Salt of the Earth

saltI have often described a certain person as being the “Salt of the Earth” but never really bothered to delve into what it actually meant and the history of salt.  According to the dictionary the phrase refers to someone who is humble and lacking pretension.

Salt is a remarkable thing. An essential element in the diet of not only humans but of animals, and even of many plants, it is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives. Its industrial, medical and other uses are almost without number (ie. around 14,000). In fact, salt has been such an important element of life that it has been the subject of many stories and is frequently referenced in fairy tales. Some cultures ascribe magical powers to salt.

The word “salary” was derived from the word “salt.” Salt was highly valued and its production was legally restricted in ancient times, so it was historically used as a method of trade and currency  and the quest for salt has been the cause of bitter warfare. Offering bread and salt to visitors is, in many cultures, a traditional sign of hospitality.

The word “salad” also originated from “salt,” and began with the early Romans salting their leafy greens and vegetables.

Salt has played a prominent role in the European exploration of North America and subsequent American history, Canadian history, and Mexican history, as well. The first Native Americans “discovered” by Europeans in the Caribbean were harvesting sea salt on St. Maarten. When the major European fishing fleets discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish fleets used the “wet” method of salting their fish onboard, while the French and English fleets used the “dry” or “shore” salting method of drying their catch on racks onshore. Due to this early food processing, French and British fishermen became the first European inhabitants of North America since the Vikings a half-century earlier. Had it not been for the practice of salting fish, Europeans might have confined their fishing to the coasts of Europe and delayed “discovery” of the New World. Historians believe that Native Americans produced salt from salt springs more than 500 years before the arrival of Europeans.

Covenants in both the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt: the origin of the word “salvation.” In the Catholic Church, salt is or has been used in a variety of purification rituals. In fact, until Vatican II, a small taste of salt was placed on a baby’s lip at his or her baptism. Jesus called his disciples “the Salt of the Earth.” In Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” Judas has just spilled a bowl of salt, which is known as a portent of evil and bad luck. To this day, the tradition endures that when people spill salt, they should throw a pinch over their left shoulders to ward off any devils that may be lurking behind.

In short, the white granular substance we know today as “salt” has been essential to all life, especially with respect to its long and varied history. We are fortunate, indeed, that in the United States it has never been subjected to discriminatory taxes, and that in North America it is plentiful, obtainable and the least expensive of our necessities.

As you may realize by now, salt has had a very colorful history, both in the development of human civilization as well as public health politics in the past century. While salt was originally prized by many cultures for thousands of years, in the past century it has been demonized; some have gone as far as calling it the single most harmful substance in the food supply. Yet as we know, sodium plays a crucial role in optimal health, and too little salt intake can be dangerous in the long run. The daily recommendation is 1 teaspoon but we also need to be aware of the salt content in processed foods.

By Hazel Bacigalupo

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