Consider a life without salt. What would it look like? Would the world be much the same, minus the snack aisle? Would the void be noticeable, a gaping hole in the human experience once filled with giant pretzels, potato chips, salted caramel nitrogen ice cream, and Cheetos? Would we inhabit a less nuanced world dominated by the bitter and the sweet?
There is evidence to suggest we humans would not have a world at all, at least not the one we know. Had we been able to beat off the Neanderthals and survive the last hundred millennia sans America’s favorite spice, we might still be hunter-gatherers with some seasonal farming to stretch things out a bit. Small nomadic groups would outnumber permanent settlements. Life expectancy would be short, and arts such as painting and music might be superfluous to the struggle for survival. Trade between people would be minimal or nonexistent. On one hand, human existence might be pastoral and in much greater harmony with nature than it is today. It could hardly be less. Conversely, there wouldn’t be much joy in Muddville. Chinese restaurants and In-N-Out Burger would be as unattainable as the stars. At least there would be little demand for blood pressure medications.
Salt is not only the strongest and most desirable of all human taste sensations, it is also essential to human life. It is one of our most basic nutrients, responsible for electrolytes and osmotic solute — the passage of molecules through semipermeable membranes, a process crucial to biological stability. Such dependence begs the question: How did man even get out of the trees without a saltshaker in hand?
The meat of mammals and fish contains salt. Therefore, early nomads had no need — beyond excruciating culinary boredom — to season their dinners. The real problem was preservation. Humans had to immediately eat the animals they killed. Cooked meat only lasted a couple days, so the hunt was always on. Early man did a delicate and often fatal dance between the caloric intake and energy expenditure necessary to take down the next mastodon or buffalo. Thus, the absence of retirement villages.
As man settled into agricultural communities, salt was the most fundamental building block. It was no longer used only for the preservation of food stocks and to add a little bit of taste to vegetables and grains. The plants and grains raised by early farmers contained no natural salts. They had to add salt to supplement their diets, without which these early communities would have literally died.
There is archaeological evidence that 8,000 years ago people in what is now Romania and Northwestern China were engaged in the production of salt. It must have been an inevitable progression from there. Once you make more salt than you need, you trade it, sometimes for food, sometimes for that newfangled thingamajiggy. As trade in salt grew, so did population centers. Nomads became the traders between these communities, but ultimately vanished as civilizations took their place. Early Egyptian culture was dependent on salt from the Natron Valley. The Roman civilization had a salt-based economy — its world-conquering legionnaires were often paid in salt, hence the term “salary.” In fact, Rome’s ever-expanding imperialistic thirst was in pursuit of salt and other spices. Those were the riches it wanted in distant lands. Eventually, the Roman Empire became overextended, exposed, and weak. The Roman lust for spice helped lead to the downfall of its empire.
Ergo, salt can also be bad for you.
Rome’s ever-expanding imperialistic thirst was in pursuit of salt and other spices … The Roman lust for spice helped lead to the downfall of its empire.
My earliest Thanksgiving memory is of my uncle, Jim, standing at my grandmother’s kitchen sink drinking glass after glass of water. He was a big man, far bigger than any other adult at the holiday meal, so my 5-year-old mind must have figured that only a person of his stature could possibly hold so much water. I also knew that Uncle Jim had to drive his wife, Beverly, and sons (Kerry, Sean, and Jimmy Jr.) a long way back to La Jolla and probably needed to fill up or risk dying of thirst on the journey.
I now know that Uncle Jim was dealing with the after effects of my grandmother’s cooking. Every dish, with the exception of the Jell-O mold and mincemeat pie (and I’m not even 100 percent sure about those), was essentially a delivery vehicle for salt and butter. The first time my grandmother let me in on her cooking secrets was when she was well over 90 and finally entrusted me with making the holiday dressing. First, she had me melt four sticks of salted butter. Then she had me add a palmful of kosher salt.
As my own cooking evolved and developed, I understood why large-grain kosher salt or gros sel is preferable. A little goes a long way. I learned some obvious lessons about salt. Never salt at the beginning of the cooking process; wait to see how much salt is naturally released from the ingredients. I learned to brine; that is, the mixing of a salt and water solution that, counterintuitively, does not inundate meat with salt, but tenderizes it. I learned to keep a little dish of finishing salt such as French fleur de sel on the table, especially at dinner parties, so guests could enhance my intentional under-seasoning. At this moment, my pantry contains pink Himalayan salt (said to possess myriad health benefits), fleur de sel, sel gris with truffle flakes, kala namak (aka Indian black salt, which is actually kind of pinkish-brown), red Hawaiian alaea sea salt, and, of course, a jumbo box of kosher.
I’m not obsessed, just curious how sodium chloride can have such variations in taste. Turns out salt has an extraordinary range of tastes while still retaining its essential self — its saltiness.
However, of all the things I have learned about salt, the most extraordinary is this: Get yourself a pile of hot, salty French fries. Then get a chocolate milkshake made with super-premium ice cream. Take a sip of said milkshake. Savor the sweet. Now dip a couple fries in the milkshake and eat them. Your salty fries have made your chocolate shake sweeter than before. This isn’t a new thing. Chefs have been salting their desserts for years. Salted caramel as a choice at an upscale ice cream parlor is nearly as ubiquitous as vanilla and has sadly far outpaced pistachio and mint chocolate chip. Still, the same principle applies to them.
So, the lesson is this: Salt makes salty saltier and makes sweet sweeter. What could it do to bitter? Or umami? No, there is no such thing as bittersalt. There are some things that even salt cannot do.
In the pre-Columbian Southwest, many indigenous people made the annual journey to the great salt springs in the southern Mojave Desert to collect the mineral. When the Spanish missions were built, the friars heard about this practice and so joined in on the annual expedition.
It wasn’t until the early 1880s that a San Franciscan named George Durbrow realized there was a gold mine in the salt mine. He’d found that the salt in the present-day Salton Sea was so pure, it didn’t require any of the usual factory treatments. In fact, the only machinery he required was a milling machine, to grind it to varying degrees, and a bagging machine. The New Liverpool Salt Company was granted articles of incorporation in 1885. Durbrow set up his operation with indigenous and Japanese workers. He had easy access to the Southern Pacific Railroad and the supply was nearly inexhaustible. He was well on his way to becoming one of the world’s salt kings.
In 1899 a correspondent for London’s Strand Magazine visited Durbrow’s operation and wrote this: “In Salton Lake, which lies 280 feet below the sea level, the brine rises in the bottom of the marsh from numerous springs in the neighboring foothills, and, quickly evaporating, leaves deposits of almost pure salt, varying from ten inches to twenty inches in thickness, and thus forming a substantial crust. The temperature ranges from 120 to 150 degrees, and all the labour is performed by Coahuilla (sic) Indians, who work ten hours a day, and seem to not mind the enervating heat. In fact, these Indians are so inured to the fatiguing work that they are not affected by the dazzling sunlight, which distresses the eyes of those unaccustomed to it, and compels the use of colored glasses. One of these Indians may be seen sitting on the team-plough show on this page. He is one of a tribe of large and well developed men — peaceable, civilized, sober, and industrious, living in comfortable houses built by the New Liverpool Salt Works, with tables, chairs, forks, spoons, and many of the necessary articles of domestic civilization. He guides his plough over the long stretches of salt, running lightly at first over the surface to remove any vestiges of desert sand blown from far away, and then setting the blades to run six inches deep in furrows eight feet wide. Each plough harvests daily over 700 tons of pure salt, which is then taken to the mill to be ground and placed in sacks.”
Twenty years later, flooding from the Colorado River inundated Durbrow’s operation and buried the treasure. The flood lasted over two years before it was contained. A year after the initial flood, the San Francisco earthquake wiped out all of Durbrow’s real estate holdings. In one year he fell from Salt Baron to ruined man. By 1908, neither the Liverpool’s mill nor its smokestacks were visible. The sea had swallowed them. It’s not inconceivable that as the sea evaporates further, future visitors may see remnants of Durbrow’s salt empire, half submerged and useless along with the other century’s worth of salt-encrusted detritus that has collected along the shores of the increasingly briny sea.
“In Salton Lake, which lies 280 feet below the sea level, the brine rises in the bottom of the marsh from numerous springs in the neighboring foothills, and … leaves deposits of almost pure salt.”
Though medieval European peasants may be responsible for the superstition that spilled salt is bad luck (a theory developed during a time when its value was dear and spilling it was probably akin to throwing coins into the sea), it was Leonardo da Vinci who turned the waste of salt into a spiritual matter. In his painting The Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is seen seated at a table in front of a bowl of salt he has evidently spilled. Whether Leonardo adapted existing folklore or created the connection, spilled salt became associated in the Western world with treachery and deception. Spilling salt literally invited the devil into the room and, like all evil treacherous beings, he approached one stealthily from behind. To forestall the devil’s advance, one took a pinch of spilled salt and threw it backwards over the shoulder into the devil’s eye to blind him.
In addition to warding off the devil, salt has a number of nonculinary uses. As a kid, I knew whenever my father was getting a sore throat. He’d stand at the kitchen sink and gargle with glass after glass of water into which he’d mixed several tablespoons of kitchen salt. Ditto: Whenever my sister or I lost a tooth, we were required to gargle with salt water. Years later, as a high school athlete subjected to lengthy workouts before and after classes, I often fell asleep at night in bathwater mixed with Epsom salts.
It would seem, then, there’s little salt can’t do. But there’s a dark side to salt. Table salt (which contains dextrose, a sugar) is the sworn enemy of every cardiologist. Over salting can cause the delectable to be inedible. And what about the phrase “taking it with a grain of salt”? It’s actually a very ancient bit of wisdom meaning that, like food, a falsehood or suspicious piece of intelligence is more easily swallowed if sprinkled with salt. Likewise, Pliny the Elder advised that the best antidote for poisoning involved fasting and the occasional grain of salt.
A little more than a century before Pliny, Roman General Scipio Africanus utilized salt for a slightly different kind of wound. After defeating and destroying the city of Carthage, he ordered the ground on which the city had stood to be plowed under and sown with salt so that nothing would grow there ever again.
It’s a thought that brings me back to the Salton Sea. The salt content of the sea has risen to the point where it can no longer support life. From the heady days of 60 years ago when it was being touted and sold as America’s great new holiday playground to now when towns like Bombay Beach and the shoreline are living glimpses into a post-apocalyptic world, salt would appear to be a relentless destroyer.
I am not of that mind. It is the absence of water and not the presence of salt that’s the killer. In the case of our local sea, salt is the transitional and transformational mineral. Below the surface of the water, there is a massive salt flat forming. Once the tap of the Colorado River has been turned off for good and the sea left to dry and disappear, there will remain a massive salt flat that will rival Bonneville in Utah.
True, as with Carthage, nothing will ever grow there again. Fish won’t swim and birds won’t land and grass won’t grow. Machines will appear. Not the grinding factories of New Liverpool, but motorcycles and cars and other vehicles not yet invented. And they’ll use the flats to set records and go incredibly fast. And salt will have one more use.