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Paid in Salt

When was the last time you worried about the price of salt?

Meat or milk, maybe. But we take salt for granted. After all, some of us even spread it on our roads and sidewalks in the winter. But it hasn’t always been an underappreciated ingredient, and it was once one of the most valuable minerals. How did salt change from currency to commodity?

Salt’s value lies in two food-related properties. It suppresses the sensation of bitterness, making foods such as olives or salad greens more palatable. Its use in ancient kitchens gave rise to words like sauce, salad and sausage, all foods whose names are derived from this key ingredient. And salt draws water out of foods, discouraging growth of spoilage bacteria. That salt prevents decay was a critical factor before the advent of refrigerators or even ice boxes.

Ancient civilizations depended on salt. Its ability to make some foods edible and preserve others kept people alive.

Olives may be one of the first foods that salt saved. The Egyptians realized that the tree fruit was inedible unless soaked in brine, rendering olives soft and delicious. Today, we know that salt helps to remove the bitter-inducing glucides known as oleuropeina, according to Mark Kurlansky in his seminal Salt: A World History. Back then, they just knew that the olives tasted better.

Salt also preserved food in the absence of refrigeration. Cod was salted for baccalao. The eggs of the mullet, the most prized fish in Roman history, were salted and dried to make bottarga. Celtic warriors preserved legs of wild boar in salt, creating the first salt-cured hams. And it was the town of Salsomaggiore near Parma whose underground brine springs provided the salt needed to produce the famous Prosciutto di Parma. When citizens figured out that adding it to the local cheese prevented spoilage and allowed it to age, the world-renowned Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was born.

Long ago, humans hadn’t figured out how to extract this vital ingredient from both land and sea as efficiently as we do today. With limited supply and seemingly unlimited demand, the price of salt soared.

But today, we know how to evaporate sea water and mine rock salt. 51 percent of American salt is used for deicing roads, according to Kurlansky. It’s more than just the mainspring of a meal.

There’s irony in this development. Despite refrigeration and the advancement of our food supply, the modern food system still relies on salt. Why? For the very same reasons our ancestors used it: to preserve food. As food becomes more processed, conglomerates rely on it to accentuate flavors, prolong shelf stability, disguise bitterness and hide chemical aftertastes. Even Coca-Cola has salt in it – 80 mg per can. So, while we need about 1 gram of salt per day to balance the plasma around cells, the average intake in the US is at least 10 times that.

Fortunately, despite this bastardization of an invaluable ingredient, we’re seeing a return to valuing salts – specialty ones. As flaky Maldon sea salt graces tables and restaurants dole out black Hawaiian salt, there’s hope for a return to treasuring this ancient mineral. And with this appreciation, moderation should follow.

Follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen