Salt!

Mary Jo here to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about salt. <G>

Salt is so common it’s almost invisible.  It’s in every kitchen, Historically it has been vital for preserving food as well for seasoning.  Salt is a flavor-enhancer and makes many foods taste better, which is why processed food is so often very salty and these days a lot of people have to watch their salt intake for health reasons. Hence the ‘you can’t eat just one potato chip’ syndrome. (Picture by Ludwadlin Bosman, Unsplash.)

Salt is essential for humans because it’s an electrolyte that balances nerve and muscle functions.  It’s also one of the five basic taste sensations along with sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Natural food doesn’t usually contain enough salt for us so it’s a supplement we need to ingest.

There is evidence of human salt harvesting processes dating back to about 6000 BC.  How did early humans learn they needed salt? Clearly there is some kind of instinct because all kinds of animals crave salt and there are natural salt licks all over the world.

Because it’s essential, there have been wars fought over salt supplies. It’s been a vital trade commodity all over the world and profoundly affects economies.  Salted meat and fish have been vital for travelers, especially those at sea. Communities with good supplies of salt prospered.

The German word for salt is “salz.”  Hence Salzburg, which is known as the birthplace of Mozart, but the name means “salt castle” and comes from the local history of salt mining.

Evaporation of sea water is a source of salt. Years ago we had a winter holiday in Salt Cay, a small island in the Turks and Caicos group.  (Picture at left) Salt had been the major industry for three centuries with sea water allowed into shallow salt ponds where salt would be harvested after the water evaporated.  According to Wikipedia, “It was Turks and Caicos salt that George Washington needed to preserve the food for his army during the American Revolutionary War and that the Canadian and American fishing fleets used to salt down their catches.

Here’s a picture of San Francisco Bay salt ponds which were first created during the Gold Rush days to supply salt for the rapidly growing population and for food preservations. They were created in East Bay wetlands and different algae and bacteria turned some of the ponds exotic colors. They are now being returned to natural wetlands, which are home to many species of birds and wildlife.

I learned an interesting thing on our Salt Cay trip: Singer Jimmy Buffet was known for his songs of island escapism, and one of his songs is called “Son of a Son of a Sailor Man.”  This is literally true.  Jimmy Buffet’s grandfather, also named James Buffet, was a sea captain from Newfoundland who made many voyages to Salt Cay to pick up cargoes of salt to carry back to the mainland.

Now salt is widely available, with table salt sold in every grocery store.  Crystals are small and usually trace amounts of anti-caking materials are added so salt will flow freely. Table salt is often supplemented with elements such as with iodine, a trace element humans need.  Larger crystal kosher salt is often used in cooking, and numerous specialty sea salts can be bought in collections on etsy.com.  Himalayan salt is prettily pink. (Picture by Jane Gonzalez, Unsplash)

There is also a whole category of the snack industry described as “Salty snacks,” which brings us back to those easy to nibble potato chips! Processed foods often have added salt so it’s easy to consume too much salt, which can mess with the cardiovascular system.

Salt for human consumption is actually only a small proportion of total salt production since vast amounts are used in industrial and chemical processes, not to mention the de-icing of icy roads and airplane wings.

It has also been used in religious and cultural ceremonies for purification and more all over the world. Salt is also deeply embedded in language and idioms:

Salt of the earth.

Not worth his salt.

Share bread and salt with a stranger.

Have you ever thought much about salt beyond, “Pass the salt shaker, please?”  What thoughts do you have about salt? Sharing those thoughts can be considered a ritual of fellowship right here on this blog!  (Picture at left by Micheile Henderson. Unsplash)

Mary Jo, who likes a good potato chip

22 thoughts on “Salt!”

  1. I am conscious of how much salt I use. I like iodized sea salt. I put a bit of salt in the palm of my hand and use it that way. If I use it more freely from the shaker, it’s still just a small amount. Too much, and it’s overkill. I don’t taste the food, only the salt.

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      • I grew up in the Midwest of the United States, and my mother taught me to always use iodized salt, because otherwise we would not get enough iodine in our diets. My grandmother got the dreaded “goiter “ because of it, according to my mom.

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        • Linda, I grew up in Western New York and heard the same thing. I never saw a goiter, but I faithful buy iodized salt!

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  2. I hear the word “salt” and I think butter and popcorn; French fries; crispy fried chicken; mashed potatoes and gravy; T-bone steak and my mouth starts to water! Alas, I’m at the age where I have to watch my salt intake so I rarely use it anymore and I don’t use it if a recipe calls for it. However, I refuse to give up sweet butter on my breakfast toast and we occasionally have butter popcorn with salt when we watch movies or binge watch a TV series.

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    • Mary Schultz, salt it definitely a flavor enhancer and can be over done! But our bodies need some salt, and used carefully, it should be fine. Less salt makes the natural flavors more prominent, which is often good.

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  4. Gesaltzener post, Mary Jo. (German/Yiddish for salty.) We used table salt when I was growing up for food at table. My mother used Morton’s Kosher Sakt for making meat “kosher.” Nowadays, I only use table salt on a baked potato or an egg. For most of my cooking needs, it’s back to Morton’s Kosher Salt. BTW- there areactually two kinds of kosher salt. The other kind is Diamond Crytal. They’re not interchangeable in a recipe, because each has a different sallinity.

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    • Binnie, I read about the different versions of kosher salt when researching, but decided not to include the information. There is SO MUCH to say about salt! But clearly you know your salt–which sounds like is could be another old sayin!

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  5. I read yesterday that Rome used to reward or pay their soldiers with salt. It was a valuable commodity and could be traded. The article stated that the Latin term for the salt payment is the source of the word “salary”.

    In my family, they tell the story of my great grandmother who, at 24 years old was left alone to deal with the devastation and famine left by Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign in the American Civil War. All crops, food sources, animals and supplies were either destroyed or stolen by the Federal troops. She had children , orphans and old people depending on her to live. The only thing left was the peanuts in the ground that were planted for cattle fodder, fish or game and nuts and berries from the woods. She adapted peanuts as a food source and as a coffee substitute. But the one thing she couldn’t get was salt. ( and medicines). But she remembered the smokehouse that had been destroyed and the fact that her family had smoked and preserved meat in that smokehouse for decades. And to preserve meat they used salt. She and others dug up the dirt from where the smokehouse had stood. She boiled the dirt in water and somehow extracted the salt by straining the dirt from the salt water with old sheets. She saved that water and reboiled it in another pot till salt crystallized . She would also re boil the dirt again. They mined a deep pit from the old smokehouse and it kept them in salt until it became available once again. In the heat of a GA summer you couldn’t work without salt and she needed it to preserve fish snd game for winter.

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  6. Mary K, I also came to mention the connection between salt and salary.
    Your great grandmother sounds like a fascinating woman; thanks for sharing a bit of her story. (Peanut coffee is commercially available. We bought some when my husband couldn’t drink coffee for a time. He said that it tasted like burnt water! Coffee from roasted figs, however, he did like.)
    Thank you for a fun post, Mary Jo.

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  7. Great blog, Mary Jo. I am reminded of the Shakespeare’s King Lear who exiled his daughter for saying she loved him “more than salt”, which he found not sufficiently flattering.

    On another note, I read recently that potassium enriched salt could help reduce blood pressure and tasted much the same as ordinary salt. There’s a link here, but it’s an Australian site and you might not be able to read it. https://theconversation.com/this-salt-alternative-could-help-reduce-blood-pressure-so-why-are-so-few-people-using-it-221409

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    • Anne, I hadn’t remembered my King Lear that well! But the article came up fine. I’ll give potassium enriched salt a try. Thank you.

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  8. We were talking about salt – and how important it is for tortilla chips – the other evening while having dinner with out daughter’s future in laws. I assumed everyone knew that salt used to be a method of payment for Roman soldiers because of how rare and valued it was. I was amazed that my husband and daughter were the only other ones who knew this.

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  9. There’s a down side to salt though. Too much is bad for us especially as we age. The number I heard from my doctor was 2,000 mg a day or less. I said, how much is that? He didn’t know. He’s not a cook 🙂 So I looked it up: it’s one very softly rounded teaspoon. That also includes everything you consume in prepared foods like bread (where salt is part of the rising process) or canned/bottled stuff (salt is also a preservative). We moderns tend to eat too much salt, not too little. We are more dependent on grocery store food, so cutting down on it can be really difficult. I learned to read labels with great attention.

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    • Janice J, you are absolutely correct on all points. Avoiding as many prepared foods as possible it a good place to start. I regularly check sodium levels on prepared foods. Manufacturers love adding salt because it makes mediocre food taste better.

      Reply

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