As Meat Loves Salt: On the meaning of the title

This is the second post in the series about the book As Meat Loves Salt by M. McCann, which has wounded me so deeply that months after reading it, I still can’t pass a full hour awake without thinking about it. In the first post, I made some introductory remarks and then talked about the cover and the blurb. In this one, I’ll talk about the title, and what it means.

During my first reading, I had no idea that the phrase “as meat loves salt” is a thing that exists independently. In the book, it appears one time Jacob asks Ferris how well he loves him; and Ferris replies, “As meat loves salt.”

I can’t recall whether or not I dwelled on it at the time, though I must’ve found it ambiguous, as declarations of love go. I ended up storing it in memory as a vaguely negative one, and in the brainstorms that followed that first reading, I thought I could understand why Jacob felt insulted by it. Only, as you’ll see, he wasn’t. Because he knew what it means. He was insulted by something else Ferris said, in a later scene, which I’ll get to in time.

My intuitive grasp of the phrase (before I googled it), wasn’t very far from the truth, I think. I read it as: “You give flavor to life, but you’re not life itself,” likely because Jacob himself says something to the same effect in an earlier scene:

It seemed that, like wine and tobacco, I was delicious, but still not reckoned a necessity of life.

That line put me in mind of another book that wounded me, though nowhere near as much as AMLS: Euphoria by L. King. There was this lovely theme of “bread and wine” running through it. We first encounter it in the journal of the female lead, where she says:

I loved that Amy Lowell poem when I first read it, how her lover was like red wine at the beginning and then became bread. But that has not happened to me. My loves remain wine to me, yet I become too quickly bread to them.

Then it picks up when she speaks with the male lead about his past relationships:

She laughed. ‘Was she wine or bread to you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s from an Amy Lowell poem we all loved in college. Wine is sort of thrilling and sensual, and bread is familiar and essential.’
‘Wine, I suppose.’
‘Would it have turned to bread?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It doesn’t always.’
‘No, I suppose not.’

At the very end, in another entry journal, she says this, referring to the male lead (and to getting pregnant with him after trying to conceive unsuccessfully for years with her husband):

He is wine and bread and deep in my stomach.

Anyway, I now looked up the poem, and yeah.

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

Back to As meat loves salt, both the book and the phrase — to me (and to Jacob) it seemed evident that for Ferris, Jacob was wine, not bread. While for Jacob, Ferris was bread before he was wine.

Googling the phrase revealed that it’s from a folk tale that spawned, among other variations, the Cinderella. In the tale, the king had three daughters. He promised them gifts in proportion to how much they loved him. So he asked each in turn. The eldest said she loved him more than all the gold and jewels — and received untold treasures in return. The second eldest said she loved him more than all the silks and brocades — and received the finest gowns in the realm. But when the king asked the youngest, she said she loved him as the meat loves salt. Insulted, the king banished her.

In the years to come, the two older daughters went on with their lives and left the aging king without looking back. And the exiled princess, after many hardships, caught the eye of an ambitious lord who ultimately took over her father’s kingdom and turned him out. On their wedding feast, even the poorest citizens were admitted, and the dispossessed king was among them. Seeing him, his youngest daughter ordered that the food should be served without even a grain of salt. The starved old man, now a beggar, salivated at the sight of all the fancy cookery, but everything he put in his mouth tasted the same, because there was no salt in it. He then remembered his daughter’s words, and understood her wisdom.

Now, in my second reading of the book — which is a Kindle edition, and Kindle kindly opens books at the start of chapter 1, so you (well, I) don’t get to see anything that comes before unless you purposely scroll up, which I never do — I scrolled up. And found a foreword by the author, with her own rendering of this same tale. My heart was beating very slow and very loud while I read this unexpected extra. And broke on the last words:

Then he understood, at last, the meaning of his youngest daughter’s words and the love that she had felt for him, for the meat is nothing without the salt.

To be clear, that is by no means a standard way to finish this tale, or a usual interpretation. The usual interpretation is closer to the bread and wine analogy, and the meaning I intuited before launching into research. Shakespeare spells is out in King Lear:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sister,
To love my father all.

Yet, in AMLS, “the meat is nothing without the salt”.

The reason I was so affected by that final line is that, basically, this is as close as we get to Ferris’s point of view. The extreme entrenchment of the book in Jacob’s point of view is one of its most outstanding features and qualities. It’s unprecedented in my reading so far. This was the aspect of the book (next to frightening identification) most directly responsible for my drowning total immersion in it, which in turn drove the emotional rollercoaster and resulted in such deep and lasting impressions. And clear though it may be that Jacob is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, he’s the only source of sensory information.

This is particularly pertinent to Jacob’s (and the reader’s, if they’re not vigilant) perceptions of Ferris. He and Jacob have different priorities. For Jacob, the self-centered narcissistic egotist, everything is somehow about him and he is primarily concerned with having his needs met. While Ferris is an idealist with lofty political dreams and little regard for his own comforts and even safety. Although Jacob knows this on a rational level, when pressed, he will still interpret the things Ferris says and does like it were Jacob saying and doing them: he will look for selfishness and laziness and lust and lies (all his traits, not Ferris’s), and often find them, whether they’re really there or not. But outside the few scenes where they openly talk about their conflicting views and wishes, there’s no way to know how much, and how exactly, Jacob misreads Ferris. We never get to hear his side of the story.

Except in that foreword. The foreword is an authorial intervention, giving us Ferris’s side of the story. The phrase “as meat loves salt” is ambiguous — but not once the author tells you that “the meat is nothing without the salt“.

Jacob was bread for Ferris too. Perhaps even more than he was wine.

With my eyes thus open, I saw Ferris in a new light during my second reading, and discovered plenty of evidence for the claim above. The most conspicuous is the one instance where both he and Jacob step out of their comfort zones: Jacob, for once selfless, offers to stay behind so Ferris can be free of worry during the visit to his dying aunt; and Ferris, for once selfish, bids Jacob come with him, not wishing to weather the impending tragedy alone. In that gesture, even if one disregards the key hung around Jacob’s neck, it’s established that Ferris adopted Jacob as family. Even after their falling out, Ferris ultimately lets him rejoin the colony and never asks him to return the key, trusting him to the bitter end.

The phrase “as meat loves salt” is recalled once again in the book. This time, Ferris asks Jacob how well he loves him. Poor Jacob is put to it. From Ferris’s answer to the same question, he feels a poetic reply is in order, but he doesn’t have the makings of a poet and responds with: “With my body I thee worship.” As this is a part of the wedding vows, I doubt Ferris missed the reference, but he disliked it, possibly because the vows that contain this bit were in the Book of Common Prayer, used by the Church of England, and might’ve been seen as ‘papist’ by a dissenter. To me, however, it rather seems that he was annoyed with the “body” thing, because he views Jacob as a kind of savage who always goes on about “his prick and its wants”. And so he jabs, “Better say you love the meat that loves the salt.” It is here Jacob feels insulted — not in that initial scene. And rightly so, if you ask me. Because Jacob loved Ferris as a friend long before they were lovers, while Ferris’s interest in Jacob was carnal for a long time before maturing into love.

In many ways, this book is about the failure of both men to assure the other of the depth of his devotion.

Of course, this interpretation hangs precariously on how one reads the several final chapters. If one takes Jacob’s point of view for granted, then he was just wine for Ferris. Only I don’t believe it. I believe that Jacob goes through a psychotic episode in the end, and literally hallucinates some of the things that inform his shocking decisions. More on that in the next post.

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