Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Salt Demons, Guardians, and Inventors

Roguszys is the guardian spirit of pickling in Lithuania. The Onondaga tribe in New York avoided a particular salt spring because its fetid quality was caused by a demon. Many North American tribes had female salt deities; for them, salt-gathering was a religious ritual, and salt gatherers first became members of a cult. In the Bible, Lot's wife's punishment was to become a pillar of salt near the saltiest location on earth: the Dead Sea.

In Mexico, Vixtociatl, sister of the Aztec rain gods, discovered salt and invented salt-making. She had "ears of gold, yellow clothes, an iridescent green plumage, and a fishnet skirt." At ritual celebrations "she carried a shield trimmed with eagle, parrot, and quetzal feathers, and she beat time with a cane topped by incense-filled paper flowers." The Chibecha in the highlands near modern Bogota respected the "salt lords" who honored the gods twice a year "abstaining from sex and salt."

In rereading Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, I was amazed to learn about the wide variety of religious belief and ritual associated with salt and salt-making. In 1930, Gandhi channeled the Indian resentment against British salt restrictions by his famous march to the sea, where he broke the law by merely picking up a handful of salt crust. His method and his moral basis were founded in his fundamental spiritual view that humans have a right to use salt.

While salt is a naturally occurring mineral, I also was surprised to learn how much expertise has been applied to its manufacture and use. In Germany in the Middle Ages, a salt maker was in charge of boiling brine, removing impurities, and overseeing the process of crystallization of salt. This master salter had two assistants. Their salt processing worked 24 hours a day to produce the valued product. Expertise was also needed in using salt to make salt pork, bacon, salt beef, and pickled vegetables.

Salt fish -- especially cod -- was a critical foodstuff in early modern times. Basque, Portuguese, English, and French users and fishing fleets were involved. Large-scale explorations located new fishing locations, and hundreds of fishing vessels filled with salt went out to catch cod and return with valuable salt cod. A "master salter" on each ship figured out how the fish they caught were to be salted and dried: "Both under- and oversalting could ruin a catch."

In Alsace, sauerkraut was an important preserved food. A surkrutschneider -- literally "sauerkraut tailor" -- was the expert who chopped the cabbage and preserved according to his own secret recipes. This sauerkraut was made in barrels with salt, "anise seeds, bay leaves, elderberries, fennel, horseradish, savory, cloves, cumin, and other herbs and spices." It was a dish for special occasions, later to become a staple of specialized restaurants throughout France.

Kurlansky's book is a trove of information on the minutiae of salt production and use throughout history on every continent. Its importance in war is another fact I've never thought about: before modern techniques of food preservation, armies required large amounts of salted meat as provisions. Thus, a critical war strategy in the Civil War was for the Union armies to destroy Southern salt production facilities and access to imported salt. In response: smuggling and cottage industries. Very interesting!

Information on salt spirits and gods: Kurlansky pp. 175, 202-3, 240. Experts: p. 120, 150, 167.


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I've enjoyed all of his books, but liked this one most of all -- perhaps because I've been having more fun with salt in my own kitchen.

Mae Travels said...

Lydia, I liked several others by this author too. It was interesting how his histories of cod, of salt, and of the Basques intertwined. Even his book on nonviolence connected to Gandhi and his salt protests.