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1214 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

My Achilles Tooth: Salt

by Skip Eisiminger

Salt is the deadly white powder you already snort.
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1978

Humans are fortunate that elemental chlorine seized sodium’s electron very early in Earth’s history and never let go.
Anonymous Chemistry Professor

In one of her New Yorker cartoons, Roz Chast implies that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have been kidnapped by “Butter, Salt, and Sugar.” Many modern diners would agree, but as a monotheist, I find that salt, like the Father, rises above His felonious partners. Indeed, what are butter and many sweets without a dash of sodium chloride? I’m something like those Egyptian farmers plowing the eastern fringes of the Sahara who worshipped Hapi and Satet, the gods of the annual Nile flood. Why wouldn’t farmers worship water deities when their debt was so evident? Humans have often faced butter and sugar shortages, but with enough salt in the oceans to cover the land to a depth of 500 feet, I’m confident the idol I revere will never run short.

While Third Worlders living miles from the nearest salt lick are known to have sold their children for a handful of salt, in the First World, at least, our supply should last ’til kingdom come. Whole Foods, for instance, stocks forty varieties from sea salt to Himalayan, and I have nine pounds of Morton’s in the basement in case I can’t get to the grocery to buy some more or the roads ice over. Since an unsalted egg or tomato is worse than none at all, I trust my cache is sufficient.

After KP one night in Basic Training, a buddy said that he’d seen a cook sprinkling the raw eggs waiting for breakfast with something that he assumed was saltpeter.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a cousin of salt that keeps you from getting horny,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, just wait. Think about it—salt on a slug kills it, right? Shrivels it right up. If a peter is a penis, what else would something called ‘saltpeter’ do except shrink your peter?”

The next time I pulled KP, I asked one of the cooks about my buddy’s fears, and he assured me there were no bromides in his kitchen and offered me a salt tablet.

Indeed, over the last fifty years, salt has often suffered by association with compounds like potassium chloride and various hydrobromic salts.

In 1953, Alain Bombard, a French physician, decided to prove once and for all just how safe salt is. Bombard was convinced that what killed so many shipwreck survivors was not drinking sea water but waiting too long in fear of what they’d heard, and then consuming a massive dose. He calculated that if one drank 1.5 liters per day from the outset, a person could survive a couple of months without fresh water. With no food or bottled water, therefore, Bombard set off in a dinghy from the Canary Islands and drifted for sixty-five days before west-running currents brought him safely to the West Indies. For food, he had an occasional raw fish and plankton seined in his shirt.

Not only is salt safely eaten in moderation, it is one of about forty vitamins and minerals the body absolutely needs to maintain the equilibrium of its “humors.” When British colonial administrators saw a lucrative opportunity in Indian salt sales, they expanded their tax base, but they might well have taxed the holy Ganges. As soon as the law went into effect, Gandhi proclaimed the “manufacture” of salt a fundamental right, knowing that without a pinch of it per day, humans would dry up and die. With hundreds of his followers, Gandhi strode to the nearest coast where he allowed the sun to evaporate a cup of sea water. When he tasted the tax-delinquent residue, the British arrested him. But so many followed his example of moral courage that the judicial system was soon overwhelmed, and the governor revoked the tax.

After track practice in northern Virginia and during basic training in South Carolina, my fellows and I were urged by our coaches and cadre to take salt supplements after a good sweat. Without them, I don’t think I could have walked back to the track bus or the barracks. Nevertheless, contemporary health educators are split on the subject of salt consumption. As science writer Gary Taubes put it in 2012, “...if we were to eat as little salt as the USDA and CDC recommend, we’d be harming rather than helping ourselves.”

Another science writer, Jared Diamond, reports that natives of the Yanomamo tribe have an average blood pressure of about 100/60 (as opposed to 120/80 for North Americans) because salt is so scarce in the edible plants of the Amazon Basin. Public-health officials trot out details like this when urging people to reduce their sodium consumption. But people know what their bodies crave, and a salt-free diet is usually not one of them; indeed, in the 1970s when Campbell’s introduced no-salt-added soups, they flopped. Despite the 8-9 pounds of salt that Americans consume annually, our body fluids remain at about 1% salinity, mirroring the salt-sea concentration we crawled out of 450 million years ago. What those who warn of salt’s dangers fail to mention is that the Yanomamo’s life expectancy is about 45 years.


After our Lutheran wedding, when my wife and I arrived at her parents’ home, we were greeted by her German mother holding a plate of bread and salt. I had no idea what to make of it, but Ingrid knew; she broke a piece of bread, dipped it in the salt, and placed it on my lips. I then returned the favor. Later, I was told that this ancient ritual symbolizes the good and bad times every couple is destined to experience, but the bread sustains, and the salt seasons. Though I risk “drawing the devil on the wall,” as the Germans say, this reality check on the threshold of our erstwhile home has seasoned and preserved us for over fifty years.

But what I find most interesting about salt is that when its two elements are separated, each is lethal. A one-inch cube of sodium thrown in a bucket of water explodes with enough force to kill the thrower. And chlorine gas dissolves the lungs as it combines with mucus to form hydrochloric acid. But the fact is that even as a compound, salt is dangerous: the Chinese once committed suicide by consuming a pound of the stuff, and a teaspoon of it will kill an infant.

But just as cobra venom is used to treat heart disease, when sodium and chlorine are combined and mixed with water, to paraphrase Karen Blixen, they season the tears, the sweat, and the seven seas that help us endure the worst life has to offer.

Mine is a faith supported by analogy. When my in-laws and parents died, I placed a pinch of salt on their lips before the casket lids were lowered. Suddenly, these dear people vanished like salt crystals stirred in a glass of water. Though their taste remains, their sight, sound, smell, and touch have left that which once gave them form. One day, I trust I’ll see their crystalline forms again.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury