Back to the Salt Mine

by Chanel Earl

 

Normally when Martin spends the evening in the kitchen my nose clues me in to what he is making. Sautéed onions, garlic, steak, limes—his cooking leaves a trail of scents which inspire hunger even on a full stomach. Not tonight—tonight I see water boiling, hear the spice grinder, and watch him dirty pan after pan without smelling anything.

My nose isn’t stuffy, but salt, I am about to realize, is odorless.

And that’s what he is making: pure salt.

After the evaporation is completed, the first batch looks rosy, still carrying with it the sand of central Utah. He asks me to taste it and instead I move as if to smell it. I wonder if such a common and delicious condiment could really lack a smell. It does.

I lick my finger and touch it to the rosy powder; it is as finely ground as powdered sugar. It dissolves instantly on my tongue, leaving the pure and unmistakable taste of salt behind.

My husband has made salt, I think, in our kitchen. The idea is incredible. I don’t know anyone who has made their own salt. In my mind, salt making is reserved for hard working miners, sailors and Gandhi. Even the most organic do-it-yourself-er friends of ours, the ones who use sea salt or kosher salt, do not make it themselves. And most of the people I know use regular, store-bought, iodized salt from that same round cardboard canister they have always used. Our salt is unique: mined, muled and purified by one man, this spring.

***

A few months earlier, after he started reading Salt: A World History, Martin became an ex-pert on all things salt-related, and he regularly shared his new-found knowledge with me. Informing me one evening, for example, that the island where they make Tabasco Sauce sits on a column eight miles deep, composed of almost 100 percent pure salt. “Eight miles is over 40,000 feet,” he explained excitedly, “and nobody will ever be able to empty the salt mine because salt conducts heat so well that the temperature at the bottom of the mine would be unendurable.”

I listened intently as he finished his Tabasco tale, as he explained the intricacies of the salt making process, and as he expounded on the many ways the British commoners have used salt to preserve fish. I even listened as he told me how to make Westphalian ham, a recipe we would most likely never use, which requires chefs to bury a large ham in half a peck (1 gallon) of salt for twelve days, hang it in the fresh air for two days, and then in the smoker for another two. That recipe did not make me hungry.

I tried to contribute to our salty conversations, throwing in fun facts where I could. “Did you know at one point, salt was worth its weight in gold?” I offered.

“That’s just a myth,” he responded. “Salt is one of the most abundant minerals on the planet. The earth’s supply of salt is so great it has never been worth that much.”

He knew everything about salt, but I was determined to be right about something. So, when he said, “Did you know that salt is the only rock we eat?” I was ready.

“No, it isn’t.” My quick retort caught him off guard. “Yes, it is; what other rocks are edible?”

“Iron,” I said. I thought I had won.

“Iron is a metal.”

“Potassium.”

“Also a metal.”

“Well, rock candy, it even has rock in its name.”

“Rock candy isn’t a rock. We’ve been over this before.”

“Yes, it is, it’s a sedimentary rock. The crystals are made of sugar, which is sediment.”

“Crystals aren’t all rocks. Sugar isn’t a rock. Neither is snow.”

“Well.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “You’re so smart, if you wanted to convince somebody that rock candy was a rock, what would you say?”

He looked at me, exasperated. “I’m not talking about this anymore.”

I may have lost battle: rock, but I was going to win the salt war. I had to prove that I was worth my salt, where salt was concerned. I pulled out my secret weapon. “Did you know my family owns a salt mine?” I asked.

He didn’t know. Of course he didn’t. How could he know if I hadn’t told him? I mean, it isn’t really a mine, exactly. My family owns the mineral rights to 150 acres of land in Sanpete County, and somewhere out in the middle of that land is a salt deposit where my dad’s uncle had once blasted a mine shaft into the mountainside.

“I never told you?” I asked, “Oh yeah, my Grandpa James used to take us to the salt mine when we were kids. It’s cool. We should go out there sometime.”

When I said sometime, I didn’t have any specific time in mind. It could have been sometime in the spring or fall, sometime this year or the next, or even ten years from now. But Martin had other plans, and when we visited my parents the Friday before Memorial Day, he petitioned my father for a day trip to the mine.

My dad was thrilled, as if he had just been invited to go mining for diamonds, or dig for oil. We planned the trip for the next day. The four of us, my father, my brother, Martin and I, would bring a shovel and a bucket, and fetch some real, original, natural, Utah salt.

The morning was cool, and the afternoon was windy. After a long drive, we pulled over a few miles south of Sterling, Utah and headed out into the hills. They were white and covered with green- grey sagebrush, Mountain mahogany (juniper) and Mormon tea. I paused on the trail to point out the reddest Indian paintbrush I had ever seen, and we turned to hike up a narrow gully where the recent spring ice-melt had left a wet mud trail just for us.

The area felt completely deserted. We hiked nearly two miles without seeing a single human footprint. Instead we saw deer tracks below us and bald eagle nests above. The white clay, and my white shoes, turned to red.

Even though I had been there as a child, the landscape was foreign, reshaped every year by the elements. When we reached “the mine” I didn’t recognize it. The entrance was located on the south side of a steep cliff, but was completely buried under the loose clay, and only my dad knew where to start digging.

“Maybe a little to the right,” I suggested after a few minutes went by and a few feet of dirt were displaced.

It was Martin’s turn next. None of us could dig as fast or as efficiently as my father, but he needed a break. We took turns digging, looking for the mine entrance as the rest of the group yelled out suggestions.

“Lower down.”

“No just go deeper.”

It was my dad who felt the shovel slip and heard the dirt crash down into the hole below.

“It was buried worse than I thought,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been here in ten years.”

After another ten minutes the hole was big enough for one person to squeeze through. The air smelled old and musty. It was cave air, trapped underground for ten years it had settled and soaked up the smells of the earth.

“We don’t really need a mine shaft to get the salt,” my father explained. “We could just go around to the back of this hill where the deposit is and take it from the ground. But my great uncle wanted to know how deep the deposit went, so he blasted this old shaft with black powder. He never found the end of it.”

I remembered my visits to the mine as a child. It was deep and dark, and I always felt as if I were on a treasure hunt, looking for the largest, whitest salt crystals I could find. Once, as a girl, I found a rock with delicate crystals covering its surface. I carried it gently down the mountain only to have the crystals collapse in my hands.

On this trip, I was shocked by the absence of visible salt. Martin licked the walls of the mine and reported that they tasted salty, but they looked muddy. The mine shaft was also shorter than I remembered it, only about 80 feet from start to finish. The little girl I was would have been impressed, but the adult wasn’t.

After our short visit to the mine we decide to go around to the east side of the hill and col-lect what salt we could. A dried salty residue covered the ground where the spring run-off had col-lected and evaporated. The entire hillside was a combination of reds, pinks and whites. We used the shovel to fill our bucket with the salty mud. We collected the whitest of the rocks. Then we be-gan our hike down to the car, salt in hand.

***

When he purifies his second batch of salt, Martin consults his book again and adds a step to the process. Instead of simply boiling the salty mud in water and allowing it to settle before pouring off the brine for evaporation, he also uses egg whites to create a foamy surface on the brine. When he skims the dirty foam off the surface it removes the last of the sediment.

The salt he brings me to taste is snow white. Once again I move as if to smell it, this time laughing at my own joke, then I lick my finger.

Salt is a source of life. Without it every animal on earth would die. For example, the human nervous system would shut down, our muscles wouldn’t flex and our cuisine would be intolerable. It figures into some of our oldest religious rituals. Wars have been won and lost over its availability. Empires have been built on it.

There is not a single culture in the world that lives salt free. From Thailand to Norway, for as long as time has been recorded, man has used salt for preserving and seasoning food.

“Mmmm, salty,” I say to Martin. “And you made it.”

He smiles, pleased. “I really like this batch, but I think next time I am going to try solar evaporation, to see if I can get some larger crystals.”

Our salty adventures aren’t over. We still have half a bucket of salty mud under the kitchen table, and before long we will be headed back to the mine for more. Until then, I have some research to do.

Pop rocks, for example. They’re rocks, right? And we eat them . . .