Salting the Wound

“You know how people have these little habits that get you down…?”
Kander & Ebb, Chicago

If you’ve ever cooked pasta, you know that it requires salt in the water. But, in Italy, there are two schools of thought about the precise moment when that salt should be added: before or after the water comes to a boil.

My ex-husband Enrico was firmly of the “add the salt before the water boils” school. I have no idea whether it makes any difference at all when you add it, but I learned to make pasta from him, so I always added the salt as soon as I’d put water in the pot and put the pot on the burner.

How many times a week does an Italian family eat pasta at home? Five or six, usually. And, when I wasn’t traveling, it was usually me doing the cooking. So, figure 40 weeks a year when I was home and cooking, five meals a week involving pasta, times 20 years, equals about four thousand times that Enrico might have observed me cooking pasta.

He’d come in while the water was boiling and I was doing other things: preparing sauce and salad, slicing bread, setting the table, etc.

And he would inevitably ask: “C’hai messo il sale?” – Did you put the salt in?

And I would inevitably answer: “Yes.” Because I always had. Maybe once in twenty years did I ever forget to add the salt immediately.

But he always, always asked. It was so predictable that, if he came into the kitchen at all while I was cooking, my shoulders would hunch defensively, in anticipation of the question – which, after years, began to sound like an accusation.

Sometime around year 18 or 19, I pointed this out to him: “You ask EVERY TIME. And I have already put in the salt EVERY TIME. Stop asking!” He looked momentarily surprised.

But he kept asking. Every damned time. As if he could not help asking, could not forbear to assume, even after all these years, that I would screw it up.

And now, even as I’m in the process of divorcing him and we’re living on opposite sides of the globe (we’ve been separated for years), my neck tightens as I put on the pot to boil, and reflexively add the salt.

C’hai messo il sale?

11 thoughts on “Salting the Wound

  1. Claudia Flisi

    Hi, Deirdre. Re salting the water: practically speaking it is better to salt AFTER the water boils because water comes to a boil faster when it is not salted. I can’t tell you why this is so (I am not a chemist), but it IS so. A lot of people don’t bother because it’s easier to salt at the beginning and have it done with.

    An easier solution still is not to salt the water at all. Neither my husband nor I salts water for pasta, rice, polenta, or anything else. No one notices because there is so much salt in Italian food anyway — the canned tomatoes (if you use them instead of fresh), the olives, capers, meat, fish, and all that Parmesan cheese. My husband and I agree about almost nothing politically, socially, philosophically, but we do agree about that. Maybe that is the secret of our marriage longevity?

  2. John Francini

    Two thoughts on this.

    1. Ye. Bloody. Gods.

    I wonder if he picked up that little irritating habit from watching his father do it to his mother. I’m Italian (by ancestry, not by culture) and if I asked that question every day without fail I would have been handed divorce papers years ago.

    2. We eat a lot of pasta in our house (much of which used to be Barilla until the CEO put his head up his ass about the types of families he wanted to sell pasta to). We have seen the ‘add salt if desired’ instruction on the box, and cheerfully ignored it.

    For over 30 years.

    We don’t see the point. A very cursory look on Google shows that there may be something about keeping the starches from getting glutinous or some such, but otherwise it’s mostly for flavor. What we *do* add is a tablespoon or so of olive oil, which helps keep the pasta from sticking to the colander when drained.

    Is there a good Food Science-y reason to add salt to the water, or is it just ‘something Italians do’?

    Best wishes!

  3. errez

    Hi Deirdre`, what? Twenty years the same question on and on and on? No matter what about, but that sounds like a torture to me! Good on you having endured for that long!!! even if you still tend to associate boiling water-pasta-husband-SALT…Ce l’hai messo? AAARGHHHH.
    I think I shall start to check on myself and make sure I’ll avoid similar mannerism that might undermine my marriage, as my wife and I managed to reach the 30th year of it.
    Sorry to hear that a “passion” for pasta spoiled another passion, i.e. a 20 year long spousal relationship… no good!
    I wish you will all the best form now on.



  4. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I had originally title this piece “Marital Tics”, because we all have those little things we do that drive our spouses crazy – me included, no doubt. In some sense the failure was on my part to have waited so long to mention this particular one. After all, I have never believed that my husband (or anyone else) should have to read my mind.

    I don’t call a 20-and-then-some year marriage a failure, but there were definitely lessons to be learned, about what to do and what not to, that I hope I manage to apply to future relationships. Maybe I’ll write about those sometime.

  5. Carlo

    The way I see this is that if you waited that long is because you actually “liked” that little tic, at least for several years; it was probably something that became somewhat of a habit, something expected. As for the pasta cooked in unsalted water, you can – and should – give an educated answer to your followers.

  6. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Hmm, not sure if that’s the sort of tic anyone likes beyond the first few dozen times. No doubt I also had tics that annoyed him – in the long run, marriage is about which of each other’s quirks you are willing to put up with, and whether the good stuff continues to outweigh the annoyances.

    As for when, how, or whether to salt the water, I’ve had varying answers to this, and I doubt that there is a definitive answer that all would agree on. I’m content to carry on doing it Enrico’s way.

  7. Carlo

    Yes, I can see that you probably had varying answers to the salt issue, but I know you know that pasta cooked in unsalted water is definitely ruining the end result of *any* otherwise well-conceived recipe. Taste is taste, no one will dispute that, but a taste of undressed pasta cooked with unsalted water vs. one cooked in salted water (e.g. roughly two handfuls per gallon) will perhaps clear the mind of some of your followers. Putting oil in the water has only one effect, wasting the oil.

  8. Janet

    I know how you feel and I only put up with it for 6 months LOL. My son spent a year in Thailand at school on exchange (now a linguist in the Army) and that brings a certain bond between the kids that did that. There was one girl who lived quite a way from Sydney so we said she could come and stay with us for a couple of months while she was looking for a flat after getting a job here. Two months turned into 6 – she paid $30 rent all meals etc and when she came in from work she’d immediately change the TV to the soaps (which we never watch). As if that wasn’t bad enough, at the end of every single meal (which I always cooked) she would say “That was really really yummy Mrs B”. When I heard her saying on (our landline) long distance “I think I’ll stay here another couple of months” we ended up telling her it was time she looked for a place to live and she was gone in less than a week. She really got the huffs with us and I’m never quite sure but there you go.

    Love and hugs and loads of Zen flowing for you with your battle.


  9. Lauri

    Will not comment on the maritial side of salt but will comment on the adding of salt. If you add salt to a pot before the water boils you run the risk of damaging you pot. The salt crystals, which are sharp and hard fall to the bottom and bounce around the bottom as the water heats up and start corrosion. When the water boils the time it takes for the salt to dissolve is shorter thus have less time to do damage in the pot.

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