Appalachia is the salt of the earth

By Candace Nelson - 7:00 PM


My latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Here’s the scoop: Salt is a miracle mineral.

Salt has served as a food preservative for thousands of years. It enhances the flavor of food by suppressing bitter flavors and increasing sweet, sour and umami flavors. It also plays a large role in creating texture, like in bread, cheese and steak.

The elements found in salt, sodium and chlorine, are essential to survival — they help with maintaining fluid balance, nerve transmission and impulses, and muscle functions to relax and contract. As is often the case, too much of a good thing can be bad, but the human body cannot live without salt.

Maybe some of those reasons are why salt was the first West Virginia mineral industry to be developed.

First, it was the deer and buffalo who frequented a salt spring along the Kanawha River. Then Native Americans followed the animal trails to the springs to acquire their supply. Captive pioneers who had accompanied the Native Americans later escaped and shared the story of the springs. As settlers occupied the Kanawha Valley, the salt springs became an economic driver, being sold as a preservative for butter and meats.

In the industry’s heyday, there were more than 50 furnaces in the Kanawha Salines area, producing more than 3 million bushels a year and making it one of the largest salt manufacturing centers in the United States. Flooding destroyed most of the salt mines in 1861 and precipitated the decline of the industry, according to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

The salt industry has even inspired other industries to make the Kanawha Valley their home. Those based on salt brine, like chlorine and caustic acid, have since established locations locally.

West Virginia artisans have resurrected the salt-making tradition in recent years, again making the Kanawha Valley a salt destination.

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, located in Malden, is a seventh-generation salt-making business that hand-harvests all-natural salt from the ancient ocean trapped below the Kanawha Valley and produces finishing salt that can be found in restaurants and kitchens across the country.

They produce finishing salt, as well as popcorn salt, craft cocktail salt, brine mix, caramel sauce, nigari and so much more with this product created deep within the ground.

While I could go on about how great the products are and the flavor they add to meals, what I really love about this company — and others — is that it is tapping into its Appalachian heritage.

Salt has had a deep, profound influence on our foodways and customs. From preservation of food to basic bodily functions, salt has played a role. It enhances the flavor of meals, all while paying tribute to our place and traditions.

Sprinkle a bit of Appalachian salt to witness the miracle.

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