the fact that Nosrat studied with Alice Waters, who kicked off a local foods movement that is anything but equitable. I also blame the truly Luddite food movement, which found a new reinvention for the connection of status and food by romanticizing “homemade” over industrial, even as they use processed foods themselves. To an extent, any cook is pressured into this when they write, and it takes a lot of strength to resist it. The same pressure applies to Nosrat, a prominent chef, as it does to me, a moderately read food blogger, as it does to a grandma writing a recipe for her grandson. I firmly believe that Nosrat is going to do a lot more good work, and it would be really incredible to see her incorporate better access into her food work.
The other thing that irked me was the discussion of labor and power, or lack thereof. I was not impressed with the relative lack of discussion about labor in the TV version of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. It is irresponsible to talk about the deliciousness of a homemade tortilla in the Yucatan, as in the acid episode, without discussing how much labor goes into grinding corn and making the masa, then flattening and cooking the tortilla. This labor is particularly gendered, and almost always done by women. The taste might not be as good, but the tortilla machine and industrial tortillas are a huge boon to rural and poor communities. Handmade tortillas might be tastier, but we should not romanticize the sheer effort of the labor involved. Nor should we romanticize indigenous Mexican traditions without talking about the continued colonization of land. The ghost I looked for, in vain, was the way colonization was not just a process of introducing acidic fruit like sour oranges, but also the introduction of agricultural practices and labor demands that had horrifying consequences. Nor should we think of tradition as something unbroken. Maya food traditions were kept alive and allowed to evolve in part because the Yucatec Maya successfully rebelled against Spanish and Mexican rule for centuries, and essentially had an independent state for much of the 19th century. Today, Yucatec villages remain far poorer and have far fewer resources than Spanish-speaking urban areas. These villages are visited as hearths of “traditional foods” — yet those traditions cannot be maintained without basic infrastructure. At the same time, the idea of a particular tradition of Italian olive oil coalesced along with Italian nationalism in the late 19th century. Previously, it was just oil, like the same oils that have been made from olives in Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Spain. Italian oil was what was available in Italy.
Ditto for salt. It is well and good to watch artisan salt be made in Japan. But the iodized salt that Nosrat bewails is a product of a long and complex process that, for most Americans, starts in the Bahamas, in Appalachia, or on the American Gulf Coast. Once done by enslaved people, it is now done by often underpaid workers in dangerous conditions. Other salt is mined in similarly dangerous conditions in India, Nepal, and Peru. And what about the underpaid migrant workers that frequently work the “traditional” Italian olive harvest? If we are going to talk about the origin of our salt, fat, and acid, we are obligated to talk about the labor that goes into them. We can also look at good examples of labor — like the quality tortillas produced by Mexicans in New York, new techniques for producing salt, or the first union for olive oil workers in Morocco. Ethical food is not just the origins or way of farming the food. It should be about the people too.
I write this critique partly because I enjoyed Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. I think that it is the closest that many food shows have gotten to an accessible way to teach people how to cook. The problem is that much of the background and access still needs to be improved on. Nosrat’s work and books and shows like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat provide a very strong educational context for lay audiences. I do hope these issues are addressed in future work.