Features and Occasionals

Salt of the Earth

By Katherine Pioli

From above, the ponds on the south end of Great Salt Lake look like pink and purple cuts of stained glass. From the ground, they look like fields of snow and ice. But the true identity of the lake is not immediately apparent until one slips into its waters and floats. A drive along the lake’s southern shore also gives a clue to this secret identity. There, an old and rusting factory tower displays the iconic image of the Morton Salt girl with her little blue dress and tilted umbrella and a spilling jar of salt under her arm.

Each year, major industries like Morton use acres of evaporation ponds to extract millions of tons of sodium chloride, salt, from the lake, some of which ends up on our dinner plates.

Salt, the only rock consumed by humans, is an essential nutrient found in our blood, sweat, tears, semen and urine. It is a necessary ingredient for the healthy functioning of our bodies, continuously balancing the water in our cells to prevent dehydration.

An object of temptation, obsession, even destruction

Since nearly the beginning of human history, we have evidence of people using salt. In prehistoric China, in an environment that would be familiar to us in northern Utah today—an arid mountain desert region with salty Lake Yun­cheng—evidence shows that the people living on the lake’s shores harvested salt from its waters during the hot dry months of summer when evaporating water exposed salt crystals across the lake’s surface. All over the world—Italy, New Zealand, Bali, Pakistan, Iceland, Morocco, Bolivia, to name a few countries—salt is harvested and eaten.

Perhaps because of our need for salt, the mineral has entered into and become entwined with the human experience, present in history, art and religion, an object of temptation, obsession and even destruction.

Starting around 2800 BCE, salt became a key component of trade in the Middle East. Owing to a unique chemical make-up, which discourages the growth of spoilage bacteria yet leaves beneficial flavor-enhancing bacteria unharmed, salt was used to preserve foods that would otherwise spoil. Salted fish traded by early Egyptians could buy most commodities including valuable glass, purple dye and Phoe­ni­cian cedar. Later in northern Italy, the Genovese used salt’s chemical properties to cure salami, which they traded with tribes in the south for valuables such as raw silk.

For some ancient peoples, salt itself became a valued currency. And until further discoveries of salt mines revealed the ubiquitous presence of salt around the world, wars were fought over limited known supplies. Today, about half of our salt comes from evaporated brine water from the sea. Elsewhere, salt mines, the remnants of ancient, dried-up salty seas, provide seemingly inexhaustible pockets of the mineral.

Sacred salt

In Japan, the preserving quality of salt took on a more spiritual quality. Even today, before sumo wrestlers step into the ring, a handful of salt is tossed into the circle as a symbolic act of purification. Some competitors will sprinkle salt on their bodies as a means of protection. This tradition stretches back to the origins of the Shinto religion, which considered salt and water purifying elements.

In March, Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto visited Westminster College in Salt Lake City where he created a temporary salt-art installation (using Morton salt) that will remain in the Meldrum Science Center for viewing until April 12 when it will be swept up and taken to the “sea,” tossed back to the Great Salt Lake.

Yamamoto began using salt as the medium for his art after the death of his sister who passed away from cancer. Delicate, organic, his works demonstrate the transitory nature of life and, as they are each swept up and returned to the sea, its impermanence. Each piece that Yamamoto creates is dedicated to his sister.

Better salts

Though the concepts of purification and art with salt are new to the western world, we are no less obsessed with it. Recently, salt has earned among certain foodies an aesthetic status, considered exotic as well as beautiful. These days, salt is pressed and dried and formed into all shapes and sizes from pyramids to rough granules. Its colors include pink, grey, black and crystal white. Mark Bitterman, perhaps the most famous salt snob and author of Salted: A Manifesto, rails against Kosher salt calling it “a processed food, with all mineral and moisture qualities intrinsic to real salt stripped away, and with a crystal structure fabricated by automated processes.”

Bitterman would much rather chomp down on some of the salts found at his popular Portland, Oregon boutique where connoisseurs can find black diamond flake sea salt from Cyrus, a crunchy salt with a deep obsidian color; or Icelandic hot spring salt made from a brine extracted from an underground geothermal hot spring; or Himalayan pink salt from a mine in the Potwar Plateau in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Even here in Salt Lake, those curious enough can buy truffle salt, smoked salt, lavender salt and other gourmet salts at places like Harmon’s Grocery and Liberty Heights Fresh.

Beyond Morton, Utah has another salt to offer the world. Called Real Salt, it’s easy to find on grocery shelves locally. Unlike the salt evaporated from the lake, this salt is mined from an underground deposit near the town of Redmond in central Utah. Produced without bleaching and without any chemical additives, the final product is beautifully speckled with flecks of color, a result of the nearly 50 trace minerals found naturally in the salt deposit.

Even if you don’t use salt for art, or for ritual purification, even if you pass up the expensive sel gris from France for something a lot more accessible, chances are that, like most Americans, you dash the stuff all over your food. Because, let’s face it, salt tastes good.

A complicated relationship

Death by salt is not an easy feat—although there is documented evidence of a woman who committed suicide by drinking soy sauce. (Over­dosing requires quickly consuming at least a half teaspoon of salt per every two pounds of body weight.)

Though Americans rarely kill themselves so swiftly with salt, our habitual overconsumption of this necessary mineral is often blamed for early and untimely deaths. The average American consumes twice the World Health Organization’s recommended daily dose of salt, mostly thanks to hidden sources of sodium in processed foods: A McDonalds hamburger and fries delivers twice the daily recommended amount of 1,500 mg. Kidney failure, heart disease and high blood pressure are only some of the problems linked to chronic overconsumption.

Our relationship with salt is complicated. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have struggled to live with it—fighting wars over it, destroying our health with it. It has brought us a measure of solace and a form of expression. It is difficult to imagine that we will ever run out of it, and there’s no need: Unlike petroleum, another substance that once seemed in endless supply, the salt of the Earth will almost certainly outlast human habitation.

This article was originally published on March 30, 2014.