Please Pass the Salt & Pepper

Salt has a very lengthy and incredibly interesting history. When thinking of salt, most people think of table salt, which is sodium chloride (NaCl). As explained by the American Chemical Society, the element sodium on the periodic table (Na) is very reactive and can even react explosively in nature. For this reason, it is not found free in nature.

Humans need salt, especially the sodium ions (Na+) present in the NaCl structure as it is essential to the daily functioning of cells in our body. Electrolytes (compounds that contain sodium and potassium) are needed for an electrical current that is used throughout the body in the form of electrical signals for communication in the brain, muscles and nervous system. Too little can cause cells to malfunction, too much can be hazardous to your health. That being said, salt has been a widely sought-after commodity and rock – yes, it’s the only rock we consume, throughout human history.

There are many different types of salt, from pink Himalayan to smoked and flavored as well as several varieties of peppercorns, including black, white and green.
Photograph courtesy of Cathy Schmidt.

This has led to whole cities being built around salt mines and has caused a few wars as well. In ancient times, salt was worth its weight in gold. It’s hard to believe it was so valuable when it can be found sitting right next to a pepper shaker at the breakfast nook in your kitchen, at any restaurant, and even in little packets in your takeout bag. It has become ubiquitous – but that wasn’t always the case.

To begin, we need to go back to somewhere around 5400 B.C to the city of Solnitsata, in Bulgaria, where its name, Solnitsata, literally means “salt works.” This was believed to be one of the first cities in Europe, and it had a salt mine that provided salt to this area of Europe, now known as the Balkans.

There are many salt mines found all over the earth. Mines, often a half mile or more down in the earth, have been excavated for millennia. To name a few, the Cardona Salt Mountain, located in Spain, formed two million years ago. It was discovered in the Middle Ages by the Romans; salt bolstered their economy. The Weiliczka Salt Mine in Poland has a long history beginning with its discovery in ancient times. Flash forward to the present, it is no longer in operation, but welcomes over a million visitors a year to see the labyrinth of tunnels, some graced with detailed salt sculptures, a chapel, giant salt-crystal chandeliers, and even a restaurant.

These giant underground salt deposits were often formed by dried up bodies of water. But not all salt is found in mines. The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is an endless landscape of pure salt. In fact, it is the largest salt flat in the world and home to pink flamingos, ancient cacti, and rare hummingbirds. In the middle of this great expanse sits a hotel made entirely out of salt, including the chairs and tables. In the United States, the Salt Ponds of San Francisco Bay look vivid with colors of red, green, and yellow carved into the land in geometric configurations. The area is so large it can be seen from space. (Atlas Obscura) Currently, the ponds are 20 years into a massive 50-year restoration project to return them to the viable wetlands that they once were. The Ohlone peoples historically harvested salt from the area’s natural deposits, which once discovered, became a commercial salt harvesting area for 150 years. The current restoration project aims to restore 15,000 acres of wetland and positive signs are already showing with the return of some migratory bird species such as the nesting snowy plovers, currently listed as a threatened species. (reasonstobecheerful.world).

Which brings us to the Morton Salt Company who, among their production models, uses the technique of evaporating seawater to make salt. Morton Salt’s beginning coincided with the gold rush. According to www.mortonsalt.org, “A huge appetite for salt was created by miners, the legendary forty niners.”

When the iconic Morton Salt girl holding an umbrella was introduced in the early 1900s, the company grew by leaps and bounds, with the branding genius of “When it rains it pours.” In 1924, the company developed iodized salt and the FDA stipulated that each package must contain the writing, “This salt provides iodide, a necessary nutrient.”

Why add iodide to salt? At that time, goiters were a quite common condition. A goiter is used to describe any enlarged thyroid gland. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Iodine is an essential trace element that is present in the thyroid hormone. WHO sates, “Iodine-deficiency disorders, which can start before birth, jeopardize children’s mental health and often their very survival. During the neonatal period, childhood and adolescence, iodine-deficiency disorders can lead to hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in stillbirth, spontaneous abortion and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism – a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia. Of even greater significance is the less visible, yet pervasive, mental impairment that reduces intellectual capacity at home, in school and at work.” Adding iodide to salt dramatically improved thyroid function across many populations.

True to form, humans can’t get enough of a good thing, and in this case too much salt in one’s diet can be deadly. According to the National Institute of Health, “Given the presence of added salt in a wide range of commonly used food products, a clinically relevant food deficit of sodium is extremely unlikely in healthy individuals. Indeed, a deficiency of sodium does not occur under normal conditions even with diets very low in sodium. In contrast, an excess of sodium in food is common to most populations worldwide, because of both the salt added to products during food processing and the widespread habit of adding additional amounts of salt in food preparation in the kitchen and at the table. This excess is a recognized causative factor of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases and also contributes to the development of chronic kidney disease, gastric cancer, kidney stones, and osteoporosis.”

Besides table salt, salt is also used to treat roads for icing conditions, and it is used as a preservative for foods like country ham, canned goods, and salted fish. It is also used in the manufacturing of many products like paper, chlorine, and plastics, to name a few. Salt is a huge part of our daily lives whether consuming it or using a product that salt in some way was used to make. And, despite is wide availability, I wonder if people still understand its value on planet earth.

As the old saying goes, “you’ll never miss it until it’s gone,” holds true in the case of my two sons who spent several days camping on the ice in northern Minnesota with a scout troop a few winters back. They were very limited as to what they could bring to eat and so amongst a few energy bars were bags of Quinoa that could be boiled. Boiled Quinoa with no seasonings, no butter, no nothing, made them really miss salt. So much so that they invented the “flavor train,” upon their return home from camp in which they proceeded to readily cook dinner using a variety of herbs and spices, and oh yes, salt.

When it comes to pepper, we first must understand that it is not a rock (like salt), nor an herb, which are generally the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or garnish. Pepper is a spice, and peppercorns come in varying colors from black to white to green and even pink, each with its own slightly different flavor. Whole spices retain their flavor longer than leafy herbs. If you use a pepper grinder, the pepper will most likely taste more potent than previously ground pepper. Like salt, pepper was once expensive, rare, and incredibly in demand. Even though it was so precious it was used as a ransom demand for the city of Rome, it still feels to me like it plays second fiddle to salt. However, black pepper still remains the most popular spice on the planet. It has also become so ubiquitous that it is tracked alongside commodities on the stock market like wheat, corn and rice, writes Food and Wine magazine.

Native to India, which is a major producer of the crop, it takes about four to five years before the plants bear fruit. Vietnam grows over a third of the world’s black pepper, twice the amount as the second largest producer, Brazil.

An article in Food and Wine magazine describes, “Black pepper is the dried berry of a flowering vine called Piper nigrum, which fruits in clusters like grapes. Technically, peppercorns are drupes, or stone fruits, like cherries and peaches. To make black pepper, farmers harvest the still-green unripe peppercorns and dry them either by machine or in the sun, which causes the thin fruit layer to darken and wither, raisin-like, around the seed, resulting in the characteristic dark, puckered peppercorns you load into your pepper grinder.”

Black pepper has many healthy attributes for the human body. Notably, it contains piperine, which is a natural alkaloid that gives black pepper its pungent flavor. More importantly, peperine is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that helps reduce chronic disease. Eating Well magazine claims that, “It [pepper] has also been shown to enhance the bioavailability of essential vitamins and minerals.” When combined with curcumin, a substance in turmeric, it becomes a more powerful fighter of chronic inflammation.

So now that you know the skinny on salt and black pepper, how did they end up together? Long ago salt was served in salt cellars (very small saucers with little spoons) and pepper was nowhere to be found on the table. According to the NPR article “How Did Salt and Pepper Become the Soulmates of Western Cuisine?” author Natalie Jacewicz writes, after the Middle Ages, “…increasingly influential French haute cuisine relegated most spices to dessert, but salty and spicy flavors were not incorporated into the final course. Because they did not fit in dessert, salt and pepper remained flavors in savory dishes.”

When Morton salt introduced salt with magnesium carbonate to keep it from clumping (thus the slogan “when it rains it pours), “saltshakers became very popular and pepper ran sidecar, making them a dynamic duo for the table. The earliest known saltshaker debuted in 1858, and was credited to John Mason, who was also the inventor of the mason jar. Despite this revolutionary design, www.tastingtable.com claims, it still took more than 60 years for saltshakers to break into the mainstream and become the kitchen table staple they are today.

With that fun fact, I’ll leave you with one sentence that is heard all over the western world at mealtime, “Would you please pass the salt and pepper?”

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and Readings

www.eatingwell.com/benefits-of-black-pepper-8574829

www.foodandwine.com/how-to-use-pepper-7253638

www.almanac.com/what-difference-between-spices-and-herbs

www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/02/582477785/how-did-salt-and-pepper-become-the-soulmates-of-western-cuisine

https://reasonstobecheerful.world/south-bay-salt-pond-restoration-project-progress

https://www.atlasobscura.com/lists/wonders-of-salt

https://time.com/3957460/a-brief-history-of-salt

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23417-iodine-deficiency

www.mortonsalt.com/heritage-era/seasons-of-change

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951800

www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/february-2016/salt-facts.html

www.tastingtable.com/845573/the-intriguing-history-of-salt-and-pepper-shakers

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