Without salt the feast is spoiled.
The salt arrives in the usual brown corrugated shipping box with the Amazon logo emblazoned on the side. The red 3-pound box of Diamond kosher salt and a smaller, somewhat mangled box of flaky Malden sea salt are wedged between, two $10 3-inch bamboo salt wells, a bulk package of cards for the nursing home residents I visit and two pairs of black “squat proof” workout capris.
My son wanders through the kitchen. He twists the lids on the salt wells and asks why I need salt from Amazon. We already have salt, he says (always logical, always hungry, dinner consumes the mind of my 18-year-old). My husband passes through and is halted by the collection too. He asks the same question. Salt?
I cook a lot. They can’t digest why I would have any need to order salt from Amazon.
Our pantry has iodized table salt to sprinkle on vegetables, stovetop popcorn, baked potatoes, and a dark blue box of Morton’s grainy Kosher salt that I dump into pasta water, rub into thick cuts of raw meat, and measure into hearty soups.
We live in a small town. The few times I have been to Whole Foods have been more like field trips than routine shopping. Trader Joe’s is on my bucket list. I have found a few variations of salt close to home – pink Himalayan salt, rock sea salt for a grinder.
But, the new “cookbook” I got for Christmas, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, opens my mind to the possibilities of salt. She explains how Diamond sticks to food better than Morton’s, how the Malden adds just the right crunch and a “taste of the sea” atop salad greens. “Get used to the way the salt falls from your hands; experience the illicit thrill of using so much of something we’ve all been taught to fear,” says Nosrat. I am baffled that this information about different types of salt has been hidden from me for so long.
Two days after the salt arrives, the readings of the Catholic Mass are about salt. “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13 NAB translation). I hear the readings four times at three different churches where I play the organ. I go home and read the inscription on the top of one of the new salt wells, “take life with a grain of salt.” I start to say to my husband, “can you believe the readings were about…” He finishes, “salt.”
I think of the metaphors related to salt, the way it is used in the Bible to signify permanence, purification and preservation. In the Old Testament, God directs Elisha to put salt in contaminated water to purify it (II Kings 2:20-21). In the New Testament we are told “Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another” (Mark 9:50) and “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” (Col. 4:6) Salt is mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible (number varies on translation)
The ionic compound made of sodium and chloride has been in use long before recorded history. The earliest known treatise on the pharmacology of salt dates to 2700 BC in China. This writing discusses 40 types of salt. The City of Rome was founded on the banks of the Tiber River, near the Via Salaria or Salt Highway. Salt from the Adriatic Sea was mined, traded and transported throughout the Empire. Roman Soldiers were even paid in “salt.” The Latin root of salt is sal from the Roman god of health, Salus, and is the basis of many words beginning with sal, including salad, salary and salvation.
Since ancient times, people have used salt to season, preserve, disinfect, clean and enhance flavor. The body uses salt to balance fluids, maintain healthy blood pressure and muscle function. Of its many uses and meanings, preservation is primary. Before refrigeration, salt kept food from spoiling. In an article in Catholic Answers, Daniel Mattson says, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples they were the “salt of the Earth,” took place near the city of Magdala. “The salted fish from Magdala became so famous throughout the Roman Empire that the Romans called the city Tarichea, which means place of the salted fish.”
I dip my fingers into the salt wells, enjoying the way the salt moves through my fingers. Sprinkling it onto braising meat connects me to the cooking. Pinching a few coarse flakes of sea salt onto a salad of greens, slivered red pepper, Honey Crisp apples, pickled homemade beets, pecans and goat cheese satisfies me in ways the salt shaker cannot. But none of this preserves the food, it only flavors. I consider how this mineral can make such a difference in the taste of the food and how I must come up with my own metaphor, my own way to add salt. If the point of what Jesus is telling us through the metaphor of salt is that we are to preserve the faith, then what is my role in that? I have flavored my four children’s lives with stories of the saints, daily prayer, Catholic Mass and Catholic school; but have I preserved the faith for them? Have I handed them a salt shaker when I should have gifted them a salt well, something deeper that they could dip into when doubts, suffering and disappointment make them question their faith?
Mattson argues that many interpretations of this Bible verse are inaccurate. “Our Lord’s proclamation has little to do with just being decent citizens and everything to do with spreading and preserving the faith,” he says. A quick google of “salt of the earth” brings up several common definitions. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, under the entry “salt of the earth,” states: “Basic, fundamental goodness: the phrase can be used to describe any simple, good person.” The “noblest of society,” says dictionary.com. And Merriam Webster says: “A very good and honest person or group of people,” adding the sentence “These folks are salt of the Earth.”
People are often described as, “down to Earth.” I wonder what this means. Are some people not, “down to Earth” or, “salt of the Earth”? Am I considered, “salt of the Earth”? As a believer, is this what I want, to be considered, “down to Earth,” a basically good, kind, honest person, or do I want to be the “salt of the Earth” that is used to preserve. This is a strong distinction.
A stoneware crock with a baggie of blessed salt sits on my antique oak dresser in my bedroom. I’ve had it for at least five years, a gift from a priest, a friend who had the gift of healing. He used it to bless our home when I was worried about the infiltration of evil. After a dinner of steak and Cabernet, and lots of laughter, he blessed us, placed the baggie of salt in my hands and told me to use it to bless my family, to have faith in its ability to be an instrument of grace that could help to preserve one from corruption and evil. When he died not long after that, from a vicious battle with cancer, I quit using the salt. It sits as a remembrance, some part of me afraid that if I use it all, I will forget everything this holy priest taught me about trust.
Since the beginning of the Catholic Church, blessed salt has been used as a sacramental. St. Augustine spoke of how salt was placed on the tongues of new catechumens. “You have put salt in our mouths that we may thirst for you,” said Augustine.
Blessed salt may be used on its own or mixed with holy water. As is the case with all sacramentals, the power of the blessed salt comes from the “power flowing from the redemptive act of Jesus, elicited by the Church’s intercession to be directed through those external signs and elements.”
How can I dig deep enough into my own faith to know that I am using the blessed salt out of a deep belief in the power of Jesus to heal? Maybe that is the real reason the blessed salt sits on the dresser, unused – doubt. Do I have enough trust, faith, belief that healing will take place and faith will be preserved? “I believe in One Holy God, the Father almighty….” slips easily off of my tongue during Mass, but, when suffering seeps through the cracks of my faith, I go through the motions – blessing myself with holy water, crossing myself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I cling to the notion of miracles but I’m old enough to know that redemption often comes through suffering and sorrow, not perfect endings.
I sift this white gold, sprinkle the blessed salt on my carpets and kosher salt on my food, and I consider my role in the preservation of the faith. I hang onto a line from Catholic Daily Reflections posted online on Feb. 9, 2020, the week the salt wells appeared on the kitchen counter and the readings focused on Mathew 5:13: “When our presence in the lives of others has little or no effect upon them for the good, then our actions are like tasteless salt that is only good to be thrown away and trampled underfoot.”
I pray that I am helping to preserve the faith through my work as an organist, a writer, a volunteer to the elderly and the poor, but, mostly I think about my kids and my granddaughter, and whether they will one day say, “she was the salt of the Earth.”
Beth Casteel is a mom, grandmother, community volunteer and Catholic Church organist who writes from rural southwestern Pennsylvania.