Sin and Salvation: For centuries, salt has been both
After my husband had blood pressure issues, he requested we rethink the use of salt, which I did since I want to keep him. I love salt way more than sweet stuff, but it became The Evil Seasoning. We carefully read tedious ingredient listings and drastically cut back on salt, substituting other spices and citrus for flavor. And gradually food tasted almost normal after we brainwashed ourselves and our taste buds. I chanted the mantra “You can add salt but can’t take it out”—but in my heart knew salt works magic in the cooking process.
The Joy of Cooking, my culinary bible, advises it be added at the start of cooking for evaporating liquid when creating “soups, stocks, and sauces” and adds that salt “firms” up veggies cooked in water and “draws moisture from meats and fish,” enhancing texture. To myself I muttered, “Adjust, adjust, adjust” while thinking how it boosts flavors, which is obvious when biting into Lindt’s dark chocolate bar with sea salt (OMG!).
I’d never risk my husband’s health or argue the salt issue with doctors, but is NO SALT the ultimate prescription? We are salt (think “blood, sweat and tears”) and need it to maintain various bodily functions (cellular hydration, processing nutrients, communication from nerves to heart muscles). And now murmurs have started in the medical community. “They” now say we can’t survive on the skimpy grains of salt recommended in the strictest salt diets and add that each individual body has individual saline needs, so take restrictions with a grain of salt.
Prehistoric man, oblivious to salt restrictions, turned omnivore instead of carnivore, reducing his salt intake as slurping animal blood decreased. He craved the elusive nutrient. A dim light flickered in his mind when he saw that more instinctive animals were drawn to briny salt licks. Following their worn paths, he began the quest for salt, which continued for millennia and shaped civilization. Paths became roads, and communities sprouted near accessible salt found in salt licks, brine leaks from underground seas, and salt caverns. Prehistoric man’s discovery of fire sparked the process of brine evaporation in a pan over flames for salt. Salt-centered communities grew into towns, cities, states and empires as salt directed communal history.
Everyone wanted salt to satiate cravings, to flavor and preserve foods, and to heal wounds. Salt’s ability to thwart decay made man less dependent on Mother Nature’s whims and more mobile with the first “to go” salted and preserved meals. And the Egyptian mummies? Heavily salted. A preservative against the corruption of decay, salt became symbol and metaphor for purification and protection from evil, or salvation, in diverse religions including Old and New Testament Christianity, and played a central role in a myriad of religious rituals.
Centuries before industrialized salt mining evolved, demand for salt exceeded supplies, and the value of “white gold” was exorbitant across populated continents. Savvy rulers, knowing that he who has what others want/need has power, sought it by acquiring salt and manipulating supplies, as Roman emperors did to finance wars to expand the Empire. To get to power’s saline source, they built the Via Salaria (Salt Road) between Rome and the super salty Adriatic Sea as others did the same worldwide. A salt road ran from Morocco through the Sahara to Timbuktu, a thriving African trade center for salt, slaves and gold. One source tells of “caravans of as many as forty thousand camels” trekking across the Sahara carrying salt while fleets of ships carried it across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The wealth of opulent cities like Venice was built on salty foundations.
Not surprisingly, salt itself was used as currency; an ounce of salt equaled about an ounce of gold. A good slave bought with salt was “worth his salt” as were Roman soldiers who were paid a salarium, from which our word salary was coined.
Because of its value as currency, preservative, and essential nutrient, salt fostered wars, accompanying military history from ancient times when Assyrians practiced “salting the earth” to assure no rebuilding on conquered land. Empires rose and toppled due to salt. Venice, at the head of the Adriatic Sea, fought Genoa over control of the Adriatic salt trade and won a fortune in salt, which it traded for exotic eastern spices worth another fortune.
The sixteenth-century kingdom of Poland was founded on its salt mines but fell when Germans imported superior sea salt. Taxation of salt, initiated by ancient Chinese, was practiced by Roman, Spanish, Russian, British and French governments, causing major revolts. France began its tax on salt (called the Gabelle) in 1286, which mushroomed until the French Revolution, caused in part by royalty’s salty stinginess: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—et Sel!” The tax was later revived.
The Salt War of 1540 with Perugia versus the Papal States was a failed rebellion against salt tax, as was the Moscow Salt Riot of 1648, but Gandhi’s 1930 salt march to the sea was a successful protest against British salt tax and British rule. Even if not the cause of conflict, salt affected wars. Napoleon, who reinstated the Gabelle, learned the true power of salt when his troops were decimated on the retreat from Moscow because of salt deficiency causing wounds not to heal and low disease resistance. In our American Revolution—caused by a tax not on salt, but tea—British strategy was to intercept the colonies’ imported salt, which would negate preservation of foods. Closer to home, wily Grant attacked Confederate salt sources in Avery Island, Louisiana and Saltville, Virginia to deplete salt supplies. In response, Jefferson Davis offered men a choice between fighting and operating coastal salt pans. Such was salt and life before industrialized mining of subterranean deposits from dried up seas made salt readily available in the nineteenth century.
Now salt is cheap at the nearest Piggly Wiggly. There on the shelves is the iconic little yellow umbrellowed girl that was trademarked by Morton’s when the company added a de-clumper to it. A strange type of salt snobbery has re-evolved with the use of sea salts with exotic names from exotic locales in exotic hues of pink, red, black, and gray from mineral traces or algae in sea water—harking back to those long ago days when salt was a sign of affluence and sophistication, and dinner guests’ social status was evident from where they sat in relation to the salt cellar within the host’s reach: a place “above the salt” was for honored upper crust guests, and “below the salt” indicated insignificance.
As for me, I’ll take my salt in any form, believing “Salt is what makes things taste bad when it isn’t in them.” (anonymous). I won’t, however, repeat it in earshot of my dear, desalinated husband.