Sunday, October 18, 2009


Photo Caption: A hand-built stone cairn and nesting kettles near the town of
Seaside, Oregon mark the salt works which made the survival
of the Lewis & Clark Expedition possible.

It’s found in every home, can be purchased for pennies today, and is so commonly available that its historic value is all but lost in a long-forgotten history. Yet armies have clashed, kingdoms have risen and fallen, Empires lived and died because of it; merchant fleets been launched to trade in it, and distant shores explored in search of it. Access to it had the power to dramatically change human culture and the everyday life of people and even to influence the movement and settlement of entire populations.
Roman soldiers were paid in it, many illnesses were treated with it, and the liturgy of most religions were dependent upon it. And perhaps more important than all of this, the human family was finally able to store animal protein from one season to another, undertake travel over great distances with safe and reliable food supplies and extend the level of health and the duration of life itself.
Chemists identify it as sodium chloride, but to all of us, it is known merely as salt. It is so much a part of life, that to say it is taken for granted is a magnificent example of “understatement”. So universal was its value, that Roman soldiers of Ceasar’s legions were happy to be paid in it wherever they served. It’s probably from that humble beginning that we still use the word “salary”, or sometimes wonder if a person’s work ethic is “worth his salt”. Words such as “savor” and “salvation” are anchored to the old Latin “salarium”,and references to salt abound in the Bible.
Salt’s ability to preserve food, even more than its desirability as a flavor enhancer undergirded its world-wide value. In the days of the late Roman Empire, highways of commerce connected salt beds to the outside world: caravans made up of as many as 40,000 camels regularly crossed the 400 miles of Sahara emptiness to major trade centers such as Timbuktu. Small towns blessed with salt beds often became large cities, such as Saltzburg in Austria, and Cadiz in Spain, of which it was said “if there was no salt there would be no Cadiz”. Across England, towns near salt deposits were distinguished with the suffix “-wich”, thus places such as Norwich, Middlewich and Nantwich are accorded special mention in the Domesday Book. In pioneer America, salty creek banks were gathering places for wild game, and later for cattle, leaving a legacy of settlements with names like Beaver Lick and Lick Fork, Kentucky, and Big Bone Lick and Lick Lizard, North Carolina.
Long before the arrival of the Mayflower Pilgrims and other colonists on the New England shores, American coastal waters were well-known to European sailors. The abundance of fish on the Grand Banks and the Atlantic Shelf became a magnet to seafarers, and expeditions from Spain, England, France and Portugal had been tapping that largesse for more than a hundred years before the Plymouth Colony. (And that’s not counting Viking visits which probably date back to the year 1000 AD.) The weeks-long voyage from Cape Cod back to their home ports absolutely depended on the preservation of the cargo. The growth of the fishing industry was tied directly to, and in fact resulted from, the availability of salt. Religious practices also played a part. During the 16th and 17th centuries, European Catholics observed more than 120 “fast days” per year – that is days on which fish was the main dish. Result: Salt and codfish became one universally-recognized food staple. . . “salt cod”.
It is no accident that the first attempts at colonization along our northern shores were English. British fishermen were denied easy access to the salt flowing from Cadiz, and so were forced to come ashore in order to dry or smoke their catch, thereby making friends with native Americans, and learning of the conifer and oak forests which covered the land. It can be said that salt is a principle reason why the dominant language and culture of this country became English rather than French or Spanish.
I thought of all this on a recent visit to the Northwest, and a seaside stone cairn near Astoria, Oregon at the opposite end of the continent we call home. On January 2nd, 1806, a small group of men of the Lewis and Clark expedition were dispatched to that very spot for the purpose of establishing a salt works, where they could trap and boil down seawater. Not only had members of that “Corps of Discovery” become restive over the blandness of the food they had been forced to live on, but a fresh supply of salt was absolutely essential for the preservation of game and fish on the return trek ahead of them. Diary entries tell us that they celebrated the production of “three bushels” of salt in that encampment, at a moment in history when the rest of the nation did not even know if the expedition was still alive. As they had to ancient peoples, those glistening crystals must have seemed to them more precious than gold.

Note: The November 4th column of HOME COUNTRY will conclude this story of Salt, examining some of the 14,000 ways in which we make use of it today.

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