Welcome to the first article in the Food, Culture, Ancestors Series! This is a 52-week series that will explore our cultural identities and ancestral connections through the lens of food. The loose framework/idea is to begin by exploring common spices and then move on to common/universal and simple food staples (such as breads) and then later in the year begin building and examining entire ancestral meals. I’m keeping it loose because I expect this project to take on a life of it’s own and I’m excited to see where we are a year from now. Today we are exploring salt and I also hope to explore pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon and possibly vanilla before moving on to the next “tier.” The sacred, ancestral/folk uses and practices I’ve learned about these now-common spices/herbs is wonderous. I invite your constructive feedback and requests for this series as well! Now let’s talk salt!
Like pepper (which we will talk about next week), salt is now a ubiquitous staple, perhaps even taken for granted, in most kitchens around the world. Salt is a crucial element in our diets so much so that Roman soldiers used to be paid in salt (where the saying “worth his salt”) comes from, and the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt, salis. The Romans also salted their greens, believing the salt to balance the bitterness, and from this we get the word salad.
Salt is a common household item first and foremost, because our bodies need it although that is rarely the conscious reason we have it on hand. Salt is on hand because it enhances the flavor of dishes (and it probably enhances the flavor precisely because our body recognizes it as something we need). Among other things, the two compounds that make up salt, sodium and chloride, help regulate fluid balance, the transmission of nerve impulses and blood pressure.
Our ancestors who hunted wild game and fished wild fish had their natural salt needs provided by the meat and bones of the animals they ate. Ancestors who relied more heavily on agriculture and domesticated animal projects, however, had to begin to seek salt out as an addition to their meals. Since ancient days, salt mining, salt trading– and controlling both– has been a strategic (and often unmentioned) motivator for conquerors and spreading empires. And up until the invention of modern refrigeration and canning techniques, salt was the most common way to preserve food. Salt has also been recognized as a healing element since ancient times and has a number of applicable uses today as well.
But it turns out that salt perfectly embodies the universal forces of life and death. First, some basic science: acids search for an electron that they lack; bases try to shed an extra electron. When this successfully occurs, a balanced compound is formed. When the base/electron donor is sodium and the acid/recipient is chloride, the resulting balanced compound is salt. In this way, salt represents the yin and the yang or the sacred act of masculine meeting feminine and creating new life. Interestingly, monks were long forbidden to eat salt.
Salt, as a balanced or neutral compound, makes a great cleansing, purification, blessing and protection agent. Salt was — and is– a sacred offering to God or The Gods in many religions, including Judaism (ancient and modern). In ancient Judaism, newborns were “salted”, or their skin gently rubbed with salt, to protect them from demons and illness. This practice may have evolved into the Catholic church’s practice of making holy water, which contains salt and is used for similar purposes. Salt also represents the preservation of a relationship/commitment and is used in rituals from all sorts of belief systems for this reason. Spilling salt is seen as bad luck because it can be taken as breaking a relationship or commitment. The folk practice of throwing a pinch of spilled salt over one’s left shoulder is believed to reverse the bad luck. If you look closely at Leonard Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Judas has just spilled the salt cellar with his elbow, signifying the breaking of a relationship or commitment with Christ.
Many who practice “other” spiritual traditions, myself included, use salt to create boundaries and to “soak up” unwanted psychic energies.
If it feels right, you can offer salt on your ancestral altar. If salt feels too purifying or cleansing and you feel weird about putting it in your sacred space, don’t. If you, and your ancestors, resonate with the idea of salt as a symbol of a commitment, go ahead and place some on your altar. (New to ancestral altar tending? Check out my mini course)
My favorite way to use salt, and to honor it’s significance to all of my ancestors (And descendants for that that matter), is to use a salt cellar. A salt cellar used to be a social statement. In ancient times when pure salt was a luxury reserved for the wealthiest of the wealthy (everyone else got gray or other discolored salt, which ironically is more expensive than pure white salt nowadays), ornate, grand and luxurious salt cellars where used to display the salt on the table. A salt cellar is basically a bowl, sometimes with a lid, that holds salt. I have this Le Creuset one (in “Flame”) on my kitchen counter (the knob on top is very handy!) and have loved it for many years now– it’s mouth is even big enough for my husband’s giant carpenter hands. I prefer a salt cellar to a salt shaker for a couple of reasons: first, the cellar holds more salt so I don’t need to refill it often. When I do refill it, it’s wide mouth makes it a breeze. Second, I like feeling the salt between my fingers when I use it. I like feeling and knowing how much salt I’m about to put into the dish I’m preparing or onto my plate. I like the hands-on, intuitive/felt connection to the salt. Third, when baking and needing precise measurements, my measuring spoons can dip in and out of the salt cellar quickly and easily. There’s a salt cellar out there to match your decor or budget and antique salt cellars are very multi-functional. I have two little silver tray salt cellars, about 3 inches in length by an inch and half in width or so, that I use to hold my rings when I take them off– one salt cellar-turned-ring-tray lives in the kitchen and one in my bathroom. You can also consider a beautiful bowl as a salt cellar if you find one!
Salt jars have evolved from Jewish salt rituals. They make a great addition to the spiritual cleansing and protection of your home and also make great hostess gifts or housewarming gifts. The idea behind a salt jar is to let it soak up negative/loose energy in the home. It can be something you continuously have in the home, or something you create for a specific purpose or time and then disassemble. Examples include when you need to purify or protect against an illness, when blessing a new baby or a new home, when purifying yourself by releasing a habit or addiction, removing streaks of bad luck, etc. Like a salt cellar, a salt jar can really be made out of any vessel that can hold salt. I, however, am on the look out for a beautiful piece of carnival or milk glass that could serve as my salt jar– get creative and let your sacred salt vessel really speak to you on many levels! (p.s. you can also create a sugar jar to bring more sweetness to your life!). For more on salt jars and how to make one, check out this great tutorial.
To protect your home from physical and non-physical intruders, sprinkle a line of salt across your threshold. I like to leave the salt overnight and then sweep it away in the morning. For more on the magic of thresholds, see my previous post here.
Of course a great way to use salt is in an epsom salt bath. Epsom salts help relax the body and can draw out inflammation as well. Fill your tub with water, add a couple of cups of salt and anything else you’d like to add to set the mood: essential oils, candles, a book, etc. Take a few deep breaths and enjoy!
And there you have it! A (very) brief introduction to salt. The next time you sprinkle a little salt on your dish, I hope you will pause for a moment and think about the thousands of generations that came before you that also sought out and tasted salt. For some of those generations, it may not have been an easy or inexpensive matter either.
In love and sacred darkness,
Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky
Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner
Why Do We Need Salt In Our Diet? Livestrong.com