Salt and pepper

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Certain things are always found in pairs: shoes, peanut butter & jelly, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers, hydrogen atoms, yin & yang.  Salt & pepper.  Ubiquitous.  Inexpensive.  They compliment each other well.  But it was not always thus.  Until recently they were rare & valuable commodities.  Though they have varied origins their modern day relationship is in tandem.

Since before history, salt & pepper have been objects of desire.  The matchup began in the days when salting was the only way to preserve meat & fish.  Pepper was added to make the salty food more palatable.  Besides being condiments, they were used as currency, even salaries.  Over time trade routes were established, cities were founded & continents were discovered to satisfy the taste.

Salt’n Pepper PUSH IT video

In the modern world, control over gold, silver, precious metals & oil has been a source of conflict & driver of economic globalization.  However, other products have also inspired change, war, conquest & ultimately the emergence of a closely integrated world trading system.  Spices.  They were the first globally traded commodities. 


NaCl=sodium chloride
Movie with Angelina Jolie playing Evelyn Salt
SALT photography documentary

At one time almost everything on earth was covered by salt.  Every cell in our body needs salt.  Our blood is salty.  The need & yearning for salt predates language.  The earliest people stalked animals to find salt outcroppings.

Salt’s ability to effect food was a foundation of civilization.  From the beginning, it was highly valued as a preservative, as it was found that foods covered with salt or suspended in brine did not decay.  The ingredient we so casually reach for is the result of millennia of human endeavor, laden with history, symbolism & ritual.

Sea salt versus rock salt

The history of commerce is the history of spices.  Ancient records show taxes on salt can be traced as far back as 20th century BC in China.  Salt is used as a metaphor in the Bible.  In Matthew 5:13, Jesus said “you are salt of the earth.”

In photography, salt prints were the earliest positive prints & were
invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840.  A print produced by
coating fine quality writing paper with light-sensitive chemicals &
sodium chloride.  This was the earliest form of a photographic positive

Salt created & destroyed global empires.  The salt mines of Poland led to a vast kingdom in the 1500s.  Heavy duties & taxes along salt roads created such cities as Munich.  The gabelle—a hated French tax was enacted in 1286 & continued until 1790.

Venice was the next great salt empire.  Salt from her lagoons provided the wherewithal for that city to build ships & provide arms for the crusades.  The trading concession they established in the Near East made it the most important port for spices to enter Europe.
Wich & wych are names associated with brine springs or wells in England, ie  Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich & Droitwich.

    According to different cultures, basically a king asks his three daughters
    how much they love him.  Dissatisfied with his youngest’s answer, “I love
    you more than salt”, he banishes her from the kingdom.  Now the reasons
    change with the telling but the king grows ill.  On his death bed his
    daughter returns & discovers salt has been eliminated from his diet.  Upon
    reintroduction the king regains his health, realizes his mistake &
    understands the depth of her love & commitment.  Everyone lives happily
    ever after.

Salt in olden times was as important to civilization as oil is today.  Such large quantities were needed to sustain human populations, especially in cold climates.  It had medicinal value & was a major ingredient in curing leather.

    Salt Institute, in Kennebunk, Maine, teaches students to become
    writers & photographers & be ethical storytellers.  They have
    documentary programs to educate & promote the media landscape.
In ancient Rome, it gained popularity as a condiment.  Italians served salted dishes at the same time as sugared dishes.  Salted foods stimulated the appetite.  We love it for the particular magic that occurs when it is added to foods causing their flavors to blossom.

Black pepper, botanically known as Piper nigrum, from the family Piperaceae, has been the most widely traded spice in the world & has been for more than 3000 years.  Today it represents more than 25% of the world trade in spices & yet is produced in only a handful of countries within 15 degrees of the equator.  Probably originated in prehistoric India, the country remains its largest producer, consumer & exporter.  By the 16th century pepper was being grown in other places such as Sumatra, Madagascar & Malaysia.

free on every lunch counter in convenient economic paper packets
just enough
next to my plate on the tablecloth
fast food restaurant
tiny specks sang of fire on the tip of my tongue
tears in my eyes

Black pepper & other spices “wrote” history.  But going back to biblical times, the story of the spice trade is essentially the story of the pepper trade.  It has been said that no other spice has had a greater effect on world history than pepper.  So lucrative was the spice trade that after his conquest of Egypt, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria as a port to extend it into the Mediterranean Sea.  It was the spice trade that brought Europeans to India.  It caused sailors to explore a more efficient sea route to India, which led to the discovery & colonization of those countries as well as the Americas.  By the fifth century the Arabic peoples had cornered the entire spice market with the Mediterranean, since it was by now a maritime undertaking & no longer conducted overland on the famous Spice Road.  Christopher Columbus & Vasco da Gama set sail in opposite directions to chart a faster way in order to break the Arab traders’ monopoly.  Soon Lisbon became the European trading center for spices, nearly ruining Alexandria, Genoa & Venice.

In 1930, Edward Weston began taking closeups of vegetables & fruits. 
He made a variety of photographs of cabbages, kale, onions, bananas. 
In August over a four day period, he shot at least thirty different negatives. 
Of these, “Pepper No. 30” is among the all-time masterpieces of

Great tales were concocted about the challenging collection of spices.  Europeans were led to believe it was a matter of life & death.  Pepper supposedly grew on trees “guarded” by serpents & had to be burned down to drive the snakes underground.  This of course manipulated their perceived value.  During the Middle Ages, when trade was monopolized by the Portuguese (& then the Dutch) pepper was worth more than gold by weight.  It was used for dowries, taxes & rent.  Their high price, limited supply & mysterious origin fueled a growing effort to discover their source of cultivation.  At one point in history, pepper locations were so closely guarded that disclosure was punishable by death.

Barry Pepper, amusingly, is playing Lucky Ned Pepper in the Coen
brothers’ remake of the 1969 version of True Grit.

Those principalities that had access to the spice as a source of revenue also challenged rival nations by supporting entire armies & navies for longer periods & greater distances. With the spice they could supply them with preserved meat & other foodstuffs.  Once the secrets of East Indian trade winds were discovered, the map of Europe was reshuffled.  That changed the world economy & spurred the Age of Exploration.

    The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was designed by
    Peter Blake & put together by him & Jann Haworth.  They painstakingly
    culled through hundreds of photographs for months before the photo
    session.  The photographer was Michael Cooper at Chelsea Manor
    Photographic Studios on 30 March 1967.

Many spices began as medicines.  In the Middle Ages, they doubled as medical ingredients & condiments.  Pepper “apothecaries” appear in many medieval prescriptions.  They were treatment for a variety of ailments, such as, headaches & asthma.

The “soul of cuisine” it is almost ubiquitous in modern cooking but Romans were the first major users of pepper as early as the first century AD.  By the fourth century over 85% of their recipes used it as an ingredient.  Seventh century classic French cuisine, which developed at the court of Louis XIV, considered pepper as superior to the various other spices imported from the Middle East.  This heightened its importance & gave it the status it enjoys today.

Grown in the form of  peppercorns—black, white, red, cubeb, Sichuan, long pepper, four grades of tellicherry—are bright and round, not the dusty, desiccated fruits you usually see.  Although pepper is no longer the prized item it was in the Middle Ages, “fine pepper” is as varied & complex as “fine wine”.
Opposites are not really opposites to resist.
They are two sides of the one coin to assist.
Truth can only be found within non truth, a twist.
If the world were perfect, it wouldn't exist.
If the world wasn't perfect, it shouldn't persist.
Salt and pepper are not really opposites, or entwined.
Both add flavour to your world, and to mine.
As do all the opposites in your life to shine and remind.
That the pureness of love comes only from itself.
Salt and pepper only add the spice of life back to love.
                --Steve Marshall


DanmacK January 29, 2011 at 12:22 AM  

Nice post I liked reading it ;-)

Spechin,  February 4, 2011 at 8:36 AM  

i just started stocking up on the salt. im going to hoard it and attempt world domination haha. no but really good post. cool pictures

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.