Food & Drink

Salt: A Salient History

by Giovanna Maselli January 05, 2014
ReadSalt: A Salient History Traced by alchemists as the fifth element after water, earth, fire and air, salt possesses
One of Bolivia's salt mines. (image courtesy Alicia Nijdam via Flickr)

A salt mine in Uyuni, Bolivia. (image courtesy Alicia Nijdam via Flickr)

Traced by alchemists as the fifth element after water, earth, fire and air, salt possesses mystical properties that have been treasured over the centuries, responsible for high commercial, symbolic and religious value. For its ability to protect, purify and heal, salt was offered to the Gods, used to keep evil spirits away, and employed to seal covenants, pacts and marriages as a symbol of loyalty, honesty and perpetuity. Throughout the centuries, dropping salt was considered bad luck, as depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, where an overturned salt cellar lies in front of Judas about to commit treason.

Salt crystals magnified. (image courtesy Tim Simpson via Flickr)

A macro look at salt crystals. (image courtesy Tim Simpson via Flickr)

The Romans said that man can relinquish gold, but not salt. In Latin, words like salus (health), salubritas (wholesomeness) and salutatio (greeting) all stem from the same root of sal, or “salt.” The equivalent word in Celtic, hall, has more than just a homonymic relationship with heil, meaning everything that is sacred and holy. The Celts grasped that salt contains natural electromagnetic frequencies similar to those in all organ and cellular life. In geology, pure crystal salt is still denominated halite, “vibrant light.”

A worker collecting salt in Bolivia. (image courtesy Filip Gierlinski via Flickr)

A worker breaking up a mound of salt collected in the Bolivian salt flats. (image courtesy Filip Gierlinski via Flickr)

As with contemporary conflicts over oil, the history of human civilization is entwined with the story of salt and the many wars over the possession of saline artesian wells. As early as 6,000 B.C., China’s oldest salt lake, Yuncheng, became the ground for countless battles. Power over salt supplies meant power over people and enemies by regulating access to food and the ability to preserve it. British strategy during the Revolutionary War included deploying loyalists to restrict American rebels’ access to salt supplies. While the French Revolution was triggered in part by the gabelle, an onerous tax imposed on the mineral. To protest British monopoly on the salt trade in India, Mahatma Gandhi marched to the sea in 1930, becoming an everlasting symbol of independence.

Floating in buoyant Salt Lake, Utah, circa 1965. (image courtesy Rick Pilot via Flickr)

Staying afloat in Salt Lake, Utah, circa 1965. (image courtesy Rick Pilot via Flickr)

Before the advent of refrigeration and canning, as well as advances in the meatpacking industry during the 19th-century, almost all food was preserved with salt to varying degrees. The mineral was not the ubiquitous substance we sprinkle over our food, readily available in stores for less than a dollar a pound, but a rare element highly regarded for its powerful qualities. Salt has long been deemed a necessary nutrient and a natural resource essential for the survival of all species on earth, along with its source: water. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “There must be something strangely sacred in salt. It is in our tears and in the sea.”

Death Valley's salt flats in California. (image courtesy Vadim Kurland via Flickr)

The salt flats of Death Valley National Park, California. (image courtesy Vadim Kurland via Flickr)

Nowadays, with the evolution of modern food markets, the use of salt is a matter of choice, rather than a political power play. If anything, we are meant to curb our consumption or avoid it altogether. But what is sold as ordinary table salt is actually a chemical compound closer to an industrial product than a food source.

Unrefined, raw salt is made from evaporating seawater with minimal processing techniques or drilling mountain basins that are millions of years old and therefore rich in minerals. Table salt, on the other hand, is treated with additives that remove all the minerals, leaving the substance in its sodium chloride form (NaCl), which is then enriched with iodine, sugar and anti-caking agents to prevent clumping. We crave salt because of all the essential minerals it contains, like magnesium and potassium, so often eating its refined version leaves our craving unquenched. In comparison, most unprocessed sea salts have a high mineral and vitamin content – the richest of which is Himalayan. All salts contain the same amount of sodium, but the raw natural form has a more robust flavor, thus less is needed. Everything, it seems, should be taken with a grain of salt.

From Himalayan Pink Salt to the standard Table Salt, which kind are you sprinkling over your meal? Do you taste a difference? 

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