Sea Salt Dreams

December 17, 2016


The sea, and salt, and also clouds and blue sky

The times being what they are, I recently decided that it might be prudent to diversify from writing books into some other kind of industry. I quickly hit on the ideal thing: Sea salt. Since “disrupting” markets is apparently the thing these days, as opposed to the old fashioned concept of merely building better products than the next guy, I decided to try and disrupt the sea-salt market by using sea salt in items where one typically would not expect to find it.

First, however, I needed to do some market research to see what products already included sea salt. The list is dizzying. There are caramels, of course, and almonds, popcorn, and potato chips, the usual salty foods, only now with the term sea salt added to their packaging. But even in this snack-food category I found wild variety—veggie strips, bean chips, and Tesco Finest’s “Hand cooked Cornish Sea Salt & West Country Cider Vinegar Crisps.” A company called Epic sells “Sea Salt and Pepper Artisanal Pork Rinds” made with “Pork Skins Raised Without Antibiotics,” a compelling product, though I personally do not know how anyone can raise a pork skin, with or without antibiotics, unless somewhere there is a pork-skin ranch like Gary Larson’s boneless chicken ranch. This may be irrelevant, but I wondered too if a pork skin might qualify as a service animal when I travel by air. There are crackers, chocolate bars, and ice creams, and at least one company adds sea salt to cottage cheese. The Ciao Bella folks, covering a lot of bases, make a pumpkin sea salt caramel gelato.

I quickly discovered that sea salt had sifted its way into lots of other product categories as well. Target sells a “Moroccan Sea Salt Spray” for hair. Herbivore Botanicals goes one better, and combines coconut and sea salt into a hair spray it calls “Sea Mist,” which, according to one retailer, “manages, magically, to bottle the effect of sea mist so you can have it all the time.” You can also spray it on your skin, “for a moisturizing and invigorating pick-me-up.” And there is the alluringly named AHAVA “Dead Sea Crystal Osmoter X6 Facial Serum,” containing sea salt from the Dead Sea. I personally have misgivings about putting anything on my face that contains the word dead, but this appears to be AHAVA’s specialty. The company also makes Dead Sea body lotions, shower gels, a foot cream, and various soaps, like its “Purifying Dead Sea Mud Soap.” A competitor, Purity Beauty, sells a “Dead Sea Mudcake,” whose packaging shows a gleefully smiling model with one half of her face covered with black mud or possibly axle grease.

Man wearing Dead Sea mud

Man wearing Dead Sea mud and still smiling

I also found products that were, well, just salt, intended for seasoning food, but which happened to come from a sea somewhere, with the most popular points of origin being the Coral Sea, Red Sea, Celtic Sea, Black Sea, and all of Utah. Zuuna makes “Pure Mediterranean Cyprus Black Lava Sea Salt” crystal flakes, which have the added advantage of being “solar harvested.” Hepp’s Salt Co. makes a “Black Truffle Finishing Sea Salt” which retails for $22.75 for a 2.5-ounce pouch, so you see why I decided to get into this business. Wild Cheff makes “Cherry Wood Smoked Sea Salt,” though I have no idea how one goes about smoking sea salt. Nor do I have any idea why the company put two ffs in Cheff, but then, as readers of this blog know well, Oreo’s Double Stuf cookie has only one f, which leads me to suspect there may be a global arrangement akin to carbon-trading in which companies swap f’s so as to avoid overloading the world with the sixth letter of the alphabet, a futile endeavor, at least here in New York City, where the letter f is deployed lavishly in routine street-corner discourse.

Reading about all these products set my imagination on fire. Ideas began shuttering through my brain like film running through an old Bell & Howell movie projector, the kind that used to melt the film at regular intervals causing macabre effects on the projection screen as if a nuclear weapon had gone off at Aunt Maude’s Sunday afternoon cook-out. I envisioned sea salt Oreo cookies, sea salt gummy bears, sea salt Twizzlers, and sea salt condoms. I contemplated adding sea salt to fruitcake, because why not, no one eats it anyway, and to those little marzipan fruits which always turn up in your Christmas stocking and look so yummy but aren’t.

Throughout my research, a thought kept occurring to me: does anyone test to see if these things contain salt that actually comes from the sea? I briefly considered pouring a couple of ounces of Morton’s table salt into a snazzy package, adding some Rogaine, and calling it “Erik’s Rogue Wave Sea-Salt Hair Enhancer,” but then my ankle monitor began to itch and I decided I had done enough research.

Now I needed a supply of salt. One of the biggest suppliers of bulk sea salt is Lake Products Co., out of Florissant, Missouri, which is 943 miles from the nearest ocean beach, which is kind of a catty thing to point out, but, I have to be me. The company sells sea salt in big pails that are colored a very pretty sea-green. Its flagship product, “Sea-Salt ASTM D1141-98 (Re-approved 2013) Formula a, Table x1.1, Section 6 (Original standard ASTM D1141-52),” is used “for the preparation of substitute ocean water.” Not just any ocean water, but standardized ocean water that allows researchers to eliminate the variability between, say, a pail of sea water from the Gulf of Mexico and one from the coast of Victoria, B.C., though I am being unfair here because Victoria still dumps raw sewage into the ocean so of course a pail of Victoria sea water will be different. It may be off point to note that in Victoria sewage protestors deploy a man dressed in a body-length brown tube to prance along the shoreline. His name is Mr. Floatie, and you can catch him on You Tube.

Mr. Floatie preparing for a dip in the Pacific

Mr. Floatie preparing for a dip in the Pacific

The sea salt sold by Lake Products can be precisely mixed to yield the same salinity every time. As the company says, “It standardizes seawater conditions for many uses including accelerated corrosion studies, oceanographic research, ocean instrument calibration and chemical research testing.” It can also be used as a “tissue muscle preservative.” A big 50-pound pail will make 143 gallons of artificial seawater, and sells for $317. Or you can shortcut the process and buy premixed artificial seawater, for $180 per 5-gallon container, something I would like to see Amazon just try to deliver with a drone.

Now came the fun part, actual hands-on experimentation, trying to see how disruptive I could get. First I tried putting sea salt in gasoline. For this experiment I surreptitiously enlisted my neighbor, or rather, his brand-new Audi Q7 SUV. As he pulled away I discovered that his exhaust left behind a pleasant scent of the sea. He stopped halfway down the block and popped open his hood, and spent a good five minutes staring inside, as if he imagined he could learn anything by looking into the engine compartment of a German automobile. For some reason he spotted me—possibly because of my white lab coat and my clipboard.  Thinking fast, I turned and ran down the block as if pursuing a thief, shouting “stop that guy—he put something in Bob’s fuel tank!”

Next, I tried mixing sea salt into contact-lens solution, thinking it was a natural fit because saline is a good thing for eyes, but I may have gotten the proportions wrong, or used the wrong salt. My wife was very unhappy with me, but she looks good in her new glasses.

Then I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to try putting sea salt in Band-Aids. This too proved problematic. For reasons I cannot fathom parents felt uneasy about a man in a white coat with a clipboard loitering around the monkey bars waiting for small children to get cuts and scrapes.

Thinking that it might be best to stick to familiar territory, I began to wonder how I could apply emerging sea-salt technologies to the art and craft of writing books. I tried pouring sea salt into my laser printer. This did not work. Next I tried mixing sea salt with ink, to use in a fountain pen. I used Dead Sea sea salt, thinking I could market the ink by making some kind of allusion to the Dead Sea scrolls—“ink that won’t fade with time!”—but the crystals invariably clogged the pen point.

I thought about urging my publisher to sprinkle the covers of my books with sea salt, especially my book about the sinking of the Lusitania (Dead Wake), to add an additional sensory quality to the reading experience, but a few seconds into my call my publisher said “I’m sorry, I have to go. I’m late for an electroshock appointment.”

I decided then to abandon the whole sea-salt thing and instead try disrupting the next big market: juice cleanses. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but, it looks like I may have found a use for my leftover sea salt.


My next venture will be so fun!

My next venture will be so fun!

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Part II, The House-Packing Dialogues: The Temple of Doom

July 5, 2016

The last load of trash, awaiting the Happy Hauler.

The last load of trash, awaiting the Happy Hauler.


At last we have emptied our Seattle house of all our belongings. We drove carloads of things to Goodwill and gave some to friends, but all the rest are on a truck headed east, or so we hope. Given the chaos of this move, it is hard to be certain. There were delays, dropped boxes, exclamations of surprise (“there’s a basement?”), and a near catastrophe involving a piano, as a succession of people who did not seem to know much about moving passed through our doors. But as a friend of mine said the other day, there is something very liberating about seeing all your things being driven off by five guys in a truck. And she is right. Our souls now feel very light.

Our things are gone, and frankly among those items on the truck there are only a few whose permanent disappearance might prompt us to grieve. One such is that piano, a baby grand made by the Estonia Piano Co., in Tallinn, Estonia, which I acquired after a long search and loved upon first touch. The piano is signed by the president of the company, Indrek Laul, a renowned pianist, who during a concert tour of America came to our house for brunch one Sunday morning to sign the soundboard and play an impromptu concert. We would miss as well several framed photographs of our children taken when they were very young, capturing moments that never fail to make me laugh, like the one of my eldest and middle daughters just before they went trick-or-treating, looking at each other as if they are about to explode from excitement.

And then there are the boxes of personal mementos that have followed us for decades. I tried to cull as many of these as I could before moving, because really, why on earth should anyone hold onto a collection of 20-year-old bills and receipts, let alone an income tax filing from 1989, a year in which I made $9,000 and survived an earthquake that destroyed the San Francisco neighborhood where I kept my office. The earthquake did provide some mirth for my eldest, however. She was nearly two years old. In the midst of a major aftershock that night we woke to hear her maniacally laughing and calling out, “Do it again! Do it again!” Now that I think of it, the next year wasn’t very good either. My wife and I became the only two people in the history of California to lose money on the sale of a house.

I did not get very far in this culling of my past. The number of items that could be discarded at will, such as rental-car receipts or hotel bills, was minuscule compared to the many others that promised to bring forth full-blown Technicolor memories, and I did not want to race through them just to beat the arrival of those five guys and their truck.

Here, for example, was a piece of cardboard on which an angry daughter—my eldest, again—had scrawled, “Dad is a jerk.” I do not remember the thing that triggered this outpouring of adoration, but I do recall that being a jerk was an important part of my job as a parent of young children. Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says you should keep only those things that somehow spark joy. This sparked joy. I kept it.

One daughter's opinion.

One daughter’s opinion.

Here too was an Aeromexico ticket for a flight back to California, after a nearly tragic bus trip to Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. I never made it to Cabo. I returned home with three severed tendons in one ankle and a weird infection that took a month to culture and cure. Such is the power of time that the plane ticket now just made me laugh. More joy. I kept it. I also came across a number of greeting cards that a former girlfriend had sent me every Halloween for years after each of us had gotten married (to different people). I read these with delight. She had a lovely wise-cracking sense of humor, reflected in her choice of card—always funny, always mocking—and in her fun-poking observations on life. These gave me joy. I kept them. I also shared them with my wife. They did not give her quite as much joy, but, there you go.

Then, in what fate clearly meant as a challenge to my new rule about discarding old bills and receipts, I came across a manilla envelope marked, in my handwriting, “Temple of Doom.” I knew at once what had to be inside. Here were receipts for wall paint, a ceiling fan, wallboard, and nails, and a number of how-to articles about stripping old paint from window sills. The envelope also contained several photographs of the first house we owned. In 1988, with a newly arrived baby, we moved from our Baltimore apartment to a house in the city’s Original Northwood neighborhood, which had curvy, well-forested streets lined with a mix of single homes and townhouses built in the 1920s. Our house was at the end of a row of four attached homes. It had three stories, a basement, and lots of windows, including several banks of mullioned casement windows that flushed the living room with light.

I loved that house—especially the back deck, a squirrel’s den of weathered wood that soared high over a ravine. The house cost us what at the time seemed a fortune, $129,000, but it had more than enough space for the three of us, and, importantly, it had room for an office on the third floor, well removed from the chaos caused by a demanding baby, which by the way is an oxymoron if ever there was one, because all babies are demanding, albeit to varying degrees, though I like to think that ours at the time was at the upper end of the demanding-baby spectrum. She is the one who eventually notified me on cardboard of my status as a jerk.

The death toll was later reduced to 63, though injuries topped 3,000.

The death toll was later reduced to 63, though injuries topped 3,000.

Next to her room was a larger bedroom that we decided would be occupied by my mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was at the time trying to decide what treatment to pursue, and where to pursue it—on Long Island, where she lived, or at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where my wife was a neonatologist. We hoped she would come live with us for a while, regardless of which path she chose. First, though, I had to get the room into more livable shape. It was old, with window sills so laden with paint they looked as if they had been coated with frosting.

Raising the do-it-yourself herald of battle, emblazoned with the motto, “How Hard Could It Be!,” I set to work. We nicknamed the room, “The Temple of Doom,” which would have a less funny resonance in weeks to come, but which for now accurately captured the difficulty of doing a full-scale renovation of a bedroom during a Baltimore heat wave when temperatures each day topped out at one hundred degrees—higher, actually, if you included the zone of trapped air just under the ceiling, which is where I ended up spending a good part of each day, because who knew that putting up crown molding could become an endeavor of self-hating magnitude, especially in an old room where the walls and ceilings veered from plumb like the flanks of a circus tent.

The high point of this adventure came when I affixed my first-ever piece of Sheetrock to the ceiling joists. I did this alone. I muscled the wallboard up the ladder, propped it against the joists with two braces that resembled rural telephone poles, then nailed the board in place. I used dozens of screw-like nails, the kind specially made to hold wallboard firmly in place and make it almost impossible to remove.

With some anxiety, I removed the braces. The wallboard did not fall. I climbed down to better admire my work, and only then realized that I had installed the board with the wrong side facing out.

Without pause, I climbed back up and ripped it down. All the nails remained in place. The wallboard disintegrated around them, as I tore at it with a crowbar. This was so fun. I could not wait to start again the next day.

One happy discovery: A long lost stuffed animal, cleverly named, "Goosey."

One happy discovery: A long lost stuffed animal, cleverly named, “Goosey.”

Eventually I finished the room. I painted it a soft powder blue, with white trim and white ceiling. The wood floor gleamed. I installed a ceiling fan. I bought a dusky blue area rug, and furnished the room with a dresser, night table, lamp, and a double bed with a simple headboard. It was a very pretty room.

My mother died before she could move in. She made it through surgery just fine, but soon afterward while still in the hospital she threw a clot, and died in an instant. My older sister was with her.

These documents did not bring me joy. But I kept them anyway, because when you survive something difficult and look back on it later, there is often comfort in the recollection, like hearing a sad song played at just the right time in a bar.

And that is the kind of thing that comes leaping back to mind when  you open the old cardboard tombs that follow you through life. I have vowed to go through them all, once they arrive at their new destination. But I concede that possibly they will still be unopened by the time we decide that another move may be in order.

A last look through the windows of my office--a tiny space, but one that worked nicely.

A last look through the windows of my Seattle office–a tiny space, but one that worked nicely.

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The House-Packing Dialogues

June 15, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 4.30.11 PM

Before beginning the long process of packing up our Seattle house for the final phase of our move to New York City, we resolved to bring as little excess baggage with us as possible, and so, archeologists of the heart, we began spending a part of each day going through family artifacts dating back a couple of decades to when we lived in Baltimore.

We have made some startling discoveries, include one yesterday that appalled us. We came across notes that my wife had written down during a telephone interview with a reference whom we called while trying to find a new nanny. Ours had left us abruptly, and as any working couple knows, the sudden departure of a nanny is a crisis of marriage-bending magnitude. My wife and I both had demanding jobs; we were desperate.

Even so, you may rightly ask, at this point, who in his right mind would hire a person after a reference like this, and certainly that was our reaction upon coming across my wife’s notes yesterday evening. But when you are young parents of small children you do what you have to do and rationalize it in a thousand different ways. In our defense, there were other references for this nanny that were more positive—though that too may be a rationalization.

Herewith, my wife’s notes:

“Not that good at playing with children.”

“Resented household duties.”

“Kids didn’t like her. It was o.k.—never great.”



“Too good to be a nanny.”

“Waiting for Prince Charming.”

“If I was desperate, I would hire her.”

We hired her.

She lasted three months. Everything the reference had told us proved to be dead-on accurate. The final insult was when this new nanny showed up an hour late one crucial morning. That she had made no effort to find a phone to tell us she would be late was bad enough, but then she gave us the reason for her late arrival: She had run down a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

And blamed the pedestrian.

We fired her.

We were desperate, not insane.

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