Everything You Never Knew: Salt Edition

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Well, actually I finished it this past weekend – huzzah! The book was a fairly dense history of salt production and the political implications of it as a controlled government commodity, spanning ancient China to modern day America, but what I loved about it was that sprinkled into this history were some really, really interesting facts. It was part history, part science, part geology. In deeming it “dense” I don’t mean  to suggest that it reads like a sterile textbook, quite the opposite! I’m as surprised as anyone that I was enraptured by a 400 page book on salt, which should say something about the book and its writer. Thanks, Mark!

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share some of the fun, fascinating notes I jotted down as I was reading. So, here it goes…

  1. Salt is a chemical term for any substance produced by the reaction of an acid with a base. I hadn’t really considered it as a general term, though it makes sense knowing there are many kinds of salt: sodium chloride (our favorite culinary staple), potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, etc. After my fingers rattled through this list I did a brief internet search, asking the almighty search engine “Are all salts chlorides?” After 30 seconds of reading results, I will tentatively say no. Sodium Bisulfate, for example, is a common salt used in bleach.
  2. Fermentation with salt yields pickled goods; fermentation without salt yields alcohol. So, don’t spill salt in your grape juice if you want wine. (I feel like there’s a parable in that. Working on it…)
  3. Drilling the first salt mines in China led to the accidental discovery of natural gas. Workers were becoming ill and losing consciousness by some unknown, invisible substance, and then someone thought to set it on fire, which seems like a counter-intuitive natural instinct…the whole setting fire to unknown things, I mean.
  4. When the Romans took over the Phoenician salt fish trade, the stumbled upon a way to make a purple dye. The purple dye was a byproduct of salting a specific kind of Mediterranean mollusk, but because it was so difficult to extract it was a luxury item, which is how it became the color of royalty. Julius Caesar declared that only his household could wear purple togas, and Cleopatra dyed the sails of her warship purple.
  5. In royal houses, usually only the king and/or esteemed guests were seated next to the saltcellar (fancy bowl that held salt to be used on food at the table). Always on the ready to be poisoned, kings also kept mythical “unicorn horn” powder next to their plates, a rumored antedote for poison. The “unicorn horn” powder was usually made from narwhal horn. Close enough?
  6. “The medieval French, like the Chinese, believed that the presence of women could be destructive to fermentation. In France, a menstruating woman is said to be en salaison, curing in salt. It was dangerous to have a woman in a room full of fermenting food when she herself was in fermentation. ‘It will spoil the lard,’ people would say.” Ladies, next month let’s all say we’re pickling eggs, e.g. “What is wrong with you, why are you so emotional and bloated?” “Geez, I’m pickling eggs. Get off my brine barrel already!”
  7. I remember my grandmother saying that when she was a kid it was illegal to sell margarine that had already been colored yellow like butter, so when they got margarine they’d have to stir in the little yellow packet of added color themselves. In early England, butter was popular in the North, where it was colder and wouldn’t go rancid, but everyone wants butter (duh). However, butter in the warmer Southern climate would go rancid. In rancid butter the carotene is destroyed, rendering it white, so yellow flowers were kept salted and then beaten to extract the color. The extract was then added to the rancid butter to be sold. This practice was eventually outlawed, though it does beg the question: wouldn’t rancid butter have smelled, well, rancid? Did the rancid butter sellers only set up near shit’s creek or something?
  8. In the 17th century it was discovered that salted anchovies melted into a sauce, and was used on meat and other dishes. In the 18th century this anchovy sauce became known as ketchup/catsup/katchup, derived from the name of an Indonesian fish and soy sauce (kecap). English and Americans moved away from using fish in their ketchup, using mushrooms, walnuts, and even lemons, before Americans started using tomatoes. This sauce was designated as “tomato ketchup”, and the first known recipe comes out of, wait for it, New Jersey in or before the 1780’s.
  9. The Dead Sea. How have I not thought about this before, and why have I not been saving my money to go float in this super buoyant wonderland?!?
  10. America is currently the largest salt producer and consumer in the world, but only 8% of all its produced salt is used for food. Our biggest usage? At 51%, the single largest usage is deicing roads.

*Photo credit: kevinv033


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