The History Of Salt, In A Pinch

Gourmet salts come in many colors
Gourmet salts come in many colors

Most of us take the salt in our shakers for granted. But there is a world of history and tradition in a pinch of salt, a world our Martha Teichner has been mining:

Did you know that a hundred years ago salt shakers were practically non-existent?

That was before 1911, when Joy Morton began adding an anti-clumping agent to salt.

Before Morton's ad agency thought up the little umbrella girl and the slogan "When it rains, it pours," the very idea of tiny, perfectly white, uniformly-sized salt crystals was a revolution.

But as so often happens with revolutions, now, a counter-revolution has begun.

"Right in the center is our Maldon salt, coming from the town of Maldon in Essex County, England."

Salt you can't put in a shaker, in all kinds and colors, is turning up in the fanciest restaurants, like Per Se in New York City, where Olivia Young introduced us to a red salt, "haleakala from Molokai. The middle one is, of course, the black salt. It's Kilauea and it's blended with activated charcoal. And very last is Himalayan salt. It's harvested right in the heart of the Himalayan mountains."

Salt is a substance whose time has come - foodies take note.

Mark Bitterman and his wife, Jennifer, sell ninety varieties of salt at The Meadow, their shop in Portland, Oregon. They carry salt from the Andes to Australia, and he speaks of "some spectacular salts from Japan."

Prices range from $4 to $50 a pound. But they've got one, a rare Korean salt, that's $270 a pound - more than the price of silver!

He also holds … salt tastings.

"What we're going to do tonight is go through a tour and discussion of finishing salts," he said. "One of our favorite things to eat, which is radishes with some butter and a fleur de sel from France. Hot plate-seared hangar steak, take a little bit of the sel gris and sprinkle it on there. You're using the salt to your advantage having it contrast and play off the body of the food, the flavor of the food. And of course if you look at it visually, you're seeing it play off the color of the food."

"So this isn't just elitist, foodie nonsense?" Teichner asked one participant, Susan.

"No, I don't think so, she said. Spencer agreed: "I don't think so."

But Fran Storrs said, "Well, yeah, I think it is!"

Another taster described her sample as "the Marilyn Monroe of salt … no messin' around."

No matter what you call it, it's sodium chloride (NaCl). Its chemical make-up was determined in 1807 by Sir Humphrey Davy, a British scientist doomed to be remembered because of a silly rhyme:

"Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy
And shall live in odium
For having discovered sodium."
Author Mark Kurlansky has written "Salt: A World History" (Penguin).

"I had always wanted to do a book that showed how an item of food becomes a commodity of trade, so it becomes economically important, then it becomes politically important and eventually it becomes culturally important," he told Teichner. "And salt is the greatest example that I can think of because it's universal, it's just everywhere in the world."

The ancient Egyptians salt-cured their fish, and used the same technique to preserve their mummies.

The Romans were big salt-users.

"They used brine as a salad dressing, which is why the word 'salad,' ensalada, all those salad words come from 'sal,' salt," he said. "Archaeologists today, if they look for signs of a Roman presence, they look for salt works. They built salt works wherever they went, so they always had salt. They paid the soldiers in salt."

Which is apparently where the term "worth his salt" came from, and the word "salary" and "soldier."

Salt was what the world used to preserve food before refrigeration, to cauterize wounds.

Wars could be won or lost over salt.

"In the American Civil War, the Union had an on-going policy of depriving the Confederacy of salt," Kurlansky said, "and for all four years of the war intentionally sought out and tried to destroy any salt works in the South."

You can mine salt. Believe it or not, there are salt mines under the cities of Cleveland and Detroit, where huge chunks are blasted loose.

Rock salt can be crushed or dissolved in water. The brine is boiled down and dried into salt mountains, ready to ship.

Sea water is the other major source of salt. Collected into ponds, it evaporates over time. The salt crystals that form are then harvested. The fancy French "fleur de sel" (or flower of salt) is literally scraped off the surface.

Has salt-making changed appreciably since ancient times?

"Well, that's the remarkable thing - it hasn't," Kurlansky said, "especially sea salt. I mean, sea salt is made today the way it was made thousands of years ago."

Sea salt production on the Breton coast of France today is more mechanized, but essentially the same as it was in the late 19th century.

Salt wasn't always readily available or cheap. In medieval Europe it represented a third of the income of Poland's kings. Much of that salt came from an extraordinary mine near Krakow, called Wieliczka.

For close to nine hundred years, miners excavated its fabulous labyrinth of galleries. There are salt chapels, lined with salt sculptures. Imagine the famous and fashionable dancing in underground ballrooms (even the chandeliers) carved entirely out of salt.

Mahatma Gandhi used salt to launch his first major campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. His "Salt March" in 1930 was intended to break the monopoly that Britain's colonial rulers imposed on India.

By picking up a pinch of salt left by the tide, he broke the British law making it a crime to possess salt not obtained from the government monopoly. Within a few days, hundreds of thousands of Indians were wading into bays and inlets filling pans, making salt and selling it.

The British tried to impose a salt monopoly on their American colonies as well, and here too, the response was defiance. Colonists built their own salt works on Cape Cod.

Upstate New York became a major salt-producing region. Taxes on that salt helped finance the Erie Canal built, in part, to keep New York City supplied.

You may not know this, but salt is used in the manufacture of some 14,000 different products, among them rubber, pharmaceuticals, detergents, metals, even leather.

Its biggest use in the U.S. is de-icing roads (salt lowers the freezing point of water).

Who's the number one salt producer in the world? China, just ahead of the United States. Our annual output is 50 million tons.

The average American consumes about 7 pounds of salt a year, nearly double what the government recommends - a recipe for high blood pressure, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Celebrity chef David Burke says, "Our body needs salt. Do we get too much of it because of processed foods? Yeah, but then eat the right salt. Just like anything else, it's necessary."

Burke doesn't just serve salt on food - he serves food on salt.

Saw-cut slabs of Himalayan pink salt - half a billion years old - can be heated in the oven. Your food gets cooked and salted at the same time!

"Picks up the salt pretty good," Burke said. "Because what you're doing is when you have liquid on the marinade it creates a sauce and melts the salt real quick."

Burke is on a one-man mission to get people to stop taking salt for granted. At his flagship restaurant in New York City, David Burke & Donatella, your butter arrives on salt … your bar pretzels sit in salt.

"I'm in the salt business now," said Burke who owns a warehouse in New Jersey , It's called DB Salt. "We've got about 80 thousand tons of salt."

And if your meal needs a little, he'll whip out a salt grater. So if salt really is the next big thing for food lovers, David Burke is ready.

And back in Portland, Oregon at The Meadow, Mark Bitterman has a ready answer for any skeptic who isn't so sure.

"If somebody came to you and said, 'Why should I spend much, much more money to buy fancy salt than going to the store and buying a little cardboard carton,' what would you say?" asked Teichner.

"Because every single thing you eat will taste better," Bitterman said.

"That's a pretty good reason," Teichner laughed.