On a recent Saturday afternoon at the House of Glunz, Stefana Williams hosted a salt tasting. It was the first time the Old Town wine shop had accommodated such a thing in its 118-year history; Williams, the proprietor of a sea-salt company called Lot's Wyfe and a self-described "salt evangelist," was eager for an audience, and she'd successfully convinced the shop that its clientele and her salts would be a perfect match. A Southern California native and former actress with bright blue eyes and a spiky blond hairdo, she stood behind a display case at the rear of the shop, waiting for potential customers. "Let me give you my spiel," she said whenever anyone approached.
A middle-aged woman stopped in front of Williams's spread. There were plates of cut-up beets, cucumbers, apples, pineapples, chocolate truffles, and jicama roots--vehicles for the delivery of salt. Williams had placed toothpicks by tins and petri dishes filled with crystals of varying coarseness.
"Do you know anything about sea salt?" Williams asked the woman.
"No, not at all."
"Perfect," Williams said. "Lot's Wyfe is the name of our company." She paused for a moment. "You know, the gal from the Bible who turns into a pillar of salt? In fact, one of our slogans is: 'Sprinkle. Often. Never look back.'" She noted the organic methods used to harvest her salts and introduced the five varieties she'd brought along: a light pink one from Australia, a pale white one from Sicily, and a reddish-brown one from Hawaii. There were also two that Williams called "experiments," cinnamon-colored salts from San Francisco Bay that she had flavored with essences of chipotle and mole.
"Interesting," the woman said. "Can I try one?"
"Try them all."
The woman dipped a slice of cucumber into the tin of the Sicilian and put it in her mouth. She chewed deliberately for a moment. She nodded.
"Salty!" she said.
As part of the promotional literature for Lot's Wyfe, Williams, 49, wrote a short essay titled "Confessions of a Salt Fiend." In it, she says that when she's gone without salt for a few hours she feels herself "getting twitchy for another hit." "I think it's because I have low blood pressure," she says. Her mother's experimental bent in the kitchen during her childhood is another reason for her affection for the stuff. "She would use us as guinea pigs, and we'd invariably want to mask, you know, the curried eggs on white bread. She made some really scary stuff, and if you could mask her food with salt it was a beautiful thing," she says.
Until recently, though, Williams only knew mass-produced table salt. In 2002 a friend gave her a jar of Mediterranean sea salt packaged by a north Italian winery, Vignalta. "It was so pure and so good--it just rocked my world," she says. "The difference between Morton's and the Vignalta was light-years."
The career path that led Williams to make salt her business is a circuitous one. In her 20s she tried to make a go of acting in LA, armed with an MFA from a joint program at DePaul and the Goodman Theatre. The closest she got to a break, though, was intermittent work on The Young & the Restless. "I did all the voice-overs," she says. "So, you know, when you'd hear, 'Would Dr. Smith please come to the ER,' that was me." She also did work in public relations, cofounding her own firm in Portland in 1989, and part of her duties included writing press releases for small companies that had launched a new product.
After her epiphany with the Vignalta salt, she decided to launch one of her own. She found an importer and wholesaler and began selling Lot's Wyfe salts in 2003, the same year she moved to Chicago from Pacific Grove, California, to join her fiance, Henry Bishop, then the sommelier at Spiaggia. He's currently researching a book about wine, and Williams often joins him on the road, ready to sell her salts at the wineries they visit. Williams packages them by hand, in flat tin cylinders with clear lids, filling about 200 tins a week on the Ping-Pong table in her Bucktown loft. Her connections in PR and the restaurant business have helped her build a roster of bigger clients, including restaurants like Spiaggia and 312 Chicago, the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and shops at about two dozen wineries. The North Shore gourmet chain Foodstuffs, Sam's Wine & Spirits, and the House of Glunz all carry her wares as well, as does a catalog called The Grateful Palate, put out by Dan Philips, a kind of J. Peterman of the artisanal food world. For his blurb on Lot's Wyfe he wrote, "I love people with good taste and an obsession. A dangerous combination." Not long after she started, Williams took on a
partner, Mary Shannon, an old friend and former pastry chef. Williams believes they're now at the point of needing investors; she would like to eventually import the salt herself, and in the short term she hopes to outsource the job of sticking labels onto the tins. If a substantial order were to come in now, she says, "I'd be in big trouble."
"In the 1980s salt got vilified," Williams says. "It got this huge bad rap. I would go to this restaurant in Portland, and I remember taking the saltshaker and hearing this audible gasp from people. They were like, 'Step away from the shaker.' So I had to take it underground for a while, this salt thing." In "Confessions of a Salt Fiend," she refers to this time as the "Salt-Free Diet Dark Ages."
But since then, Williams argues, public taste has improved, with culinary trends moving toward the organic, artisanal, and flavorful. But there's still evangelizing to be done. "Sometimes you get those people who are all weird about salt," she says. "They get enticed into coming over because they see all the food. 'Oh, are you demoing pineapple?' they say. And I say, 'No. Sea salt.' And they say, 'Salt! Oh my God, I've got hypertension! My doctor says I can't go near salt.' It's almost like you're demoing crack."
The six main salts in the Lot's Wyfe line come from all over the world: the Guerande region of Brittany, the west coast of Sicily, the big island of Hawaii, the Cook Strait between the islands of New Zealand, the Darling Basin of southeastern Australia, and San Francisco Bay. The French salt, Williams explains, is the most highly regarded by chefs and gourmands. In the tidal marshes along the Atlantic coast at the end of the Loire River, salt farmers called paludiers follow Celtic methods developed over thousands of years. Each February they dig channels that lead from marshes to shallow evaporation beds. They're lined with gray clay, which is less porous than sand; the clay effectively traps the water and gives the salt its color and some of its flavor. As the water evaporates and crystals form, the paludiers use wooden rakes to gather them into piles along the perimeters of the beds. If it rains hard the entire harvest can be lost. French sea-salt purity laws are strict: the beds must lie at least 400 meters from any road, and no artificial drying methods are allowed. When Williams opens a bag of Brittany sea salt in her loft 3,000 miles away it's still damp.
Each of the other five salts on the Lot's Wyfe menu is harvested by similarly painstaking and idiosyncratic means, and each has a distinct taste and appearance that derives from where and how it's harvested as well as the chemistry and mineral content of the water from which it was extracted. "You know how they have the term terroir for wine? Well, in my opinion, there's a merroir for sea salt," Williams says.
Along with the bulk bags of sea salt in her loft--last Christmas she had nearly 600 pounds--and her old bottle of the Vignalta, Williams's pantry contains a cylinder of Morton iodized salt. "I keep it there just so I can show people the difference," she says. Compared to quality sea salt, Williams says, Morton leaves a disagreeable chemical tang on the palate--a product of processing and additives such as iodide and anti-caking agents. She puts a pinch on her tongue and makes a face. "There's this lingering thing that happens at the back of your mouth. It's almost . . . uncomfortable. Sea salt, it takes you to a different place and makes you appreciate your taste buds."
Williams's loft isn't far from Morton Salt's Goose Island warehouse on Elston Avenue. Despite her salt obsession, she says she's never paid the place a visit. "But sometimes I do ride my bike right by it," she says. "And then I'm like . . ." and she flips up her middle finger.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.