If pepper was viewed as the spice of life, then salt was life itself.
Cassiodorus, a Goth administrator in the 5th century AD,
wrote, "It may be that some seek not gold, but there lives not a man
who does not need salt." Every cell and all the fluids of the body
contain salt. All neural activity requires sodium, and salt is
essential to muscle movement. In arid lands, salt was and is as
important as water for survival.
Anything that means life usually means wealth, too. To show his
generosity to the Jews as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem,
Artaxerxes (465 BC) proclaimed that he would
provide Ezra the priest with "up to 3¾ tons of silver, and salt
without limit." Salt is still used as money in some parts of the world.
It has also often meant power, and rulers from the ancient Egyptians
down to present-day despots have used the control of salt as a way to
In the early days of the Empire, Roman soldiers received
salarium—salt rations. When they were given money to buy their
own salt, they still called it salarium, or salary. The expression that
someone is "not worth his salt," which is still used today, was
originally penned by Gaius Petronius in the 1st century AD
One of the oldest roads in Italy is the Via Salaria (Salt Route), an
important trade route, over which Roman salt was carried.
The importance of salt is reflected in the names of town: Saltcoats,
Salzburg, Salinas—and even in less obvious names like
Prestonpans, where the pans in question were for boiling salt.
Actually, salt is important in modern, industrialized nations, too,
since more than 14,000 processes in industry and manufacture require
salt or salt derivatives.
Because of its vital preservative qualities, salt became a symbol of
incorruptibility. In Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper,
Judas Iscariot is easily identified as the one whose arm has just
knocked over the saltcellar. Jews, Greeks, and Romans viewed salt as an
emblem of purity. Romans believed that salt could make dangerous or
tainted food safe, hence, anything suspicious was "taken with a grain
of salt." A prescription to take something (in this case, an antidote
to poison) cum grano salis was first recorded by Pliny the Elder
(AD 23-79) in his Natural History.
The preservative qualities of salt also made it a fitting symbol of
honor, esteem, and an enduring compact. When an Arab says "there is
salt between us," he is referring to the tradition that to eat a man's
salt creates a sacred bond, and no one who has eaten another's salt
should do him an ill turn or speak ill of him. In Persia, even today,
"untrue to salt" means disloyal, ungrateful. The expression "salt of
the earth" (Matthew 5:13) still describes a person held in high esteem.
And in Russia, the word for hospitality—khleb-sol—literally
In Sanskrit, lavanya, which expresses grace, beauty, and charm, is
derived from lavana— salt. In Latin and Greek, salt's sharp
savoriness made it a term for wit, and the connotation lasted for
centuries. In Les Femmes Savantes, Molière wrote, "It is
seasoned throughout with Attic salt." "Attic salt" means wit,
particularly elegant wit, and sparkling thought well expressed (Attica
being the region of Greece which includes Athens, and ancient Athenians
being famous for their wit).
Of course, not all salt facts are fun. In this century, salt
blockades and salt shortages have caused political upheaval and mass
migrations. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s, the appearance
of salt in the markets of Kampala triggered riots. Salt is still life
and wealth and power in much of the world.
The Seleucids of Persia were among the many governments for whom
control of salt was an essential part of the administration. Today,
Persia is called Iran, and that is where this lamb and celery stew had
Khoresh Karafs (Lamb and Celery Stew)
½ cup olive oil
2 medium-size onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2½ lb. lamb stew meat, bone-in
2 cups water
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
6 large, leafy stalks of celery
¼ cup lemon juice
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet,
then add the onions and fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown
(about 10 minutes). With a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a 3- to
4-quart casserole (or any pot with lid).
Trim excess fat off lamb then, within the constraints imposed by the
bones, cut lamb into bite-sized cubes. Brown lamb and bones in the oil
remaining in the skillet. When lamb and bones are brown, transfer them
to the casserole. Pour the water into the skillet and bring to a boil,
scrapping in any brown particles clinging to the bottom or sides of the
pan. Stir in salt and turmeric, then pour over the lamb and onions in
the casserole. Set skillet aside. Bring casserole to a boil, reduce
heat to low and simmer, tightly covered, for 1 hour.
Wash celery, trim off root ends and scrape heavy strings from the
back of each stalk. Cut away the leaves and chop them finely (if you
don't have about 1 cup of chopped leaves, or couldn't find leafy
celery, you can use parsley here). Cut the stalks crosswise into 3-inch
pieces, then lengthwise into strips about ¼ inch wide.
Place ¼ cup olive oil in the skillet and add strips of celery.
Stirring frequently, cook until they begin to turn delicate brown,
about 10-15 minutes. Add them to the casserole at the end of its
initial 1 hour. Stir in celery leaves and lemon juice, cover and simmer
for an additional 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
This can be served over plain, white rice, but to be more
traditional, serve it with Chelo. For Chelo, prepare 4 servings of
white rice according to package directions. Melt 2 Tbs. of butter in a
Dutch oven, or other pan with a lid. Add 1 Tbs. of water to the butter,
and heap the rice into the pan, mounding it into a roughly conical
shape, but not so high that you can't put the lid on the pan. Drizzle 2
Tbs. melted butter over the mound, then cover the pan. Cook for 15
minutes over medium heat, then reduce heat and cook for an additional
15-20 minutes. This gives you buttery rice with a crispy, golden
crust—an Iranian specialty.
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