'I ate a lot of foods just so I could dip them in salt'

Last spring, while walking along a Manhattan street, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne suddenly felt dizzy. "My balance was off," says Claiborne. "And the sun seemed agonizingly bright." Claiborne had just suffered a cerebral vascular spasm, or constriction of a blood vessel to the brain; it is often forewarning of a stroke. With an 18-year history of hypertension, Claiborne, 59, wisely sought the advice of Dr. Joseph Rechtschaffen, an internist and nutritional specialist.

He found Claiborne's blood pressure to be a sizzling 186/112 (140/80 is normal for a man his age). After two days of tests, the doctor looked at the writer gravely. "I've got terrible news for you," Craig recalls his saying. "You've got to reverse your lifestyle, or you aren't going to make it through the next 10 years." Rechtschaffen ordered Craig to stop taking his daily 15 pills for hypertension, gout and cholesterol. More important, Claiborne was told to reduce his sodium intake from 12 grams a day to two grams or less. Salt is the most important source of sodium, but many foods, both natural and processed, also contain the chemical. The average American adult consumes as much as five teaspoons of salt a day; Claiborne was up to six. He had to cut that to one. As he discovered, too much salt can trigger high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor in strokes and heart and kidney disease.

A self-proclaimed salt addict, Claiborne says, "I would drink a cup of sauerkraut juice a day." (It has 1,400 milligrams, or one-half teaspoon, of salt.) He had a weakness for a Vietnamese drink, nou mam, extracted from anchovies, and would often start the day with a Japanese waker-upper, salt-rich soy sauce and lime juice. Claiborne was heedless of the effect on his health. "I was immortal. Death never occurred to me," he says. "I figured that the Lord put me on the earth to be a food critic, and I was impervious to the hazards."

Dr. Rechtschaffen dashed that idea. "It was such a perverse challenge," says Claiborne of the new restrictions. With chef Pierre Franey, his collaborator on three of his 13 cookbooks, he immediately began to create low-sodium recipes and has just published the results, Craig Claiborne's Gourmet Diet (New York Times, $10.95). "We didn't simply leave salt out," he says. "You have to know what to do to a dish to make it powerful without salt."

After a month on the diet Craig's blood pressure dropped to normal; in four months he lost 20 pounds. The lifelong red splotches on his face cleared up, and the puffiness in his hands and feet vanished.

"I grew up on soul food, which is salt," Claiborne explains of his Mississippi boyhood. The family property had a smokehouse where his father cured ham and sausage. As a child Craig put salt on watermelon and in grapefruit juice, and he remembers sucking on the rock salt used to freeze homemade ice cream.

"We are born with a salt appetite because we have salt in our body," says Claiborne. "No-salt is a cultivated taste, like beer and coffee. The first bite is a comedown, very bland. But the more you eat, the more you like it." These days he never goes anywhere without a handbook giving the sodium content of scores of foods and dishes. "A hamburger has 1,510 milligrams of sodium," Claiborne says, "a seven-ounce can of tuna 1,500 mgs., eight ounces of cottage cheese 920 mgs., and eight ounces of tomato juice 744 mgs."

To avoid the salt in processed foods, Claiborne makes his own French bread, ketchup, mayonnaise and even tomato juice. The best-tasting low-sodium products on the market, he says, are mustard, sardines and expensive cheeses. "Salt is often a cover-up," he adds. "Foods that taste best without salt are usually of a higher quality." Breakfast for Craig now is shredded wheat or fresh fruit and yogurt. Lunch is leftovers from dinner the night before, often steamed fish or broiled chicken, served with a piquant sauce. Dessert is an ice or low-sodium cheese with a pear.

At his East Hampton, L.I. house, Claiborne keeps saltless seltzer water, low-salt wonton soup to quiet hunger pangs and a can of unsalted peanuts for "cravings." He has reduced his intake of alcohol from six margaritas before dinner (with salt-encrusted glass) and six glasses of wine during it to one Scotch or vodka and two wines. He takes only one pill—a vitamin complex with zinc—and walks five to 10 miles a day. "The best thing that ever happened to me is getting into these jeans," he says, proudly displaying his 34-inch waist. "Of course, I want my book to sell, but I'm fascinated with this diet for myself," he insists. "I'm not trying to convert anyone else. A lot of this is vanity. I'm not afraid of death—just scared of having a stroke or being incapacitated. I don't want to be a burden to anybody."