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Salt and Bread

February 28, 2011

I recently finished reading a book of Best-Loved Folktales from Around the World, selected by Joanna Cole. Given all my thinking about food these days, I couldn’t help noticing how much it factors into many of the tales. Everything from Snow White eating a poisoned apple, to magic spoons and bowls that provide endless amounts of food, to princesses emerging from oranges, to giants threatening to make meals out of people.

Two stories, though, particularly caught my attention. The first was called “Salt and Bread”. It is a tale from Sweden and features a king with three daughters. The youngest was his favorite until the two older ones tried to turn him against her out of jealousy. So when the king asked how much his daughters loved him, and the youngest replied, “I value you… as salt and bread” (p. 381), he was so offended that he banished her. Only when he later sat down to a feast without salt or bread did he realize how valuable those were, and he reconciled with his daughter.

The other story was simply called “Salt” and came from Russia. It related how a young, foolish man set out to redeem himself and make his fortune. He succeeded in this by finding a huge mountain of fine salt and selling it to a king who had never before seen salt and was overwhelmed by how it transformed his food.

What struck me about these stories was how they venerated such humble foods, while our own society has almost vilified them.

Salt has been given the cold shoulder for a long time, with doctors and health processionals warning about sodium. Many studies have shown that too much can lead to increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to kidney damage. After all, too much of anything can often be dangerous, and salt is no exception.

For a time, though, and even now, people can run the risk of too little. That can also be dangerous, leading to electrolyte imbalance and negatively impacting the blood pressure as well as nerve and muscle function. Besides which, while it’s true the processed and packaged foods are over-salted, try to imagine eating only home-made food without ever having salt. You might sympathize with the protagonist of “Salt”, who “nearly turned sick at the thought of the tastelessness of all that food.” (p. 431)

Bread has only semi-recently been seen as the enemy. It started with the Atkins diet and other low-carb diets, when suddenly people turned pale and became horrified at the thought of a whole sandwich with two pieces of bread (even if it was whole wheat). All those carbohydrates! Now the difficulty is more with the wheat, with so many people having celiac or gluten sensitivity.

And it’s a shame, because bread, like salt, truly is precious. Its history alone makes it valuable, and all the metaphors associated with it. Jesus fed the masses not with fishes and rice, or potatoes, or quinoa, or beans, but loaves. We talk of breaking bread together, and offering bread to a stranger has historically been a sign of hospitality.

Reading these stories made me long for simpler times, when our food did not suffer such scrutiny, nor did it have to. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the implicit trust these people had in their food, that it didn’t contain strange chemicals or too much of any one thing, but I hope that we can get at least partway there. In the meantime, I am grateful anew that I can eat fresh, wheat-based bread, warm from the oven, spread with melting salted butter – truly a precious gift.

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