It is not the first time I have been surrounded by the effects of a global calamity. And not the first time I have thought about salt as a curative element. In the summer of 1986, I spent two months on a roving camping trip through the Soviet Union. Although the people were warm and curious, the provisions were sparse and meagre, perhaps more so than typical due to the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster. One July evening, three ragged looking Russian fishermen pulled in next to my Estonian tent site. They had been out on the water for several days and were finally ready to preserve their catch for winter storage. As they unpacked their battered Lada, they pulled out a box of last year’s harvest and tossed a desiccated bream in my direction. I was hungry and took a bite. It tasted like a twig made of salt.
The Russians laughed and explained in their fractured English that you weren’t supposed to eat it by the mouthful. It was meant as a flavouring to be shaved into other dishes. Their fresh fish would not keep, even in a freezer, for very long and would rot from the inside outwards. Salt would preserve the catch and, while the fish would be changed by the process, they would nonetheless end up as dinner on a cold January evening.
By the fall of 2020, well into the Covid 19 pandemic, I felt like I was rotting from the inside outwards and needed preserving myself. At the time, the United States was rapidly galloping to the world leader in active covid infections and deaths. Travel was increasingly curtailed and even our local hiking trails had been closed for a few months. Anything non-essential was winnowed off to the wayside. I was searching for practices that could help guide me through these traumatic events.
By the fall of 2020, I felt like I was rotting from the inside outwards and needed preserving myself … I was searching for practices that could help guide me through these traumatic events.
Humans have been harvesting salt since before the beginnings of recorded history, initially as a preservative but later as a form of currency and cultural lodestone. Salt access is tied to the land and sea it came from and severing the connection between the people and their salt source has historically been used to subjugate communities and nations. Often that suppression has unintended consequences. The Moscow uprising of 1648 began after the government enacted a general salt tax to fund their waning treasury, inflating the price and leading to violent outbursts where the head of the Moscow police department was ‘cut asunder like a fish’ with axes, over 15,000 homes were burned, and between 1700 and 2000 people died.
Likewise, in enacting the Indian Salt Act of 1882, Britain placed a tax on salt, effectively making it illegal for Indians to continue their historical harvesting practices and forcing instead the purchase of British imported salt. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi announced the ‘Salt March,’ an act of civil disobedience designed to challenge British rule. He and his followers, eventually numbering in the thousands, marched to the town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea where he ceremonially gathered salt in the traditional manner. Over 60,000 people, including Gandhi himself, were eventually arrested for harvesting salt from their own ocean. This severing of a people from their land and food collection practices was one of many ‘steps too far’ that ultimately extinguished British rule and led to Indian independence in 1947.
For millennia, salt has been fundamental to human health and culture worldwide. Locally, the Eastern Olympic Peninsula Suquamish tribe derives its name from the Lushootseed phrase ‘people of the clear salt water.’ The surging ocean was already a psychic repository of my sorrow. In a time when only the basic and elemental could be really be pursued, when I felt grief all around me, I decided to deepen my connection to the place I lived. I decided to learn how to harvest salt.
One of the great things about salt making is that it only has one ingredient – the ocean. Perhaps that is a tall order in Topeka but it’s an ingredient easy to come by in Seattle. My first harvest attempt didn’t actually happen until late December however, when the Pacific Northwest is blanketed in a perpetual low drizzle and roiling dark skies. My family rented a self-contained cabin for the holidays in Kalaloch, a historical Quinault tribal site three hours from my home and now encapsulated in Olympic National Park. Along with our groceries and Gore-Tex, we packed an empty seven gallon water container. The plan was to wade knee-deep into the Pacific Ocean and bring home some (relatively) local, pristine, and unpolluted water to distill down into table salt.
There is a Yiddish saying, ‘Mann Tracht, un Gott Lacht’. Man plans and God laughs. I kept this in mind as I misjudged the incoming waves and ended up soaked from my waist down. I was relieved that the 38 degree (3.3 Celsius) rainy weather meant that there were few witnesses to my mishap. I lugged the half-full container to the car, stripped down in the wet parking lot, and put on the change of clothes that I had wisely packed in foresight. The next day we loaded up the car and drove home.
A few days later, I pulled our stock pot off the top shelf and filled it with the Pacific seawater. A practice tip if you want to try this at home – boiling multiple gallons of water will significantly increase kitchen humidity. Our windows steamed up and I opened wide the back and side doors. It was still under 40 degrees outside so I pulled on my parka and kept watching the stove. Over the hours, the water boiled down to a thick and whitish sludge. At this stage, I slid the slurry into a 180 degree oven, fluffing it with a fork every five minutes or so, until the residual liquid was removed and only the salt remained.
I started gathering salt from other locations: Sequim, Washington on the Northern Olympic Peninsula, Birch Bay near the Canada border, and Waldport, Oregon Each batch was different.
The result was incredible. Even a pinch of the salt had its own terroir and tasted like the ocean I have lived by my entire life. My husband and I used it on everything, from seasoning soup to fermenting sauerkraut. I became hooked and started gathering salt from other locations: Sequim, Washington on the Northern Olympic Peninsula, Birch Bay near the Canada border, and Waldport, Oregon on a trip to my childhood home. Each batch was different. The Oregon harvest was …gentler….and more welcoming. The Sequim salt felt ‘busy’ on my palate, perhaps because the beach where it was collected sits on the Straights of Juan de Fuca, a major shipping channel. The Birch Bay salt was comforting and my favourite, perhaps because it was the harvest closest to my son’s home. My kitchen counter became crowded with labelled Mason jars of flaky salt.
As we sprinkled my harvest over our eggs, pasta, and other meals, I started to feel like my cells were changing. I felt as if the sodium in my cells was substituted with an oceanic replacement. I felt the wide local beaches were within me, providing a calming meditation as the pandemic continued to swirl around us. My salt making practice has also been a good reminder of the moderation and patient considerations needed in response to both the current and evolving pandemic and the escalating climate crisis. A reminder that ‘more’ is not always needed or helpful.
In these meditations, I started turning to mythologies for further guidance. In Estonian folklore, the ocean was once comprised of fresh water but became salty as a result of excess gluttony. The story goes that the ubiquitous herring was once not a fish but rather a legged hunting animal, kept as a pet to rid homes and sailing vessels of rats and other vermin. Once upon a time, a two-masted sailing ship was carrying a full load of rare and expensive salt. A vermin hunting herring on the boat so loved the salt that it could not stop eating the cargo, eventually chewing its way through the ship’s wooden hull and causing it to sink. This gluttony so angered Neptune, the God of the Sea, that he released the remaining cargo into the water and cursed the herring to live in seawater forever as punishment for its insatiable self-indulgence.
So far I have not preserved any fish with my local salt. Rather, the salt has preserved me instead. Salt is a historical antiseptic and has been used for millennia to cleanse deep wounds. Through time, these local salt harvests are cleaning my psychological wounds as well. They have tempered me and made me more resilient to the tides of the oft-chaotic daily events. This practice has led me to ponder how my own self-indulgence can contribute to a ‘sinking ship’ as well, both in my own life and in a wider planetary sense. In harvesting salt, I have literally brought the sea within me, a sea that flows easily past the environmentally arbitrary borders set by mankind. And if there is no actual border, then there is no break in connection. Then my son, or anyone really, is not on the other side of a boundry at all.
Glass jars for storage
Collect your seawater from an unpolluted locale. While there is no limit to the amount, save what your kitchen can tolerate, it is good to make the trip worth your while so I would collect 3-4 gallons at a minimum. Strain the water through cheesecloth to remove any bits of seaweed and detritus (or don’t and enjoy the added flavor!). Pour the saltwater into the large pot and begin boiling on the stove. The kitchen humidity will rapidly rise and so it is best to open the doors and windows. Continue boiling until the water becomes a hazy white color. At this point, turn the heat down a bit, let it continue to simmer, and check regularly.
As the water becomes more opaque, start stirring with a wooden spoon and preheat your oven to around 175 degrees. It is possible to burn the salt so keep a watchful eye as it boils down. Once it is a thick yet still wet mass, scrape the slurry out with the rubber spatula onto a parchment paper covered baking sheet, spread it thin with the wooden spoon, and place it in the pre-heated oven.
Check the salt sheet every ten minutes or so. As it starts to really desiccate, ‘fluff’ or rake it with a fork every five minutes to avoid the salt solidifying into a hardened sheet. Once it appears dry, remove the sheet from the oven and let it sit overnight to evaporate even further. Once it is dry to the touch, store in glass jars. I really don’t know how long it keeps as it disappears quickly in my house but it likely will keep indefinitely.