Saturday, February 5, 2011

Salt of the Earth

SALT is a mineral (sodium chloride, NaCl) that most forms of terrestrial life need to survive. The idiom that means you are "entitled to live" is "to be worth your salt." Several cultures welcome guests with a dish of bread and salt - bread for hospitality and salt for friendship.

The hierarchy of eating at a table was long described as sitting "below the salt" or "above the salt." The value of salt and its scarcity in the ancient world were such that the Romans paid their legions partly in sal, root of the word "salary." (It is also the root of the word "salacious.") The discovery that salt preserved perishable food ("curing") was a key element in the transition of humanity from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.

"To rub salt in a wound" is painful, but helps the wound heal. Rome made sure that Carthage would not rise again by sowing its lands with salt ...

Our blood, our sweat and our tears are all salty. So is the fluid that sustains us before birth - a brew that harks back to the oceans whence we came.

The human tongue possesses specialized areas for the tasting of salt. A salt craving arises just like thirst and hunger when the body senses its lack. Animals travel thousands of miles to reach deposits of salt. Drawing dramatic attention to the need for salt: In Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," the Spaniards root like hogs to get at a vein of salt in the ground, and in Peter Weir's "The Way Back" at least one man becomes obsessed with salt even as he wastes away. In my own family there are two salt-cravers and two salt-take-it-or-leavers, so there is probably a genetic basis for degrees of salt-savoring.

Places all over the world have been named for their abundance of natural salt - Tuzla in Bosnia, Salzburg in Austria, French Lick in Indiana (see poem by Stephen Vincent Benét below), Saline in Kansas, Big Lick in Tennessee, Paint Lick in Kentucky, Beaver Lick in Missouri and so on. One source notes that
The Romans ... called [the Celts] Galli or Gauls, coming from a Greek word, used by the Egyptians as well, hal, meaning 'salt.' They were the salt people. The name of the town that sits on an East German salt bed, Halle, like the Austrian towns of Hallein, Swabisch Hall and Hallstat, has the same root as do both Galicia in northern Spain and Galicia in southern Poland, where the town of Halych is found. All these places were named for Celtic saltworks. ... Like the ancient Chinese emperors, [the Celts] based their economy on salt and iron ...
(from Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky - great book!)

The word "hal" is preserved in the name for rock salt crystals, halite. (I wonder if it might also be the root of "Hail," healing and health.)

Desperate quests and wars and endless caravans have been launched to secure supplies of salt, and riots have erupted over taxes on salt. Surveyors in early America were instructed to "to make note of (the following): the quality of soil and the situation of all mines, salt licks, salt springs and mill seats which may come to your knowledge and are to be regarded and noticed in your field books.”

The Egyptians used what they called natrun (from the Wadi Natrun or Salt Valley, a source of naturally occurring sodium carbonate) to preserve mummies, which is where sodium got its chemical symbol Na (via the borrowed Greek nitron and Latin natrium).

Generations of schoolchildren have thrilled to the realization that sodium - a soft, light, sinuous silvery-white alkaline metal that explodes on contact with water - combines with chlorine - a burning greenish-yellow halogen gas - to form common ordinary table salt.

Sodium chloride not only preserves food and pharaohs but is essential to
transmission of nerve impulses around the body, regulating the electrical charges moving in and out of the cells. It also controls our taste, smell and tactile processes and helps our muscles, including the heart, to contract.

Chloride is important for a range of vital processes including digestion and the absorption of potassium into the body. It also helps the blood to carry carbon dioxide from respiring tissues to the lungs and preserves the acid-base balance in the body.

When the immune system is under attack, chlorine helps to fight off infection since hypochlorite, a chlorine-containing compound, forms in white blood cells and either attacks the germs itself, or helps to activate other agents that carry out the same function.

(from "Salt and Physiology" by the European Salt Producers' Association)

I've been thinking about Salt now that bans on added salt are being contemplated by various levels of government. The thinking is that money will be saved that would have been spent on the consequences of high dietary sodium, which some studies blame for hypertension and its attendant ills. Not all scientists believe sodium is the culprit, though. And clearly a lot of people ingest copious amounts of salt all their lives without ill effect.

The spectre of a Salt Czar has been raised, in any case. Considering the vital importance of salt to human history and the human body, it might not be a good idea to let any group, no matter how "well-intentioned," dictate whether we may savor our salt or not. We have learned the hard way the we must take schemes for the Improvement of Mankind cum grano salis.* One man's flavor is another man's poison; to each his own; there is no accounting for taste - nor should there be. For "if the salt hath lost its savour, with what shall it be salted?"

*with a grain of salt

American Names
by Stephen Vincent Benét

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy's horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy's Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum n***** to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman's Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmédy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.