I’ve written before, about how salt alone can save a dish — most often, cooks at home under-utilize the seasoning. And while salt was known to have a singular source in my growing-up years (a blue cardboard canister bearing an umbrella-laden girl), I now have about four different varieties in my pantry, none of them Morton’s, none of them iodized.

But I had no idea, the importance salt has played in the history of civilization. Sure, I’d heard of spice trading (and who doesn’t visualize a scene from Dune when you hear that word combination?) — but salt? Really?

I’m currently reading a book with that title (no Angelina Jolie in this one): Salt, a World History by Mark Kurlansky. And before you go thinking that I’ve taken my food-reading to the point of the painfully mundane, here’s an excerpt:

Most Italian cities were founded proximate to saltworks, starting with Rome in the hills behind the saltworks at the mouth of the Tiber… The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.
The Romans salted their greens, believing this to counteract the natural bitterness, which is the origin of the word salad, salted.

That is a count of three very different words that have as their origin a word for salt — and twenty-two more chapters will probably tell me that’s just the beginning.

Another tidbit: in the Roman Empire, as part of the ongoing struggle between haves and have-nots, the privileged patricians “endeavored to keep [poor plebians] excluded. The Roman patrician often tried to keep his privileges by offering lesser rights to plebians. In this spirit, patricians insisted that every man had a right to salt. ‘Common salt,’ as it has come to be known, was a Roman concept.”

Every man had a right to salt. Those Romans. Salt was the way they kept the man down. Kinda crazy, as I drive through streets strewn with the corrosive stuff on a daily basis. Of course, I did hear the mayor of our city recently say, “That’s not salt on the streets. It’s money.” He has no idea how right he would be, had he lived a couple millennia ago.

22 thoughts on “Salt

    1. Nisrine, it can totally ruin a dish, and fast. I agree that most restaurants over-use (probably to hide a lack of flavor in the first place). I think this is one reason home-cooks under-use when cooking, b/c that fear is there (and rightly so).

  1. Great exploration. When I purchased a dehydrator, I looked up the history behind beef jerky. It was also greatly influenced by the production of salt for preserving. Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. Mark, that is a HUGE part of salt’s history — the way it allowed for preservation basically fed the world. You should check out the book — salted fish and meat was the way everyone ate.

      I’ve yet to try jerky in my dehydrator — but I my husband would encourage that exploration.

    1. I’m planning a future post on the importance of salt, and how to get the most out of it (by “planning” and “future” I mean, of course, sometime in 2011).

      Good thing you could give up sugar. That’s a hurdle for most people, and there’s not much, if any, good in the stuff.

  2. kosher salt is my friend. I have seen this book before – very interesting
    On a side note:
    We had a sermon at church about a year ago on “being the salt of the earth”. In short, you must have salt to make things taste good – grits with out salt? what is the point? Salt makes food taste better, it makes you thirst for water (living water) and if you are TOO salty it will drive people away – by leaving a bad taste in peoples mouths. As some one who love to cook this sermon was as clear as I have ever heard.

    1. Dad, I have regular kosher salt, kosher sea salt, fine-grain unrefined sea salt, and refined sea salt.

      What I’d love to add is a good smoked salt, and a really high-quality unrefined sea salt. But those are pricey, and I haven’t bit the bullet since I think I’ll be addicted once I try them.

      1. I’ll send you a link ; )

        Not yet on the truffle oil. We’ve been battling sickness here for so long, it would’ve been drizzled on chicken soup. Probably not the best use.

  3. One of, if not the most fascinating place I have ever been is the area surrounding the salt flats of the Bolivian Altiplano and the salt flats themselves, called Los Salares de Uyuni. Salt is still mined there as it was thousands of years ago. You can even stay at a hotel made entirely of … salt. One morning we watched the sunrise on the flat, and it turned every color of the sunrise, from a little island filled with cactus and Hess weird rabbit creatures. The area is so mineral rich that all the lakes (studded with flocks of pink flamingos) are different bright colors–red, green, blue. Sound surreal? You pretty much feel like you’re walking around a Dali painting! Thanks for prompting a trip down memory lane.

  4. My friend just came back from a trip to Hawaii and brought me back a small pouch of Red Alaea Hawaiian sea salt. It’s a pinkish orangey red color, fairly course and I think its used mostly as a finishing salt. I don’t know much about it though. I can’t wait to use it but I’m waiting for just the right dish to try it with.

  5. Sounds like a book I would enjoy. I actually have always been interested in salt played such a powerful role in history, from the habit of some conquerors to “salt the earth” in a place where they didn’t want their enemies to be able to once again grow crops, to its vital use as a preservative as people explored the world. When I was a kid reading the “Little House” books, I noted how often the family relied on salted meat when wild game wasn’t available.

  6. Found your blog today after it was linked by Erin / Indianapolis Restaurant Scene… I’m so glad to have done so!

    If you’re interested in smoked salt, I make my own on the grill – I just fill up old pie pans or trays and throw it on the grill (in my case, charcoal with soaked hickory chunks – if I had a gas grill, I’d just put pierced foil packets on the elements). I pretty much just leave it on until the fire dies out, sometimes spiking it afterward with things like lemon zest.

    1. Tom, I have never heard of smoking salt on the grill. As soon as we light ours up again (charcoal) I’ll be sure and try it. Thanks for stopping by, and for leaving me with a great idea to ponder as the weather warms.

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