My father and I went to the Turkish baths in the East Village of Manhattan this past February, our first time together in a city that has influenced my life almost as much as he has. The sun was shining brightly, the temperature hovered in the high thirties while the wind blew briskly down city blocks and flung itself around corners, stopping us occasionally in our tracks as we meandered south after exiting the subway. A short flight of marble stairs led us into the baths. We left our valuables at the front desk, put on complementary swim trunks and robes in the changing area, which looks like your average locker room equipped with beds evenly placed in the center. Once in our uniforms, we descended slowly down sand-papered steps as steam and the heat met our faces just as abruptly as the cold wind had, only now it was welcome. There is nowhere else in the world like this. It is a large underground cavern with a cold swimming pool in the center lined with half-naked patrons drenched in their own sweat, chitchatting and ignoring the world as if they were in their local coffee shop. Saunas of various temperatures and humidity levels line the walls of the cavern, along with many shower stalls, and lastly a single wooden door leading to a single cave so hot I feared it would give my dad a heart attack.
The inside of the cave is what I imagine an ancient torture chamber looked like, about 20 feet wide in each direction, with stadium seating filled with slumped-over believers, some with towels wrapped around their heads, others occasionally get up to pour buckets of cold water on themselves so they can continue on in what feels like the inside of a convection oven that should be roasting a Thanksgiving turkey. As people frantically baste themselves with buckets of cold water, a surprising number pay to be alternatively beaten by a bundle of dried oak leaves and stretched and distorted into Gumby-like poses by a mostly naked and extremely muscular Turkish man on the top and hottest level of the cave. I have actually enjoyed such an experience but on this day with my father, I chose to have the salt treatment. I had never gone for this option before, but as it turns out it was very straightforward. I got naked in a small stall and salt was rubbed heavily all over my body vigorously, I was then left alone to lie calmly while the salt sapped unwanted impurities and valuable water out of my body. All I could think about was chugging a gallon of water, until I was rinsed off calmly and sent on my way.
The whole process took 20 minutes and the sensation on my raw skin after diving into the cool swimming pool felt like I was being cleansed of a winter spent indoors out of the sun indulging on comforting stews and roasts. I was basically brined like a chicken often is before being roasted. I skipped a final roast in the inferno that was the stone cave and my dad and I went on with our day, sharing a porchetta sandwich and wandering in and out of my favorite restaurants and coffee shops. We had coffee in the place around the corner from where I used to work. It was the same coffee shop I sat in each morning enjoying every sip before putting on my whites and my apron to report for duty across Sixth avenue.
When I was salted earlier in the day I took part in an ancient Turkish tradition meant to be restorative and revitalizing, and it was. Salt both exfoliates and is an antiseptic, giving it the dual capability to clean you externally and help wounds heal faster. Preserved animal hides, man’s first option for warm clothing during cold months, have always been salted in the tanning process to remove excess water that would promote rancidity or decay. Salt, such a readily- available product along all coasts and some select salt flats inland, has shaped the way we eat as much as if not more than the invention of cooking over fire. Meat and fish were salted and preserved by nomadic tribes, allowing for longer storage and palatability. Barbarians and European explorers alike subsisted on this nutrient-dense food during long winters or voyages, giving them the fuel necessary for expansion. Once our animals were domesticated and we learned about the joys of dairy products, almost immediately the same principles were applied to cheese making, with salt making up a large part of this simple process.
It seems like not too long ago most run-of-the mill restaurants didn’t want to offend anyone by over-salting their food. It was commonplace to get a bland bowl of pasta, only to summon your waiter over after the first bite with a request for additional salt. It made sense; the stigma of salt in connection with high cholesterol or blood pressure spread rampantly over the last few decades and made it taboo for some to indulge in its pleasures. I am young and naive, so I have never paid attention to such claims, and never gave a second thought to an extra pinch or handful of salt. Nowadays I don’t really need to, though; it seems as though over-salting is the new under-salting in most places trying to make a statement in the restaurant world. In our new world, where every fourth person has a food blog and the population has over-indulged in all things food-related, people no longer want to eat the same old bland meals. They want flavor, texture, and layers added to their meal. But please keep my Turkish friend in mind, and do not do as he did: which was to salt like there is no tomorrow. Salt to taste, not to excess, with the emphasis being on taste.
New Potatoes with Butter and Salt
I love the first potatoes of the year. Something about the cool nights, ample rain and sunny days gives them so much tenderness and such a simple nutty flavor. Little red-skinned new potatoes are my favorite, and though butter helps bring everything together, all that is needed is some salt sprinkled over the freshly boiled potatoes.
2 pounds Red Norland new potatoes, approximately the size of golf balls or smaller.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter.
Rinse the potatoes well and scrub if needed to get all the dirt off. Place them in a deep pot, cover with water, salt generously or until the water tastes like the ocean, place a lid over the top and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer and cook until a fork pierces easily into the center. Drain in a colander and while still steaming hot, toss in a bowl with all the butter until it is melted. Season lastly with more salt and check seasoning, adding more if needed. Serve on their own or alongside a steamed lobster.