This blog is a proposal to create a point of cultural interest in Newark. A field trip destination for school kids, and an attraction for anyone interested in history, chemistry, geology, geography, culture, religion, culinary arts.
Today's grocery store salt might seem boring and trivial. If you think of salt at all, it's probably with a guilty conscience, since, in the West today, we are over indulging in salty foods and getting heart disease as a consequence.
I'd like to make the case here that salt is fascinating.
Salt has a history, it has made history. It is fundamental to life, and starting from a molecule of NaCl, you have a cosmos of interesting things to explore and ponder.
Different governments and reigns used salt taxes as an income, often inflicting gruesome hardship on the general population and especially the poorest. Now and then rulers have had to pay the price for burdensome taxes. The French Revolution was partly due to anger over a salt tax, known as ‘la glabelle’.
Mahatma Gandhi, at the age of sixty, supported by a bamboo cane and an increasing number of followers, went on a 240 miles march to the village of Dandi by the Arabian Sea. As he put it: ‘Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life’. Gandhi symbolically picked up a piece of crusted sea salt, in defiance of the British monopoly, thereby breaking the law against producing your own salt.
In the American Civil War, the Confederate forces were at a disadvantage because of lack of salt, needed to keep the humans and animals going and as a disinfectant. Lack of salt also played a part in the defeat of Napoleon’s army in Russia. The Erie Canal was built thanks to salt tax money. In 1945, American troops found thousands of paintings , including works by Rembrandt and Rafael, hidden 1,200 feet underground in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany.
Salt, NaCl, a combination of an unstable metal and a poisonous gas, and a fundamental part of our bodies, is plentiful on Earth. But it was not always cheap and readily available everywhere.
Historically, salt has been collected from dry desert lakes (think Salt Lake City, the Dead Sea) and around coasts. It was extracted by boiling seawater (not really practical) or salt rich palms and grasses. It was and is excavated from the rich supply of salt that makes up the crust of the earth.
Salt, similar to coal, is underground in salt beds or salt domes. About 1,200 feet south of Detroit, Cargill operates a 1,400 acres big salt mine. The US is the biggest producer and consumer of salt, but 51 percent is used for deicing roads. Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, at almost 12,000 feet, is the biggest salt flat on Earth, over 4,000 square miles. A lake of brine, containing 50-70 percent of the world’s lithium, is covered by several meters of salt.
Chemically there are different salts; sodium chloride (NaCl), magnesium chloride (MgCl2)and potassium chloride (KCl). Salt has different appearances depending on different impurities; it can be red, black, grey, white...Slow evaporation makes a coarse salt, rapid evaporation gives a fine salt. Salt in food is now a fashion statement. There are companies of artisanal salt selling Himalayan pink salt, Australian pink flake salt, Indian black salt.
A solid piece of rock salt, called halite, is a bigger version of the tiny uniform salt crystals in a saltshaker. It is very beautifully pure or colored by different impurities. You can buy Himalayan salt lamps that purportedly will cure a list of ills.
The author of "Salt - A History" starts the book off by describing a piece of rock of salt from Cordoba, Spain, and his fascination with it. Somehow water leeches out of it now and then and it behaves like a not quite inanimate object: ‘those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.”
Our bodies are totally dependent on salt. We need a balance between water and salt to subsist. Animals too, and they know how to seek out brackish water or salty earth (“licks”) to subsist. Animals made trails to salt licks, that humans in their turn followed and eventually settled down in; thus the buffalo trail led to the settlement that became Buffalo.
Then there are all the household practical uses of salt: making ice cream, deicing, removing spots, as a mordant when using dyes, as a disinfectant, for fermentation through pickling, it's a long list. A very important discovery was to use salt as a preservation of foods, salting fish and meats (or biological tissue, aka mummies).
The word ‘salary’ comes form the Latin for salt, ‘sal’ or ‘solde’, and it is also the origin for ‘soldier’, because soldiers were sometimes paid in salt.
Salt is an ingredient of religions, superstition, and customs. It is found in Shintoism and Buddhism. Remember Lot's wife in the Bible and ’salt of the earth’? Spilling salt is bad luck (see Leonardo da Vinci's “Last supper” with Judas Iscariot knocking over a salt cellar and spilling salt)', or else you throw some salt over the left shoulder to ward off the devil/ bad luck
Salt can be art. The Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto is touring the US currently with an exhibit called 'Return to the Sea’. He pours out salt in a lattice-like installation on the ground that he makes over a two-week period. It looks like sea foam on the shore, delicate and ephemeral. When the exhibit is over, there is the dismantling of the piece. People are invite to come and scrape off the salt, take it with them, and release the salt into the sea. (I saw the exhibit in Charleston, South Carolina, in June. It will come to Monterey in June 2013.)
The San Francisco Bay's southern end has the combined effect of sun and enough heat and wind for making salt in the shallow marsh. The Ohlone Indians got their salt there. The salt could just be scooped up after the water had evaporated on the shore. In 1795 a Spanish priest saw the practice, and after that the Ohlone had to collect the salt for the San Jose Mission.
In 1895 the richest vein of silver in the Americas, the Comstock Lode, was discovered in the Sierras. Since a lot of salt was needed to extract the silver by the contemporary technique, there was a big upswing in salt production. Nine years later there were eighteen salt works with mainly Chinese laborers in the Bay. When the salt works ran out of the salt that could just be scraped off, the system of pumping the water into artificial ponds was started. They used windmills for power. Fortunes were made from silver and salt.
One entrepreneur imported 32 Bactrian camels from Mongolia to transport the salt to the Sierras. 15 survived the sea voyage. This venture did not turn out to be a success however, due to the difficult temperament of the camels, and they were finally released in the Nevada desert.
In 1880 Joy Morton started selling salt for a smaller company in Chicago. He invested in a fleet of boats for transporting the salt on the Great Lakes, which turned out to be very successful. The Morton Salt Company was born and expanded, buying up smaller companies. Eventually Morton bought up France’s leading brand, La Baleine, and is now the biggest salt company in the world.
In Newark, salt is even more of a presence than the Bay generally. When you drive by Morton & Cargill at Morton Avenue, there is the almost mirage like appearance of a white hill and a kind of spooky, big, rambling, greyish building next to it. It's always been by intriguing to my kids, who start fantasizing of snow and sleds.
Cargill is the largest private company in the US (according to the ‘Salt’ book) and the only producer left in the San Francisco Bay. Morton’s is the world’s largest salt distributer, selling salt in the familiar cylindrical shape with the image of a girl with an umbrella spilling salt behind her.
There are salt museums in the world. For example, Batz-sur-mer in Bretagne, France. The museum describes the work of the ‘palaudiers’, who worked in the marsh. They were a tourist attraction in their time and day, the 1800s, selling souvenir dolls of their special way of dress with a big floppy hat.
By now, you can see how you can write a book about salt, and certainly fill a museum with interesting facts. If Newark ever gets any kind of museum, salt is part of the story. If there is lack of funds (as always), maybe Cargill/Morton's Salt could be encouraged to consider helping and setting up a little salt museum and make tours of their salt works available for our Newark kids and surrounding schools, and visitors in general. It would give Newark something culturally interesting and unique to show off.
So, how about it? Can you see it now: THE NEWARK SALT EMPORIUM…THE NEWARK SALTWORKS….THE NEWARK MUSEUM OF SALT.