As a kid, I heard of oversalted soil on which nothing would grow anymore. In ancient times, sometimes, the winners of a battle would salt the earth of their defeated enemy in order to prevent future harvests; Roman general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus did this to Carthage after the third Punic War. You wouldn’t believe, therefore, how that Bible verse, Matthew 5:13, bewildered me back then that being the salt of the earth was something desirable. Nor did it occur to myself how much influence on our western cultures salt has had. These days, having not many better things to do than pondering and writing, the topic of salt popped up in my mind. And it’s only partly as a culinary matter.
Of course, we all know that salt is a mineral. The chemistry fans amongst us know that the edible one’s formula is NaCl as in Latin natrium chloride; English chemist Sir Humphry Davy used caustic soda when isolating the element, therefore, the English language uses the term sodium, not natrium. Quite interesting already, isn’t it? We all know that all forms of life need a certain amount of salt as an electrolyte, but that in human nourishment an overly amount of salt can cause hypertension and heart diseases. We also know that there is rock salt and sea salt, and that “kosher salt” is coarse rock salt and has no additives like iodine. But did you know that the salt in itself is not produced under any kosher rules but used for dry-brining aka koshering meat?
As I walk the grocery aisles and grab another pack of salt, just as I would pluck a flower or an herb in my garden, it occurs to me that I will pay for it with money that comes from another “salty” term, a salary. Indeed, salt was so precious in former times that Roman soldiers got paid extra-money to buy salt, the salarium. Another word that dates back to the Romans is salad; they used to salt lettuce leaves. Food items like salsa, sauce, saucisson (the French term for sausage, which also seems to be of a salty linguistic heritage), and salami all derive from the Romanic word “salis”, salt.
Because salt was so rare and hard to extract out of rock or sea, it had to be imported sometimes from places as far as China. Salt routes developed, and to this day, you can still recognize through which places they went. Has it ever occurred to you that Salzburg, Austria, means salt fortress? And that the Salzach, which streams through it, was used for the transport of salt on floats, and its meaning is “salt river”? That the ancient German currency of Heller was coined off the term halhus, which was a building in which the rock salt was extracted from the rock, and that a Heller signified the value of a certain amount of salt? That a Hellweg in Germany simply means salt route? That Christopher Columbus’ travels were at least partly financed by Spanish salt taxes, and that one of the causes for the French Revolution was an excessive salt tax? Why? Consider that salt was used to preserve food – preserving food was always also a thing of frugality; and now think of all the people who couldn’t even afford as much salt as they needed. It would be as if our freezers and refrigerators were constantly without power! Salt taxes were one of the causes for the American Revolution (not just taxes on tea) as well as the cause for Ghandi’s Independence Movement in India.
Bread and salt are welcoming and housewarming gifts in numerous cultures to this day. Salt is supposed to bring good luck if you toss three pinches over your left shoulder; I prefer not to, as I am not superstitious – and I’d have to clean the mess … But it means bad luck if you accidentally spill some. I have my doubts that the adage “take it with a pinch of salt” comes from the fact that salt makes something more palatable to swallow, as it means to interpret something more skeptically. I think it means that salt brings out some underlying flavors that otherwise you might not perceive. But that is just MY humble pondering.
So, after all these salty facts (and this concerns just the edible portion of it), the Bible verse is so much more logical. Salt of the earth is something incredibly precious, hard to be gained. Come to think of it, there is also a fairy tale that has a king ask his three daughters how much they love him. He rages and bans his youngest from the court when she answers that she loves him like salt; thereafter she secretly works in the king’s kitchen and cooks all his meals without salt … you may guess what this leads to. And, of course this tale comes from Southern Germany, a salt producing region. Of some Northern Germans legend has it that you need to eat a pound of salt with them before they befriend you – figure how long it takes to eat a pound … There are a lot more saucy tales and adages about the topic of salt. Dig around – they are out there …