(originally published in The Santa Monica Star)
What chemical compound is so important that in ancient times it was used as currency in some parts of the world? What crystalline mineral was once to many people worth more than gold? If you’ve studied history, you probably know the answer.
Luckily for us these days, this item is no longer precious, at least in monetary terms, though its fundamental value in our lives remains vital. It is important enough to be a household necessity, and we don’t have to search far to find it. As a matter of fact, it often sits right on our kitchen shelves.
Yes, I’m talking about the most common form of seasoning–salt. For thousands of years and in every civilization from the Roman to the Chinese, people toiled to harvest it from oceans, mineral springs, and the sedimentary deposits of ancient sea beds.
Call it sodium, saline, or whatever you want, we need it to survive. Salt has always been part of us and our world. It is in our blood and tears, and in every creature that has ever crawled on Earth. It is in our plants, in the soil beneath their roots and in the oceans beyond. There wouldn’t be life without salt, and the cradles of our lives are woven with it.
For a poor man living far from the ocean, salt remains a valuable commodity, even in this modern day and age. I still have a vivid memory of our next-door neighbor’s relative when he visited Shanghai some 20 years ago. Before he headed home, he loaded up his only suitcase with nothing but packets of salt-–presents he intended to distribute when he returned to his mountain village.
My family, luckily, lived in the largest coastal city in China and never had to worry about a lack of salt. Even during the Cultural Revolution when everything was rationed, we always had plenty of salt. It made our meager meals palatable and without refrigeration, it preserved our food and kept us safe.
Through years of hardship, we relied on salt far beyond its use as a seasoning. We used it to treat a sore throat, an aching tooth, or an open wound. Salt was our on-call doctor and friend in need. Because of its healing power and cleansing properties, many countries, as far away as India and Latvia, have been using salt in their cultural rituals, whether for casting out evil or celebrating a new home.
To me, salt is Mankind’s best and tastiest treasure–and one that insists it be shared equally by all, rich or poor. Unlike other treasures, it prohibits anyone from having more than his fair share or eating too much simply to feed his greed. Just the right amount sustains and adds flavor to life, while either too much or too little endangers it. Many say that sugar sweetens life. I say pass the salt.
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