Monday, March 30, 2015

The First Condiment

Today, thousands of years of coveting, fighting over, hoarding, taxing and searching for salt appear picaresque and slightly foolish. The seventeenth-century British leaders who spoke with urgency about the dangerous national dependence on French sea salt seem somehow more comic than contemporary leaders concerned with a dependence on foreign oil… —Introduction, Salt: A World History

Go ahead. Sprinkle a little salt—the rock mineral we eatin your palm and reflect on its long history. Taste one of those tiny cubes, its flavor locked in our genes as desirable, immediately identifiable, unmistakable. Then throw a pinch over your shoulder, into the devil’s eyes.

Salt, according to author Mark Kurlansky, has been used as a monetary basis, provoked wars, consecrated crowned heads and marriage vows, cured corpses and cucumbers, spiced food from China to Tierra del Fuego, underscored entire industries, and provided the root word for such modern essentials as “salami”—and “salary.”

As he did in a previous work (Cod), with Salt: A World History, Kurlansky has focused on the far-reaching influence, current as well as historical, of a single commodity. Salt is the real “staff of life”; its presence in food transforms the rotting process to one of pickling or curing. Once the use of salt to preserve food was uncovered (and salt’s use in pickling predates the 4000-year Chinese history), the demand for it in ancient societies was guaranteed.

Kurlansky looks at historical uses of salt, beginning with the earliest references from China to pickling vegetables in brine, derived from brine wells. Wells that provided water steeped in sodium chloride (table salt) gave the most pleasing flavor to fish and vegetables like soybeans, although bitter-brine (containing potassium chloride) and other salty brines were also used. The common condiment that began as a fermented fish sauce gradually mutated (with the addition of soybeans as filler) to the fermented bean sauce we know today as soy sauce.
Modern-day garum

Romans also fermented fish in brine, creating garum*, a salty condiment that was dashed like catsup on nearly everything. Salt was so important to Roman society that “salt rights” (an early entitlement) were granted to appease the populace when other civil rights were revoked. Roman soldiers were issued a set amount of salt as part of their pay—the origin of the word “salary” and the phrase “worth his salt.”

Early Romans also discovered “royal purple” dye when they tried curing shellfish of the Murex and Pupurea families. These shellfish were eaten, much as we eat winkles today, after being steamed, but when a garum-maker tried to use them in the sauce, the shellfish exuded the reddish-purple dye. (As he did with Cod, Kuransky includes recipes both for dishes that use garum, and for making the purple dye.)

He looks at sea-salt concentration in Venice (where the immense salt-pans were referred to colloquially as “the Seven Seas”; the phrase “sailing the Seven Seas” originated in the tough task of navigating between the bars that enclosed these evaporation ponds), and France. Salt was not only used in pickling, but also in curing such diverse foods as herring, cod and cheese.

In a 1961 speech, Charles de Gaulle, explaining the ungovernable nature of the French nation, said, “Nobody can easily bring together a nation that has 265 kinds of cheese.”… It is the presence of salt throughout France, along with either cows, goats or sheep, that has made it the notoriously ungovernable land…

In fact, salt was also used as a social-order fixative. Medieval and Renaissance European kingdoms followed the practice of the nef, a large boat-shaped salt cellar that was both a symbol of the ship of state (and its health and preservation), and a practical dispenser for the valuable salt crystals it held. In addition to the “great salt,” lesser salt cellars would be placed on the table within reach of those deemed worthy. At any noble table, to be seated “below the salt” was to be accounted common, unworthy of access to this luxury seasoning.

In America, the newly-emerging United States faced a difficult issue with the British boycott in place between 1776 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The cod fisheries of the New World were an abundant source of fish that required salting, but Old World salt was in short supply due to the embargo. Saltworks in Cape Cod were bolstered by the invention of a sliding roof that extended the season for evaporating sea water by several months, but this still did not produce enough salt for the young nation’s needs. Brine springs used by the Indians were “discovered” by settlers moving west from the coast, and pressed into production by the revolutionary government. After the Treaty of Paris, salt production from these springs was taxed to fund the creation of the Erie Canal.

By the time of the U.S. Civil War, salt imports were still a major source of salt, but most of the imported salt went to the South, coming into the country through the port of New Orleans. One quarter of all English salt entering the U.S., 350 tons per day between 1857 and 1860, came into New Orleans, ballast for the cotton trade. At the outbreak of the war between the states, salt sold in New Orleans for fifty cents per 200 pounds; in 1862, six dollars for the same 200-pound sack was considered a bargain. By 1863, the price (in Savannah) was twenty-five dollars for the same sack of salt. Strategic-minded Northern generals targeted saltworks for destruction. Confederate troops, on the other hand, “when they took a saltworks celebrated having captured it and went into production.”

The McIlhenny fortune was founded in salt during this heady time. Brine wells on the family property in Louisiana sometimes yielded blocks (“logs”) of nearly-pure salt, and Edmund McIlhenny and Dudley Avery had patriotically sold their salt for scalper’s rates in Confederate money. After the defeat of the secessionists, the salt-farmers turned to other possibilities for their Louisiana plantations. It was McIlhenny who began to experiment with the Mexican red pepper, pickling it in the local brine to produce a red-pepper-and-salt sauce, perfect for Cajun and Creole recipes. His unique blend of fire and salt was awarded a patent. To this day, the distinctive Tabasco label bears the name “McIlhenny” and the marca registrada (®) that shows “tabasco” is a registered trademark.

Kurlansky also visits the cracking of sodium and chlorine from salt, the search for other salts and the uses for them, and the geological processes that produce immense beds of salt. By interleaving the historical with the current, the whimsical with the practical, and the bizarre with the interesting commonplace, he has created a perfectly delightful treatise on this ordinary, totally essential white crystal.


* If you want to try "garum", there is a near equivalent on US grocery-store shelves amongst the barbeque sauces: Try Me Tiger Sauce is a salty, brined-fish-based condiment with peppers and soy sauce—although with the inclusion of tamarind and molasses, as well as garlic, it may be closer to the original ketjap sauce than to Roman-era garum.