In Search of Saltpeter

In looking for Irish recipes last week,  I came across “Corned Beef” of the proverbial Corned Beef and Cabbage, and decided — what the heck –to corn my own brisket.  Little did I know what I was in for.  I found what looked like a likely website (i.e. sufficiently “gourmet” looking) and started going down the list of ingredients — juniper berries? mustard seeds?  saltpeter?  The list looked more than daunting and I mumbled under my breath,  “I don’t know about this; it looks too complicated.”  My 21 year old son, sitting nearby, started laughing at me.  “Mom, that’s not a good sign when you’re already talking like that on your first day of this whole project.”   He had a point, and I had to laugh with him.  I do have a tendency to enjoy the shortcut more than the tedious long-term project, so I turned back to the recipe with new resolve: if my ancestors could do it, so could I.  It couldn’t be that difficult.

The next morning I headed off to our one and only local gourmet store, A.J.’s Fine Foods.  A.J’s is one of those groceries where it’s easier to find pink peppercorns and lemon curd than it is to locate a box of Rice Krispies–the shelves are crammed with all kinds of esoteric, exotic ingredients, anything one could possibly need for international culinary adventures like my own.  I wheeled through the aisles, aimed for the spices, and plucked out jars of whole clove allspice and juniper berries. A gray haired gentleman was restocking the shelves so I asked him about saltpeter, and he got a funny twinkle in his eyes.  “Saltpeter? Hmm.  For cooking? I’ve only heard about it being used in the military to keep the soldiers from getting too, uh, randy when they’re on leave.”  I must have looked puzzled, because he added, sort of sheepishly, “In the old days, I don’t think they use it any more.” And then it hit me —  “salt” and “peter”, as in penis.  Ooops.  My face went pink and I was grateful when he headed off through the aisles to find one of their resident chefs for advice.

The chef arrived, his black muffin hat askew,  black pants and shirt already dusted with flour from the morning’s baking.  He tried to sell me some pre-prepared brines on the shelf, while I kept trying to explain that I wanted to make my own brine from scratch, and asking him if he thought that saltpeter was essential to the recipe, since I had no idea what it was or what it’s function would be in such a preparation. Finally he said, “Yeah, it’s probably important to the flavor, but no, we don’t have any. But let’s talk to Jose in the meat department. He might have something you can use.”

And he was off, soon to return with Jose the meat guy in tow, carrying a large box full of his secret sauce, whatever it is he uses to pre prepare salmon and chicken.  Poor Jose looked deflated when I told him  I was making my own brine for corning beef; he didn’t look like he knew what I was talking about.  And just then, the clerk in charge of ordering spices etc. arrived, (the elderly gentleman had gone to fetch her) and I had to start all over with my explanations.  No, she didn’t have any saltpeter, she said, and I thanked them all profusely — four people in one store all trying to help me — it was amazing — but I went home empty handed, except for the juniper berries and the allspice.

At home I got on line and discovered that salt peter is sodium nitrate and is used for fireworks, and sometimes in magic tricks.  So I called a local magic store, who sent me to a local science store, who sent me to a compounding pharmacy who sent me back to the science store.  I ended up ordering a few ounces online and it just arrived on Friday in a small bottle, with all kinds of warning labels on it.  I’m petrified, but the experiment will commence tomorrow evening with the help of my husband, who has a few years of college chemistry under his belt.  The beef will have to “corn” for ten days, so we won’t be cooking it for awhile, but I’ll keep you posted.  But after hearing about the secret ingredient, my boys have already declared firmly that they won’t touch the brisket when it’s done — and I’m beginning to have a few qualms myself. . . . .

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About tamisrenteria

Tamis Renteria, author and anthropologist, writes novels and short stories about people struggling with different religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions. She lives with her husband and youngest son in Tucson, Arizona where she types on a Mac, cooks ethnic food, and gardens among the sahuaros.
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4 Responses to In Search of Saltpeter

  1. gayle says:

    Wow! What fun!! and how ambitious. It was really fun reading about your adventures. I can’t wait to try some of your recipes. I hope it will get me out of the routine of cooking the same 10 things over and over. This is the season for beef and yellow and orange vegetables according to Amy my acupuncturist, so corned beef and carrots sound like a good combination for this season of the spleen. Bon voyage!! Consider this a virtual champagne smashing!!

  2. Deana says:

    I am so impressed Tamis!: a project that requires research, persistence, time, organization and for me the most impressive of all, sticking with it for a whole year! My memory of saltpeter is connected with the old guy’s comment about randy sailors ~ there was a joke that went around summer camp about using saltpeter to keep the sexual appetite down. I guess it’s true. But you probably don’t want to hear what I have to say about sodium nitrate. You go girl!

  3. Mercedes says:

    That’s quite a project you’ve laid out for yourself here Tamis, but you’ve got what it takes. I like to cook when I’m in the mood but I hate to steal Frank’s thunder so I let him have all the fun in the kitchen. I’ll look for the literary part more so than the culinary part of your blog.
    Saltpeter to me is something that supposedly causes the member to go limp, I didn’t know it was used in curing meats. Well that makes it a kind of meat cure all around doesn’t it? If I was a guy I guess I wouldn’t want that in my food either. “Randy” that’s funny, now I have a new word for my bedroom vocabulary…”Honey, are you feeling randy tonight, perhaps we can fix that with some saltpeter, or I hear Tamis is making corned beef maybe that’ll shut down the works, you know I gotta go to work early tomorrow.”
    BTW I took the same chemistry classes that Beto did and I wouldn’t trust that info in the kitchen, unless you are cooking with a bunsen burner and using goggles.
    And what a great supermarket! Where do you live again? They only insincerely ask me at mine when I’m finally checking out if I found everything I was looking for, like that’s going to help me now that I’m checking out. Of course I always lie and say yes.

  4. You ought to have your own blog, Mercy. You’re very funny. Thanks for the encouragement and be sure to drop in every once in awhile and add your two cents again.

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