Celery Salt Is the Seasoning You Never Knew You Needed
We all have profound childhood memories buried somewhere in the depths of our brains. Occasionally, they emerge in dreams. At other times, they involuntarily appear in random situations. For me, they often come by way of foods that send me back to simpler, more delicious times.
Trust your senses and you, too, can find your madeleine moment. It happened to me recently, and it took only a mention of the ingredient to flood my mind with memories and a scent so strong I could actually smell it.
That ingredient was celery salt and the memory was of my mother, a trained pastry chef, shaking it over a beaten egg. She would zap it in the microwave, and that was it.
I asked myself: Why was the memory so potent—and appetizing? It's not like I find myself reaching for it on a regular basis (though, it's on my spice rack and most likely yours, too). Essentially just a combination of celery seeds and salt, it's one of those ingredients so deeply ingrained in American food that it's everywhere. The irony is no one talks about it, but everyone loves it.
To get to the bottom of this strange fascination, I turned to Facebook. Yes, the "hive mind." As futile as it may seem these days, I can't remember the last time a post elicited 60 comments: Friends, colleagues and family members all had their favorite uses.
"It's an ingredient that people like to sneak into things," chef Christina Lecki of Reynard and The Ides at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said. "It's a really strong flavor, but it brings out the best in softer-flavored things."
Lecki makes her own celery salt. "The stuff I was buying tasted like a by-product and not enough like fresh celery," she said. She makes it with both seeds and fresh dehydrated celery, and uses it on a fried oyster salad at Reynard and a hot dog coming this summer at The Ides.
The fried oyster salad with celery salt at Reynard in NYC. | Photo: Reynard
Like myself, Lecki believes that celery salt is a crucial component in what can only be called "American cuisine." She added, "It's sort of like a foundation for a lot of things that are specifically American—in a really awesome way."
We're not alone. Chefs and home cooks alike told me they use it in mayo-laced dishes like potato, egg, pasta and tuna salads and cole slaw. Preston Madson, chef and co-owner of Bellwether in Long Island City, Queens, uses it in his potato salad. Jeremy Sewall, chef and owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, uses celery salt as a seasoning on his cold lobster roll.
"It adds a floral, salty flavor, but for me it adds a taste of nostalgia," he said. "Every good New England kitchen has celery salt in it."
Celery salt is also an integral part in Bloody Mary cocktails and on Chicago-style hot dogs. As well as a main ingredient in Old Bay Seasoning and is even said to be in the not-so-secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Interestingly, celery itself is an ingredient that's largely looked at as a throwaway item. Crucial for a soup base but not much else. Ask people about celery, and you'll be craving Buffalo wings and blue cheese. But celery salt? Different story.
Georgia Kral is a journalist. She used to eat and party in Brooklyn, but now she has two kids. She still eats and still lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram at @georgiakral.
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