Have you ever wondered why one can buy enough salt to last for a year with just five dollars or even less? And even if the price of salt increased twice or thrice, people would still buy it? This was not the case in the old times. In fact, salt was highly valued alongside gold and silver. It makes for a good thinking exercise how salt alone among the prized commodities of the ages defied the law of inflation.
One of the most welcome ironies in life is the fact that salt ranks among the most essential necessities in human existence, yet it remains the cheapest and easily obtained of all commodities. The importance of salt is directly stated in the words of Nelson Mandela, who said “let there be work, bread, water and salt for all,” elevating the station of the lowly salt to one of humanity’s most important needs.
There are two main culprits to blame for salt’s gradual loss of monetary value, which are as enduring as this substance is: time and tide. Over time, salt’s production became as widespread as there are vast seas and oceans on earth. Cheaper ways of making salt including shore salt beds and natural hardened salt from the ebbs of tides which can be used outright or processed for more refined granules have made it easily accessible and hence very cheap.
So before we ignore the table salt again, let us explore salt with some interesting information on when and why this substance was positioned on a pedestal, and as such had the power to dictate the fates of men and society. We rounded up 10 irresistible facts about salt that speak of its basic and practical values yesterday, today and tomorrow.
In ancient and medieval times, people depended largely on salt and other spices for the preservation of food. Winter and wartime food preparation calls for tons and tons of salt, while everyday food preserved in saline solution were stocked for household, military and court supplies.
While salt mining works have been recorded since the late Neolithic age, the old processes entail hard work. Workers had to boil sea water in pan-carved stones that needed refuelling for days on end, or building high tide seawater wall traps and drying them for months before scraping the hardened rocks. Salt pan techniques and solar evaporation were also burdensome.
In short, labor was massive and supply was limited. This was especially true for the non-coastal regions and areas far from the seabeds. And since in the old times people depended largely on salt to preserve their food, the value of salt was very high before mankind eventually stumbled upon salt farming and salt mining.
Salt was an important mode of currency in ancient and medieval times, and was in great use to conduct barter trades and import and export businesses then. Before meddlesome Alexander the Great came into the dividing picture, the Egyptians traded cedar, glass and dye to Phoenicians who paid them primarily with salt and salted fish. The Celts were huge users of salt, growing rich by trading their salt in exchange for luxury items like wine from Greek and Roman businessmen. But all these came to an end, as history tells us how Alexander plundered these thriving business deals and went away with all the gold, in all probability including the highly valuable salt.
In the poorest countries of Africa, salt is still highly regarded for its exchange value. As a mode of money, the salt moles weighing about 5 kilograms still “circulate” in The Horn of Africa, one of the poorest parts of the continent.
While in essence salty, salt had been the main reason behind some bitter events and happenings in history. Among these was the infamous salt tax which was notoriously associated with Chinese, French and British governments, where people were made to pay tax in order to procure and use salt. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a protest called the Dandi March where the people made their own salt from the sea in defiance of Britain’s law (because with that, it cannot enforce salt tax anymore). This action inspired the Indian national independence movement.
Despite salt’s demotion as a financial instrument, its “influences” continue to touch our lives today, and it’s not just through the salt shaker on the table. In fact, salt was so valuable that ancient Roman soldiers were paid with salarium argentum, or rations of salt along with other items and some money. This was the origin of the word “salary,” a highly prized and very important term since the world’s first payment in return for labor was made. Many places were also named after salt, like Salzach and Salzburg.
The value of salt extends beyond money matters. Salt figures prominently in various cultures with giving salt as gifts in pouches or as salt breads to signify peace and friendship. In ancient Egypt, salt, salted fish and salted birds were among the afterlife send-offs found in catacombs.
Salt is also the subject of many folk tales and children’s stories (remember Why the Sea is Salty?) notably in China, India and Africa. It is also an inspiration in pop culture, such as noted African-American jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s classic The Salt Song, the spoiled little girl character Veruca Salt in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the African-American hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa and the character of mysterious agent Evelyn Salt who showed extraordinary guts and loads of salt-like endurance, played by Angelina Jolie in the movie Salt.
Before modern canning and refrigeration, salt as preservative gave birth to names of some popular food and food accompaniments where it is being used as base and flavoring. These include sausage, sauce and salad, which originally meant salted or immersed in salt.
Like post-war industrialization which rendered traditional and manual-intensive processes moot and impractical, salt production became so effortless as time went by. Today, many industries are able to produce salt not as a main pursuit, but as a by-product like manufacturers that use reverse-osmosis, such as water-purifying plants. By-products are usually categorized as wastes and are meant for disposal, and these industries even profit from selling their salt by-products cheap.
Salt reserves in the world remain uncalculated. This is because seas and oceans are virtually inexhaustible, hence, as long as they are around, mankind’s salt supply is assured. But have you ever wondered what will happen if salt is to disappear from our lives?
There are likely salt replacements, like flavorings derived from herb, vegetable and fruit essences marketed as healthier salt equivalents for people who need to reduce sodium chloride in their body. There are also low-sodium condiments, but these still contain salt. One can also use salt-like concoctions such as meat-based flavor concentrates and monosodium glutamate, but some food lovers observed that if used without the combination of salt, these yield a somewhat incomplete umami taste, affirming that one’s natural salt craving will never naturally go away.
Today, not only has salt went down the fate of the common and the ubiquitous, it has earned an unsavory image where healthy eating is concerned. The negative effects of high and long-term salt consumption on one’s health remain a controversial medical debate.
While some parties require empirical and fool-proof evidences, salt has been associated with high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease and renal malfunctions, among others. However, a person’s general lifestyle, water drinking habits and other things also account for half the blame.
Lastly, the fall of the golden age of salt could have well descended during the green economy age of today. Many environmental groups are focusing on salt as a prime environmental hazard, primarily the use of road salts to de-ice or melt the snow during winter times.
Many countries particularly the US and Canada resort to road salt for road maintenance to keep kilometers of snowy roads passable and safe for cars. However, green lobbyists point to road salt as the cause of soil, water and vegetation contamination as well as faster corrosion of roads and vehicles. While there have been road salt alternatives from corn and sugar beet by-products, these are very expensive hence salt still remains as the cheaper road snow meltdown solution. Hence, the use of road salt remains a much debated issue these days.
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