Salt of the Earth

Mountains of Sea Salt in Port Hedland, Australia

Though historically, pepper may have been viewed as the spice of life, salt was life itself. Cassiodorus, a Goth administrator in the 5th century AD, wrote, “It may be that some seek not gold, but there lives not a man who does not need salt.” Every cell and all the fluids of the body contain salt. All neural activity requires sodium, and salt is essential to muscle movement. In arid lands, salt was and is as important as water for survival. (In fact, one is in greater danger of dehydration for want of salt than for want of water.) And animals are as dependent on salt as humans.

Anything that means life usually means wealth, too, and salt has been used as money, and still is in some parts of Africa. As often as it has meant wealth, it has also meant power, and rulers from the ancient Egyptians down to present-day despots have used the control of salt as a way to control people. And as is the case with other things of great value, from cattle to gold, salt has entered our language, our literature, our metaphors.

The history of salt is tied up with the move from nomadic to settled life. People who eat roasted meats, as is fairly universal among nomadic peoples, do not need a source of salt, as the natural salt in animal flesh is preserved. But among settled peoples, those who eat cereal grains, vegetables, and boiled meats, diets must be supplemented with salt.

So with the introduction of agriculture, the search for salt was on—and as was true of most things of great importance, someone was recording it. A Chinese treatise written in 2700 BC is the earliest document we have about extraction methods for producing salt, and Egyptian paintings dating to 1450 BC show salt making. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras (580 BC–500 BC) wrote that “Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea.” The Bible relates that, to show his generosity to the Jews as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem, Artaxerxes (465 BC) proclaimed that he would provide Ezra the priest with “up to 3-3/4 tons of silver, and salt without limit.”

Some of the world’s earliest trade routes were for the transportation of salt, from the caravan routes of the Sahara to the Roman Via Salaria—the Salt Route—one of the oldest roads in Italy. Herodotus wrote of caravans traveling between the salt oases of the Libyan Desert. The Phoenician traders who settled Carthage on the north coast of what is today Morocco in the 12th century BC came to trade salt as much as gold ore—because salt could be used to buy gold. Berber caravans moved rock salt—halite—from the mines near Timbuktu, across the High Atlas to the sea, trade routes that remained active into the early 20th century.

Salt became a big industry in much of the world. The importance of salt production in many areas is reflected in the names of towns: Saltcoats, Salzburg, Salinas—and even in less obvious names such as Prestonpans, where the pans in question were for evaporating water to obtain sea salt. There were, and still are, salt mines all over Europe and the Middle East, and the trade item that made North Africa and West Africa wealthy was salt.

Almost as soon as there were colonies in the New World, there were salt works, retrieving salt from the sea. When Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark their assignment, the locating of salt deposits was among the tasks they were instructed to undertake, because Jefferson knew that the security of the new nation could be threatened by a salt shortage. The War of 1812, in fact, posed a threat to the young United States primarily because of a salt blockade. Citizens were encouraged to produce their own salt whenever possible.

As colonists pushed inland, salt deposits and saline springs were discovered. Salt was soon big business in the U.S.—big enough business that tax revenues from salt could build the Erie Canal, sometimes called “the ditch that salt built.” And why build the “ditch”? To transport salt. The Onandaga Salt Works in Upstate New York were the largest salt works in the country in the early 1800s, and they needed an easier way to get salt, which is heavy, to the markets that needed it.

Today, there are important salt mines in New York, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, and California. Salt is still a massively important commodity—though not solely for culinary purposes; more than 14,000 processes in industry and manufacturing require salt or salt derivatives.

Words and phrases related to salt go beyond the names of places where salt was produced. In the early days of the Empire, Roman soldiers received salarium—salt rations. When they were given money to buy their own salt, they still called it salarium, from which we get our word salary. The expression that someone is “not worth his salt,” which is still used today, was originally penned by Gaius Petronius in the 1st century AD in reference to those who did not earn their salarium. And money isn’t the only “green” that gets its name from salt. The Romans salted their lettuce and other greens, giving us herba salata, or salted veggies. It is from this that we get our word salad. (It was, in fact, the Romans who came up with the idea of lettuce-based salads, so we owe them on two counts for this dish.)

Because of its vital preservative qualities, salt became a symbol of incorruptibility. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is easily identified as the one whose arm has just knocked over the saltcellar. Spilling salt is still thought by some to be a bad omen; though most people don’t know why now, it was originally because it was seen as an indication of the presence of corruption or evil.

Jews, Greeks, and Romans viewed salt as an emblem of purity. Romans believed that salt could make dangerous or tainted food safe, hence, anything suspicious was “taken with a grain of salt.” A prescription to take something (in this case, an antidote to poison) cum grano salis was first recorded by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) in his Natural History.

The preservative qualities of salt also made it a fitting symbol of honor, esteem, and an enduring compact. When an Arab says “there is salt between us,” he is referring to the tradition that to eat a man’s salt creates a sacred bond, and no one who has eaten another’s salt should do him an ill turn or speak ill of him. In Persian, even today, namak haram— untrue to salt—means disloyal or ungrateful. The great English poet, Lord Byron, wrote of this aspect of salt in his poem “The Corsair”:

Why dost thou shun the salt?
that sacred pledge
Which, once partaken,
blunts the saber’s edge.

The expression “salt of the earth” (from the Bible, Matthew 5:13) still describes a person held in high esteem. And in Russia, the word for hospitality—khleb-sol—literally translates “bread-salt.”

In Sanskrit, lavanya, which expresses grace, beauty, and charm, is derived from lavana— salt. In Latin and Greek, salt’s sharp savoriness made it a term for wit, and the connotation lasted for centuries. In Les Femmes Savantes, Molière wrote, “It is seasoned throughout with Attic salt.” “Attic salt” means wit, particularly elegant wit, and sparkling thought well expressed (Attica being the region of Greece which includes Athens, and ancient Athenians being famous for their wit).

And, hardly of least importance, salt makes things taste good. “Is tasteless food eaten without salt?” the patient Job inquires (Job 6:6). Actually, no other substance tastes like salt. It is so distinctive that tasting is one sure way of detecting its presence. It is, as Plutarch noted, “the finest condiment of all.”

Salt is astonishingly abundant. There are tons of mineral salt deposited underground (and the mining of this mineral has earned it the nickname of “white gold”). The world’s oceans are another rich source, with as much as 35 grams of salt per liter of seawater. So, fortunately, we don’t have to worry about running out.

Sadly, not all salt facts are fun. In the 20th century, salt blockades and salt shortages caused political upheaval and mass migrations. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s, the appearance of salt in the markets of Kampala triggered riots. Salt is still life and wealth and power in much of the world.

So stay true to salt, be worth your salt, and delight in the fact that you have such easy access to a commodity that gives the world so much flavor. As Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda wrote in his “Ode to Salt,”

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.

And then on every table
in the world,
salt,
we see your piquant
powder
sprinkling
vital light
upon
our food.

Rock salt, once a source of great wealth for Morocco, in a palace in Marrakesh

Copyright ©2011 Cynthia Clampitt

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3 Comments

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Language, Travel

3 responses to “Salt of the Earth

  1. Very interesting post. I hope you don’t mind if add a reference to this article from our rock salt website. It is not common to find this kind of articles.

    All the best.

  2. “Sadly, not all salt facts are fun.”

    But as fascinating.

    I’ll say it again, love this blog muchly!

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