Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Salt of the Earth

Why salt?  Salt is not an herb.  I know.  But, we need it for many reasons.  One significant reason is to help us preserve things.  Think of salt and an enabler and enhancer.  It is one of the tools of an herbalist or medical practionist's trade.  Think not?  What do they use saline solution for? Lots of things, including a brine for preparing and preserving many different foods.  Salt has been used, or some form of it, by most all civilizations...or at least it has been supposed so.  There are over 14,000 uses for salt.  Some interesting uses can be found at the site http://www.care2.com/greenliving/47-smart-uses-for-salt.html
There are many different kinds of salts.  For this article we will look at sodium-chloride or common table salt and seasalt.  The debate still rages as to which is better for you, some concluding they are the same.  Seasalt has trace elements of other minerals, which some argue are needed.  Seasalt does not have enough natural iodine to prevent goiters.  Chemically produced salt, or pure sodium-chloride frequently called table salt, can be purchased with iodine added and has helped prevent goiters. Individuals who live near the sea and eat a regular diet of seafood usually do not get goiters (an abnormal growth in the neck , see images here:  http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?_adv_prop=image&fr=slv8-yie9&va=medical+pictures+of+goiters   ) Salt that has iodine added is a good choice for others who are at risk of developing a goiter.  Table salt versus seasalt, your choice.  No decision will be made here as each have compelling arguments.  Distinction will not be made in the article by simply using the word salt.

Histhorically, salt has been mined and harvested from the sea and inland salt lakes by evaporation.  It has been fought over, used as currency, traded and overused. Prior to referigeration, salt meat was a common part of the diet.  According to Thomas Hariot's "A Brief and True Report of the new found land of Virginia" about the food of the American Indians, they did not use salt as we know it.  They had a plant they cultivated, harvested as seasoning.   The species of the plant is not named in the article. He describes their use of the plant as "From the stalk of the herb they produce a kind of salt by burning it to ashes.  This is the only salt they know, and they season their broths with it.  We ourselves have used the leaves for pot-herbs."  There are two herbs that maybe of interest.  Allenrolfea occidentalis (not tasty but edible), called iodine bush or Pickleweed.  The young stems are edible raw, in moderation, because of their concentration of salts.  They are more palatable and wholesome after cooking.  The stems become fleshy and filled with a salty juice; the leaves are reduced to scales.  The seeds are also edible. The pollen causes hayfever in some people.  The other plant is atriplex, a little more tasty, called saltbush.  This plant has a native American variety and also has a variety introduced from Eurasia.  The leaves of many of these species were eaten by American Indians.  They are salty and tend to irritate the throat if eaten raw and alone.  They are cooked into the food or alone in at least one change of water.  The seeds were generally parched and ground into pinole. Some Asian and European species are eaten as vegetables, including orach and sea purslane.  Sea purslane has small very salty fleshy leaves, which are best after boiling in water.  Hopi Indians used the ashes from the leaves of Atriplex.cancescens as baking powder. (from The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America, Nature's Green Feast. by Francois Couplan, Ph.D. c. 1998 Francois Couplan

Salt in the American Civil War

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Salt played a major role during the Civil War. Salt not only preserved food in the days before refrigeration, but was also vital in the curing of leather. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman once said that "salt is eminently contraband", as an army that has salt can adequately feed its men.[1]
The most important saltworks for the Confederacy were at Saltville, Virginia. In late 1864, the Union army twice advanced to capture the saltworks, as it was the last prominent source of salt for the eastern Confederate states. The October 1864 Battle of Saltville I saw the Confederate able to repulse the charge, but the next December in the Battle of Saltville II Union forces under George Stoneman managed to destroy the vital saltworks. Two months later the salt works were back to work for the Confederacy, although the destroyed railroad system around the area hampered its distribution.[2] [3]
In Georgia, the price of salt depended on one's family circumstances. Heads of families could purchase a half-bushel of salt for $2.50. If a widow had a son in the Confederate army, the price was only $1.00. But if the widow's husband served his nation, the price was free. Local court clerks sent the salt requests to the state government, which in turn allotted the salt to the counties as requested.[4]
Some scholars[who?] contend that Florida's greatest contribution to the Confederate war effort was in producing salt. With a total investment of $10 million, Floridian salt plants worked 24 hours a day boiling salt from sea water, mostly in the area between Saint Andrews Bay and St. Marks, Florida. Occasionally, Union forces came ashore just to destroy the boilers.[5] Confederate law made those involved in salt-making immune to being drafted, making it a popular profession in war-time Florida; the estimated total workers involved was 5,000.[6]
One way Southern families acquired salt was to boil the dirt in areas where they had previously cured meats. They would dig it out, and strain it.[7]
Avery Island, off the Louisiana coast, gave the Confederacy a huge supply of rock salt until the Union captured it. However, Confederates never realized that similar structures to the rock salt mine were all along the Louisiana and Texas coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore salt could have been more easily attained if they had but realized it.  The following is a pot used for boiling seawater to get salt. 
Roman soldiers were paid in salt at one time.  Hence the saying 'he is not worth his salt'.  The word salary comes from the Greek form of the word salt. 
Many recipes are available on the internet for using salt to preserve meat and fish, using a salt brine to prepare meat for smoking or curing; but salt was also used to preserve plants.  Consider this Colonial American recipe for preserving green beans.  This information is from the Foood Timeline at http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcolonial.html#colonialstorage

How did Colonial housewives store their beans?
Our primary sources indicate there were three primary methods for storing (aka preserving) beans in Colonial America: dry salting, pickling & drying. Notes below:

"To keep French Beans all the Year. Take young beans, gathered on a dry day, have a large stone jar ready, lay a layer of salt at the bottom, then a layer of beans, then salt and then beans, and so on till the jar is full; cover them with salt, and tie a coarse cloth over them, and a board on that, and then a weight to keep it close from all air; set them in a dry cellar, and when you use them, take some out and cover them close again; wash those you take out very clean, and let them lie in soft water twenty-four hours, shifting the water often; when you boil them do not put any salt in the water."
Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter [1803]
"Lima, or Sugar Beans... These beans are easily preserved for winter use, and will be nearly as good as fresh ones. Gather them on a dry day, when full grown, but quite young: have a clean and dry keg, sprinkle some salt in the bottom, put in a layer of pods, containing the beans, then a little salt--do this till the keg is full; lay a board on with a weight, to press them down; cover the keg very close, and keep it in a dry, cool place--they should be put up as late in the season, as they can be with convenience. When used, the pods must be washed, and laid in fresh water all night; shell them next day, and keep them in water till you are going to boil them; when tender, serve them up with melted butter in a boat. French beans (snaps) may be preserved in the same manner."
---The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook, Mrs. Mary Randolph [1824, 1838]
"To Pickle Kidney Beans. Take the beans & string them very well, then lay them in elegar with a good handfull of salt & let they ly covered over in ellegar [malt vinegar] or vinnegar 10 dayes. then tak them out & set a kettle of water on the fire & make it scallding hot. then put in the beans, covering them close with a clean course cloth & when you disserne them to be greene & tender, take them up & when they be cold, pickle them in white wine vinnegar & salt, laying a clean course ragg upon the pickle which will keepe them from caneing. & wash the clothe when it canes, and salt & water; & if you carefully take you the cloth all the canes will stick to it."
---Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, circa 1749-1799, transcribed by Karen Hess [Columbia University Press:New York] 1981 (p. 166) [NOTE: Food historian Karen Hess added these notes: "All of the many pickle recipes in our manuscript represent ancient ways of preserving vegetables againt time of need as well as brightening winter menus, which could bet monotonous after a few months. Some of the nutrients must have leached into the picle, but I belive that the liquor was used in cooking as a seasoning." (p. 166).]
"To Keep Green Beans for Winter. Boil salt and water to make a strong pickle; string the beans, and put them in a tight wooden firkin; sprinkle them with salt as they go in; when the pickle is cold, pour it on, and put on a weight to keep the beans under; they will keep in the cellar till the next spring. They should soak several hours in cold water before they are boiled."
---Domestic Cookery
"Lima Beans...Dried lima beans should be soaked over night, and boiled two hours or longer, if they are not soft."
--- Domestic Cookery
[NOTE: we do not find instructions for drying lima (or any other) beans in our early American cookbooks. This quote might explain why: "The bags of dried peas, beans, and fruit sometimes entered in Virvinia inventories suggest a limited use of the Indian method of drying them in the sun. Like jerked meat...dried fruits and legumes were more common in the upcountry than in the humid Tidewarter [Virginia Shore/Chesapeake Bay area]."---Colonial Virginia Cookery, Jane Carson [Colonial Williamsburg Foundation:Williamsburg VA] 1985 (p. 120)
RECOMMENDED READING: Pickled, Potted, Canned/Sue Shepard
Food historians generally agree Amelia Simmons American Cookery, published in Hartford CT, 1796 is the first "American" coobook. Why? It was the first cookbook to include indigenous ingredients, most notably corn meal. The first cookbook printed in the American Colonies was E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife published by William Parks, Williamsburg VA, 1742. Like most of the other cookbooks used in colonial America it was a reprint of a European cooking texts. colonists used cookbooks published in their native countries. English cooks would have had books written by Hannah Glasse, John Farley, John Murrell, and E. Smith. If you want authentic texts start here:

  • 1615,

Medicinal Uses of Sea Salt

According to the Mayo Clinic, the chemical makeup of sea salt is the same as table salt, with differences existing in taste, texture and processing. Nevertheless, medicinal uses for salt--which are mainly topical applications--generally call for less processed sea salt. Many of these are traditional remedies, and their effects will vary. For serious health conditions, talk with your doctor about the effect of sea salt remedies.

Oral Health

  • Sea salt can be used for gargling and to clean the mouth and teeth. To make a gargling solution, mix 1/2 tsp. of sea salt into a glass of warm water. This can help with a sore throat. You can make a toothpaste with one part sea salt and two parts baking soda that helps whiten teeth. Mix equal parts sea salt and baking soda to make a mouthwash.

Eye Treatments

  • A diluted solution of 1/2 tsp. of sea salt to a pint of water can be used to wash and relieve tired eyes. Use the same solution with hot water to dab around eyes to reduce puffiness.

Skin Irritation

  • Sea salt can be applied to some bug bites and rashes for relief. For bee stings, wet the area and apply salt for pain relief. For mosquito, chigger and other bug bites, soak the bite area in salty water, then apply a mixture of salt and lard to the bite. You can speed recovery from poison ivy by soaking the affected area in hot, salty water.

Soaking and Stress Relief

  • Bathing in salt solutions is known to have a relaxing effect that soothes aching muscles. Add a handful of sea salt to a hot bath to relieve fatigue, or several tablespoons to hot water in a basin to sooth tired feet. You can also exfoliate skin by using salt as a rub after bathing

There are many other 'home remedies' that use ordinary salt.  If we cut our foot or stepped on a nail, mother immediately had us soak our foot in warm salty water.  Sound familiar?  Salt does stop some bacterial growth, however, it does not kill the bacteria.  The warm salty water seemed to help. 

Some herbal formulas, like prescription drugs, are better used by the body when administered through the blood stream.  Saline solution has become the benchmark of IV solutions.  Chelation therapy utilizes intravenious application of several different natural minerals and solutions.  Although there are other mediums that can be utilized as IV solutions, saline solution appears to be the choice.

Our bodies need salt.  It does, however in excess cause problems such as fluid retention, and hypertension.  It is a fantastic food flavor enhancer, and eating salty rather than sweet when you are traveling will better keep sleep at bay.  Salt is worth keeing a good backup supply on hand.  Include rock salt, of course, for making ice cream.  Remember, over 14,000 uses and climbing.

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