a, Opinion

The silly, sordid story of salt

After spending the winter holidays in Toronto with a Christmas ice-storm generously donated by Jack Frost himself, I felt meteorologically prepared to start the semester at McGill; I was wrong. When I heard the sound of rain the morning of January 6, I uttered two words: Vatican cameos; watch out!

What used to be a seven-minute walk from Leacock to Stewart Biology became 20. With people falling left and right, things became quite clear: in face of ice, man—supposedly the brightest of all creatures—was hopeless. All seemed lost but for one key product: salt.

The noble salt has many applaudable applications; this article seeks to pay tribute to its unique qualities. So without further ado, let’s talk salt.

Salt is a de-icing agent. When added to the roads, it induces a property termed “freezing-point depression.” Salt melts the ice by dissolving in water; because of the salt, the dissolved solution will no longer re-freeze at zero degrees. Depending on the concentration of salt used, the freezing point of water can be lowered to anywhere between -6 to -16°C. This effect is ultimately what prevents McTavish from turning into a death-trap (or the best water slide ever; take your pick).

Luckily, in Montreal, the battle between man and ice is limited to about four months in winter. For most, the true value of salt is in the kitchen. For starters, salt has a distinctive taste; this unique ingredient functions like a magnifying glass and amplifies the flavours in food. The added bonus? It is also a preservative. Salt deters the development of bacteria and moulds by reducing moisture, and drawing water out of microbial cells. As such, foods with salt not only taste better, they are less prone to spoiling.

Thomas Frederick Crane illustrated the importance of the ingredient in his fairy tale “Water and Salt.” The story is similar to that of King Lear, and begins with three princesses professing the depths of their love for the king. The youngest equates the extent of her adoration for her father to her fondness of salt. Offended, the king banishes her from the palace. However, upon being deprived of salt in his food, he quickly realizes the product’s necessity. Saltiness offers greater versatility and pleases a broader audience than that of sweetness or bitterness. This is why salt has established itself as the most ubiquitous of food seasonings; you may not have cumin or saffron in your kitchen, but you are guaranteed to have salt. Interestingly, the use of the ingredient is so pervasive that historical taxation of this product have played a role in sparking wars––namely, the Salt War of 1540, and, more famously, the French Revolution.

While Crane’s writing focuses on the physical importance of salt, a deeper reference personifying relationships with properties of salt is expressed in The Persian Letters by Montesquieu: “[…] Being so firmly in possession leaves us nothing to desire, or to fear; that a certain amount of fickleness is like salt, which adds flavour and prevents decay.”

Although this particular passage was meant to critique the oppressive dynamic men had over women in the 1700s, the crux of the matter is of relationships and control. In any relationship, when complete domination is exercised over an individual, what eventually results is a loss of interest; there is nothing new, nothing to look forward to. Like the property of salt, the occasional discord of opinions and beliefs will serve to preserve relationships, renew meaning, and bring flavour and excitement to what is predictable, bland, and mundane.

So this winter, when I hear the familiar crunch underneath my feet, you will see me grinning like an idiot, pondering the complex nature of this truly wonderful thing that is salt.

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