Thu 27 Feb 20 in History Life

Salt, the simplest ingredient


A soldier comes back home after years of building roads, invading new territories and fighting. A certain quantity of salt comes with his payment. A very unusual story for a soldier we might think. But not for a man who was part of a legion in the Roman Empire.

To us in modern days, salt would not hold much value. In the past though, it was a rare commodity. The word salary has been derived from the Latin word salarium and that unusual form of payment.

Essential to life

Salt, sodium chloride, can be found in its natural state in the form of mineral halite, or rock salt. People have been using it for millennia. They have either dug mines for it, or have harvested salt from the sea, by evaporation. Its many uses have kept salt in high demand. It is also essential to life as it regulates fluids in the body, nerves and muscle functions.

Sodium helps control blood pressure and volume, while chloride contributes to the production of stomach acid.  Salt is present in our blood, sweat, and tears, a constant in our body that must be replenished through our diet.

Salt and preservation

Food is the main use of salt, as it is one of the five human basic tastes. Preserving food by using salt has lead to the development of the modern age. That meant people could travel further, explore far off distant lands, on rations easily preserved to last.

Certain foods, such as meat and seafood, already contain salt, so that essential dose for regulating certain body functions was easily obtained from some other sources, than just pure salt, but it isn’t the same for some animals. Hence why farm animals, like horses and cattle, are given supplemental salt in the form of blocks. Other animals in the wild seek out the precious mineral from natural deposits often called salt licks. This is how they get the sodium and chloride to survive.

A dangerous endeavor

Obtaining salt, however, was a dangerous and expensive endeavor before the advent of the industrial revolution, and automated mechanized mining equipment. Salt miners were often slaves or prisoners. Rapid dehydration caused by contact with salt and inhaling of smaller particles caused many deaths. Excessive sodium intake also caused health problems.

 Salt as a symbol of status

Besides the obvious food uses that can be attributed to salt, this simple spice has also found a place in our culture. The origin of the word salary aside, Romans placed salt on the table as more than a basic spice. For them, it was a symbol of status and a sign of wealth. More important guests were seated above the salt, closer to the dominus, the man of the house. 

Salt in our culture

Egyptians used salt in their famous practices of mummification. There are mentions of salt in the Bible. Sodom and Gomorrah had been cleansed with salt and sinners turned to pillars of salt. In many cultures, it is considered a bad omen to spill salt. In others, unbreakable bonds are created by sharing bread with salt.

Shakespeare's King Lear has a story involving salt as a means to show love. A daughter is asked to tell her father how much she loves him. And her reply is as much as the salt in her food. Her father is not impressed by this comparison and as punishment he disowns her. Years later, he attends a wedding feast. He is treated to food without any salt and is thus presented with tasteless meals. This is how he learned the true value of his daughter’s love. The wedding he is attending is in fact, his own daughter’s wedding.

Salt taxes and salty protests

Salt has even made its way into politics. India under Britain’s rule was forbidden by law to produce its own salt, so it was forced to import. There were even salt taxes placed, and after Britain abolished its own tax for a century, they decided to double it in India. Mahatma Gandhi began his 24-day salt march in response to this tax. 80 of his trusted volunteers followed along towards the Indian ocean.  Other people joined in this nonviolent protest at the end of which the spiritual leader bathed in the ocean and let the water evaporate. The incrusted salt was distributed free of tax. A powerful statement made in the simplest form.

From politics to economics, there is no doubt that this simple edible rock has crystallized itself into our culture as well as onto our plates.