They’ve sat with us at nearly every table, a pair that’s partnered most of the meals ever cooked in western kitchens. A Yin and Yang, darkness and light. The importance of salt is crystal clear. Life wouldn’t exist without it and if it did it would taste gross and weird. But out of all the herbs and spices on the culinary roster how did this ground up gray stuff become the go-to spice of life. Seriously, why not salt and turmeric or salt and mustard, salt and cumin, salt and nutmeg, salt and coriander, salt and paprika, salt and cinnamon, salt and allspice, salt and cloves. [Music] Salt, or specifically sodium chloride.
It’s the only rock that we eat, the unlikely joining of a poisonous gas and an explosive-metal and when paired with water it provides both the incubator and ingredients for life. We use sodium and chloride ions to keep our cells inflated, to regulate blood pressure and convey electrical nerve impulses throughout our body. To maintain this we need to consume about six grams of sodium chloride every day. So salt’s culinary and cultural value is no surprise its history could fill a book, and it has. A great book by the way.
Have you guys read the book Salt: A World History Early hunter-gatherer societies got all the salt needed from their animal diet To this day the Masai people of East Africa get theirs from drinking the blood of their livestock. But as human society is shifted to growing and eating plants, salt became something you either found or traded for. The earliest sites of salt harvesting date to at least 6,000 BC in China and Europe There’s salt in most of the blue wet stuff covering earth once you boil away or evaporate all that pesky H2O but there’s pure sodium chloride in Earth’s crust, if you can find it.
Following animal trails led us to natural salt licks and some of these became our first highways. Several ancient salt harvesting cities still bear a pinch of history in their name. Entire economies were built around salt. It was a commodity and currency that you could eat. Roman warriors deemed worth their salt where sometimes given a salary. The Roman custom of salting bitter greens even gave us salad. Although that caesar dressing comes from Tijuana. Today salt is cheap enough to manufacture that many people are in danger of eating too much. But before the Industrial Age it was scarce enough that people fought wars over it.
It even inspired at least one revolution. Before refrigeration, salting was one way to keep food from spoiling. Since most harmful bacteria can’t grow in high salt conditions. But obviously salt also changes how we experience our food. It makes things taste salty but it also accentuates other flavors. Sodium chloride can chemically block bitter taste receptors and amplify those that sense sweet, salty, and umami. Depending on when and how its applied to food it can change the very chemistry of how it’s cooked. Salt is probably the most important ingredient on Earth. But then there’s pepper.
One spice to rule them all. If you thought salt was interesting, pepper is is a thing. Black pepper comes from a flowering vine native to Southeast Asia. It gets its heat from a chemical called piperine. Rather than capsaicin like those confusingly named fruits of the chili pepper family. It’s been a common ingredient in Indian cooking for at least four thousand years. But small amounts of black pepper made their way to Greece, Rome, and even ancient Egypt, where peppercorns were apparently valuable enough to stuff up the mummified nose of Ramses the second. Pepper became a key commodity in the spice trade stretching between Asia and Europe, where its main use like other pungent spices was to mask the flavor of meat that was, shall we say, past its prime. The extreme distances involved in trading pepper across the known world translated into extreme prices.
To inflate them further Arab traders invented a myth that pepper gardens were guarded by serpents which had to be chased away with fire before a harvest. Who wouldn’t want to put magic snake powder on their food. Throughout the Middle Ages it was common to see many spices used in the food of the wealthy, but the enduring popularity of black pepper may owe itself to one picky eater. Its said that Louis XIV demanded his food lightly seasoned, preferring only salt and pepper be added.
The French cuisine developed then was the basis for much of what we eat today, and now pepper is the spice and I’m sick of it. Too long we’ve been forced to look at the world of spice in black and white! Held prisoner by pepper, unable to gaze upon the full rainbow of flavors and I say no more! Join me, brothers and sisters, stand together. We say yes to salt. But let us say anything but pepper!