Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

Salt: The World's Biggest Shaker

by Kate Heyhoe


"There never yet lived the man who does not desire salt, which makes every food more savory." —Cassiodorus, 523 A.D.

Men have fought for gold, oil, and land, but few of us realize just how much our world has been shaken up by the simple commodity of salt. Until a mere century ago, salt was one of the most sought-after substances in human history. Now, a fascinating book takes readers on a journey across oceans and continents, through epochs and into the salty experiences of lives as diverse as Ghandi and Clarence Birdseye. In SALT: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky frames cultural, economic, political, scientific, religious and culinary events of the times around salt. And he does so with such entertaining, informative writing, that the book is nearly impossible to put down.

Here are just a few capsules of SALT...

Historical influences: China was the site of the first salt works, salt tax, and salt war. In ancient Egypt, salt was an essential substance in mummification. During 12th-century Provence, France, salt merchants built a system of solar evaporation ponds, and in the Americas, the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans rose to power partly because of salt.

Human consumption: An adult human body contains about 250 grams of salt, which would fill three or four salt shakers. Most people desire far more salt than they need, and perhaps this is a natural defense. Salt is a necessary component in the functioning of cells. Without both water and salt, cells could not get nourishment and would die of dehydration. Carnivores, like humans, can meet their salt needs by eating meat. On every continent, once human beings began cultivating crops they began looking for salt to add to their diet. Because animals need salt, one of the earliest ways humans searched for salt was to follow animal trails. Eventually they all lead to a salt lick or a brine spring or some other source of salt.

Romans: The average Roman citizen consumed only 25 grams of salt a day. The modern American consumes closer to 135 grams. The Romans salted their greens, believing this to counteract the natural bitterness, which is the origin of the word salad ("salted"). When the Romans took over the Phoenician salt fish trade, they discovered how to make their purple dye, which became a luxury item of such prestige that the color purple became a way of showing wealth and power. A logical by-product of fish salt, the dye was produced by salting murex, a Mediterranean mollusk.

Cheese: The origin of cheese is uncertain. It may be as old as the domestication of animals. The habit of carrying liquids in animal skins may have caused the first cheeses, since milk coming into contact with an animal skin will soon curdle. The Latin word for a wooden cheese mold, forma, is the root of the Italian word for cheese, formaggio. The difference between fresh cheese and aged cheese is salt. It is the presence of salt throughout France that has made it the land of 265 kinds of cheese.

Cabbage: A food that typifies the French love of salt is the choucroute of Alsace and Lorraine. Choucroute, a mixture of salted cabbage, juniper berries and peppercorns, appears to have evolved from German sauerkraut, but the French argue that the Chinese first salted cabbage. The Romans ate salted cabbage, and Cato is claimed to have credited his fathering of 28 children to eating cabbage with salt and vinegar. In 19th-century Russia, sauerkraut was valued more than caviar. In 19th-century America, caviar was served as a free bar snack.

Sauces: The idea of producing saltiness without the direct use of salt is Asian. Historians debate exactly why food in China is seasoned with products fermented or pickled in salt, and not with grains of salt added directly to food. In 18th-century England, anchovy sauce became known as ketchup, katchup, or catsup. Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. The English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, are based on Asian ideas. Until modern times salt provided the principle way to preserve food.

Salt on the high seas: Corned beef gets its name from salt-corns being any kind of small bits, in this case salt crystal. For the British, salt was regarded as of strategic importance because salt cod and corned beef became the rations of the British Navy.

Desperately seeking salt: Almost no place on earth is without salt. This was not clear until revealed by modern geology, and so for all of history until the 20th century, salt was desperately searched for, traded for, and fought over. Salt became one of the first international commodities of trade. Its production was one of the first industries, and inevitably the first state monopoly.

Fossil fuels: Salt is a chemical term for a substance produced by the reaction of an acid with a base. Oil, gas, or both are frequently found next to salt. Because salt is impenetrable, organic material gets trapped next to the salt and slowly decomposes into oil and gas.

Other uses: There are 14,000 uses for salt, including the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, melting ice from winter roads, fertilizing agricultural fields, making soap, softening water, and dying textiles. In the US, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 50%, is for de-icing roads.

Salty rumors: Salt is often associated with fertility. This may have come from the observation that fish, living in the salty sea, have far more offspring than land-based animals. Ships carrying salt tended to be overrun by mice, and for centuries it was believed that mice could reproduce without sex, simply by being in salt. The Romans called a man in love salax ("in a salted state"), which is the origin of the word salacious.

Spiritual beliefs: In the Pyrenees, bridal couples went to church with salt in their left pockets to guard against impotence. In Germany, the bride's shoes were sprinkled with salt. In France, until the practice was abolished in 1408, children were salted until they were baptized. In parts of Europe, especially Holland, the practice was modified to placing salt in the cradle with the child. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans invoked gods with salt and water, which is thought to be the origin of Christian holy water. Many indigenous North American cultures have a salt deity, almost always a female. Evil spirits detest salt. In traditional Japanese theater, salt was sprinkled on the stage before each performance to protect the actors from ominous powers. In Haiti, salt is the only earthly substance that can break a spell and bring a zombie back to life.

Salt paths: The secondary (local) roads of North America are simply widened footpaths and trails originally cut by animals looking for salt. The early settlers of New England ate a lot of salted, smoked red herring. When the settlers went hunting, they would leave red herrings along their trail because the strong smell would confuse the wolves. This is the origin of red herring, meaning "false trail." As on the Italian peninsula, all the great centers of civilization on the American continent were founded in places with access to salt.

Early America: The typical colonial New England house, the New England saltbox, got its name from being shaped like the salt containers that were in every home. Early Virginians built a cottage industry on salted pork. By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia hams were internationally famous. In 1858, the principal salt states of the South were Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, and Texas.

Cape Cod: In Cape Cod, the water on both the bay side and in Nantucket Sound is even saltier than that of the open Atlantic. In the 1770's, Reuben Sears, a Cape Cod carpenter, invented a roof that slid open and shut on oak rollers, allowing sea salt to now be made efficiently from March until November. When clouds darkened the daytime sky, men and women ran out to roll the roofs closed. Children would be sent home from schools to help roll out the roofs, and the coastline would rumble like nearby thunder from the sound of hundreds of oak wheels. In 1837, Cape Cod's 658 salt companies produced 26,000 tons of salt per year. By 1849, saltworks were being broken up and sold for lumber. Those boards, used to build storage sheds, were still leaching salt crystals 100 years later.

Louisiana: Tabasco sauce is made from salt on Avery Island, Louisiana, which sits on a bed of solid, pure salt, over forty feet deep. Although it is the site of a prehistoric saltworks, the island's salt supply was unknown until the island's owners discovered it in the 19th century, and made a fortune on the subsequent saltworks that they founded. When the market for salt foundered, they used the salt to transform a common seasoning blend in Cajun cooking (red pepper and salt) into Tabasco sauce.

California: San Francisco Bay is one of the oldest saltworks in the American West. Today, when people fly into San Francisco, they can see the pink and brown geometric salt ponds at the end of the bay. In the 19th century, more than a dozen salt companies operated in the southern end of the bay. Today, Cargill is the only salt producer left in the bay.

Utah: The most spectacular salt strike in North America was found in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Brigham Young established his Mormon community there so that Mormons could have economic self-sufficiency. The lake had no outlet and contained highly concentrated brine. Next to it was one of the largest sebkhas ever found: a flat, thick 100-mile-long layer of salt, which became a mainstay of the Mormon economy.

Other states: Cincinnati was built into a major commercial center with salt from Kanawha, Virginia, and pigs from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. By the late 1830s, Cincinnati was packing almost one third of all western American hogs, more than 100,000 hogs per year. Onondaga County, New York, is part of an enormous flat field that stretches across the entire Great Lakes region, providing rock salt mines under the city of Detroit, in Cleveland, and in Ontario. Cargill operates a rock salt mine 1,200 feet below the city of Detroit. It covers more than 1,400 underground acres and has fifty miles of roads.

Finally, it has become stylish to serve food on a bed of salt, cook it in a crust of salt, or make it crunchy with lots of large crystals. More than 1,000 years ago the Chinese were cooking in a salt crust, and chicken cooked in a crust of salt is an ancient recipe attributed to the Cantonese. The recipes below are not included in the book SALT, but they do illustrate unique ways to cook on salt, in salt, and with salt.

SALT: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky
Walker Publishing
Published January 14, 2002

Buy the Book!



Shrimp Roasted on Rock Salt
Brine-cured Pork Tenderloin
Salmon Carpaccio with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
     and Balsamic Vinegar
Whole Salmon Baked In Salt


Kate's Global Kitchen for March 2002:
03/01/02     Salt: The World's Biggest Shaker
03/08/02     Irish Recipes: Old and New
03/15/02     Parsley: The Emerald Herb
03/22/02     Easter: My Ham Glazes Over
03/29/02     Focus on Flavor: When Less Is More


Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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