Appalachian salt

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Salt might not be the first thing you associate with Appalachia, but as Ronni Lundy tells Von Diaz, it's as intertwined with the region's history as coal.

Von Diaz: You cover a lot of ground in this book, but I was really struck by your chapter on salt. How did there come to be salt in this region?

ronni lundy
Ronni Lundy (Photo: Johnny Autry)

Ronni Lundy: It goes back to the creation of what we call the Appalachian Mountains, which were originally a part of a chain in what is now Morocco, and that was on the continent Pangaea. There were huge upheavals, continental shifts, and splitting, so the mountains that we know today, which at this time were much taller and more dramatic, broke away, sailed across the ocean, and became the eastern part of the United States.

In the midst of all these same kinds of upheavals, the Iapetus Ocean, manages to slam in underneath these mountains, and from that is where the salt originates. It begins to work its way up through the rock and through the dirt until it comes up and forms these salt licks in the mountains themselves.

VD: There's a legend around how salt was discovered, right?

RL: Right. Mary Draper Ingles, who was one of the earliest settlers in the 1750s, was captured from her settlement in southwest Virginia by the Shawnees. She and some other captives were taken to the Kanawha River Valley, where the salt licks were, and they were forced to harvest the salt, which was very tedious. You had to do it by hand, and it required heavy fires. It was the work they gave to slaves.

They proceeded on. They may have even gotten as far as the Big Bone Lick in Kentucky before Mary managed to escape in November. She walked back some 500 miles, just existing on berries and what she could find, and got back to Eggleston Springs, right outside of where she had been captured. In telling the story of what happened to her, she told the European settlers about these salt licks, and that is where the salt industry begins.

VD: Other industries grew up around the salt, right?

RL: Yes. To extract the salt, you need heavy, hot fires, and they discovered, "Oh, hey, look. Here are all these incredible hardwoods. We can sell this as fuel. We can also sell it as building material." Then they started using the coal, because they didn't want to burn up their cash crop of lumber. This is a large part of how coal mining becomes a large part of the essence of West Virginia, southwest Virginia, and eastern Kentucky.

The third thing is: The same things that deliver the salt deliver other chemicals. If you ride between Ashland, Kentucky and Huntington, Charleston, and other certain parts of that area, what you see now are chemical industries that actually grew out of salt. But it also has a big impact on our food ways. That's a part of the story that's interesting, too.

VD: Salt and Southern food, I feel, go hand-in-hand. It can be quite salty food. What are some salty foods from this region that folks might recognize?

RL: Country ham, of course. There's always that wonderful moment when somebody takes their first bite of a country ham and thinks they're getting a city ham, and their mouth puckers, and they wonder what they've gotten into. There are a lot of foods that are specific to the mountain South, partly because we had winter and wanted to preserve foods. We ferment a lot of foods with salt. Green beans are called sour beans. Corn, we put into crocks and salt down, and, of course, sauerkraut. All those ferment and become good, healthy foods.

We seem to really like the taste of salt. My Aunt Johnny, when she would cut the tart, little, sour June apples that she dried, we would sit on the porch swing, and she would cut them, and she would salt her pieces of apple before she ate them. She always told me that that made it sweeter. I'm not sure I was convinced, but it was interesting.  As kids, we would put peanuts in our Cokes, and one of my cousin David's favorite snacks was to take Red Hots and put them on a saltine cracker. We're kind of salty people, you know? Our humor's a little salty too.

VD: I know from reading your book that the salt industry almost collapsed after the Civil War. What's going on in the salt industry today?

RL: There's a fascinating thing that's happening in the Kanawha Valley, exactly where Mary Ingles Draper landed. One of the longest lasting businesses there belonged to the Dickinson family, and they continued longer than the other salt producers. They actually continued into the 20th century. They were producing industrial salt, and two of the heirs of that property there -- Nancy Payne Bruns and her brother, Lewis Payne -- realized that they could harvest salt for culinary purposes, and they began harvesting the salt again. Not in this massive, destructive industrial way, but pumping it up in a much more gentle way, into solar greenhouses where they evaporate it. JQD Salt has become one of the premium culinary salts. People like Sean Brock, Travis Milton, Shelley Cooper, Ian Boden, and chefs all around the area are using this particular salt because of its remarkably clean taste, and it's local.

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Published: 
September 13th, 2016

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