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Salt 101

From ancient times to the present, the importance of salt to humans and animals has been widely recognized. Thousands of years ago, animals created paths to salt licks, and men followed seeking game and salt. Their trails became roads and beside the roads; settlements grew. These settlements became cities and nations.

Throughout history, salt has always been a precious commodity, often traded ounce for ounce for gold. Jesus called his disciples "the salt of the earth," a statement commemorated during Roman Catholic baptismal ceremonies by placing a few grains of salt on the child's tongue. The first written reference to salt is found in the Book of Job, recorded about 2,250 BC. There are 31 other references to salt in the Bible, the most familiar probably being the story of Lotís wife who was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the angels and looked back at the wicked city of Sodom. The Bible describes God's covenant with Israel as "a covenant of salt forever...." The widespread superstition that spilling salt brings bad luck is believed to have originated with the overturned salt cellar in front of Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper, an incident immortalized in Leonardo Da Vinciís famous painting. The Bible compliments some men as being 'the salt of the earth'.

The main sources of salt in ancient times were dry coastal areas near the Mediterranean. Early trade routes centered on Spain, Italy, Greece and Egypt. Many of the caravan trade routes were developed to transport salt, and Genoa, Pisa and Venice emerged as centers for the salt trade.

The production of salt is thought to have been developed by the Celts who conquered much of Europe, including Rome in 390 BC, France, northern Spain, and the British Isles, from their base territories in lands which are now Hungary, Austria, and Germany. Later, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar conquered most of the Celtic lands, including France which was known as Gaul, from a Greek word hal, meaning salt. The Gauls were the salt people. The Romans returned to Rome with Celtic ham, which became part of the Roman diet.

At the height of their civilization Romans salted their greens to counteract the bitterness, a practice which became the origin of the word salad or salted. Olives, preserved in salt, were a staple of the Roman diet. Salted bluefin tuna was a specialty of Sicily by 241 BC.

We even know the names of a few of the Roman saltmakers. These are inscribed on some of the lead pans that have been unearthed- Viventius, Veluvius and Cunitus. Complete Roman salt pans are in the Salt Museum and at Nantwich Museum. The leaden pans were roughly 90-100cm square by 15cm deep. Romans were intent of building a great empire. Salt was required for empire. One great Roman road was the called Via Salaria, the Salt Road.

Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt money, salarium argentum. It is said to be from this that we get the word soldier - 'sal dare', meaning to give salt. From the same source we get the word salary, 'salarium'. Hence "salary" and "worth his salt." To sit above or below the salt identified precedence in the seating arrangements at a feast, according to one's rank. Not to be worth one's salt was a great insult.

Romans called a man in love "salax," in a salted, hence we get the word, salacious, state. Salt could seem to create life and spur procreation because it could also prevent the decay of death. It could seem a guardian of the living world, holding off the inevitable for a time.

The Roman Republic and Empire controlled the price of salt, increasing it to raise money for wars, lowering it to be sure that the poorest citizens could easily afford this important part of the diet.

At the time of the Roman Conquest, British salt making had been long established at numerous coastal sites and at the inland brine springs of Cheshire and Worcestershire. Salt was a vital commodity to the Roman army and this demand was met by establishing military salt works. At the inland sites the nearly saturated natural brine required much less fuel and time to make salt from than from the evaporation of weakly saline sea water.

The Roman army's advance to the North reached Cheshire by around 60AD and established military bases at Chester (Chrisí fatherís name) and Middlewich. Chester was a supply port (how befitting) and a convenient military base (more irony) from which to gain control of North Wales with its lead and silver mines. At Middlewich a fort was built on a defensive site above the River Dane and this became a staging post on the main military road to the North. At Middlewich the Romans established their saltworks on land by the River Croco (Chrisí brotherís name is CoryÖkind of a stretch, but oh well, we tried) between the military fort and the site of the existing Celtic salt making settlement.

The early Greeks worshipped salt no less than the sun, and had a saying that ďno one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with himĒ (the moral being that by the time one had shared a peck of salt with another person, they would no longer be strangers). Salt is described as divine by Homer, while Plato calls it especially dear to the gods and angelic (Chrisí momís name is Angela).

Ancient Britons carried their crude salt by pack train from Cheshire to Southern England where they often were forced to delay their journey until the high tides of the Thames River subsided. A village known as Westminster grew up there and Westminster became London. Any town in England that ends in ''wich'' produced salt. Alsace translates as ''land of salt,'' and Salzburg is literally ''salt town.'' All were sources of a substance as essential to life on earth as water and air.

The early Chinese used coins made of salt and in Europe many Mediterrean people used cakes of salt as currency. Genoa used salt to make salami, which they traded for silk and spices. Meanwhile, Venice was building a trading empire of its own, using subsidies to salt producers. In Japan and Africa it warded off evil spirits while in Germany, brides' shoes were sprinkled with it. In Haiti it was thought to bring zombies back to life and in Egypt celibate priests abstained from salt because it was thought to excite sexual desire (hmmm, is there a strange parallel here?).

Salt has greatly influenced the political and economic history of the world. Every civilization has had its salt lore - fascinating superstitions and legends that have been handed down, sometimes reverently and sometimes with tongue-in-cheek. The purifying quality of salt has made it a part of the rituals in many religious ceremonies.

According to an old Norwegian superstition, a person will shed as many tears as will be necessary to dissolve the salt spilled. An old English belief has it that every grain of salt spilled represents future tears. The Germans believe that whoever spills salt arouses enmity, because it is thought to be the direct act of the devil, the peace disturber. The French throw a little spilled salt behind them in order to hit the devil in the eye, to temporarily prevent further mischief. In the United States, some people not only toss a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder, but crawl under the table and come out the opposite side.

Throughout history, salt has been bartered and taxed. Wars have been fought over it, and lost because of a lack of it. According to some historians, Napoleon retreated from Russian partly because he lacked salt for his troops and horses.

Colonial America got most of its salt from England and with the onset of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin made a secret deal with Bermuda to supply salt to the American forces.

The United States has had its own battles over salt. In 1777, Lord Howe made a successful attempt to capture General Washington's stock of salt. Many battles and treaties took place before Western salt licks were free to be used by settlers. In 1783, after the war had been won, salt works were set up along the Atlantic Coast. During the War of 1812 with England, it became very difficult to obtain salt from abroad. Because of this, commercial production of salt began in Syracuse, New York, where major salt deposits were found, thus providing one of the main reasons for the construction of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. As early as 1848, the canal was known as "the ditch that salt built."

The war George Washington led for independence from England was partly incited by salt shortages. When the end of the Revolutionary War brought an embargo on British goods, the price of salt jumped from 50 cents a bushel to $8. Several states began paying bounties to salt producers, leading to the creation of large evaporation ponds along the coast that became known as the lazy man's gold mine.

During the Civil War, Syracuse production freed the North of all salt problems, but by 1863, Southerners could not buy salt at any price. If the South had been able to protect its salt factories in Virginia and its salt deposits along the Louisiana gulf coast, the War between the States might have ended differently.

The British in India imposed a harsh and onerous salt policy, enacting laws that forbade Indians not only from manufacturing but even gathering their own salt. This led to Gandhi's famous 1930 march to a seaside salt pan to scoop up salt in defiance of the British. The chief reason behind this seemingly senseless policy was Britain's desire to protect its salt industry by forcing Indians to purchase salt imported from Cheshireówhere, ironically, extensive salt mining had actually eroded the ground to such an extent that buildings and houses were leaning and sometimes collapsing into the streets.

In Michigan, a huge sea covering the region evaporated more than 400 million years ago, forming salt deposits which were gradually buried by glacial activity. This salt bed spreads over 170,000 square miles under Michigan, Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.

Even today, salts are among the most important chemical compounds. They are used in making many industrial and agricultural chemicals. Sodium chloride is used in making chemicals needed in the manufacture of rayon, soap, and other products. Salt ammonium nitrate is used in fertilizers. Some metals, including sodium and potassium are extracted from salts.

Liquid bleach was only possible once the chemistry of sodium was unraveled. Tabasco was what the McIlhenny family came up with when their salt-mining business dried up after the Civil War. Parmesan cheese needs weeks of immersion in a salt bath to acquire its characteristic texture and flavor.

A booklet produced in 1920 by the Diamond Crystal Salt Company of St. Clair, Mich., listed a mere 101 uses, from ''keeping the colors bright on boiled vegetables'' to ''making ice cream freeze,'' from ''removing rust'' to ''sealing cracks,'' from ''cleaning bamboo furniture'' to ''killing poison ivy.'' And that's not to mention all the medicinal applications, like treating ''dyspepsia, sprains, sore throats and earaches.''

Salt is present in almost every part of the human body and the fluids it produces, from tears to semen to urine. Sodium is also needed to propel oxygen through the blood and move our muscles, including the heart. Humans simply cannot live without it.

Americans today, with the freshest and broadest food supply in history, eat more than twice as much salt on average as Europeans did at the height of their dependence on food salted for preservation in the centuries before refrigeration.

Although salt throughout history has been a source of wealth, it's no accident that we still use the phrase "back to the salt mines" to summon up an image of extremely hard, thankless physical labor. And indeed, the lot of those who labored in the salt mines was seldom a happy one. Nowadays, the fate of salt has taken an ignominious turn, with its primary use de-icing roads.

Meanwhile, back in the supermarket, the ubiquitous blue canisters of Morton's Salt may not be trendy, but the story of how Joy Morton revolutionized the salt industry, first in 1911 by adding magnesium carbonate to make salt flow more freely (this is why when it rains, Mortonís still poursÖ..HAHAHA!), then in 1924 by adding the nutrient iodine, is an American success story worth telling. Today Morton is the largest salt company in the world.

But hey, WE still make the best BATH SALTS!

Donít you feel a little smarter now?
Salt: a chemical term for a substance produced by the reaction of an acid with a base.

Salt: associated with fertility, used as money in ancient times and today; the impetus for international trade routes; the means to preserving food that led to explorations, settlements, revolutions, and war. The hunt for it led to such discoveries and developments as natural gas, gunpowder, and Tabasco sauce, as well as the success of the American colonists and of Indian independence from Britain.

Salt: "When sodium, an unstable metal that can suddenly burst into flame, reacts with a deadly poisonous gas known as chlorine, it becomes the staple food sodium chloride, NaCl, from the only family of rocks eaten by humans."

Salt: it's one of life's essentials, like air and water; without it, blood turns to sludge, synapses misfire, the brain surrenders.