When it comes to enjoying food, in my opinion, there are two opposing camps. Those who like sweet things and those who prefer savoury. I’m definitely in the latter camp, and will forgo a pudding in favour of a starter, or if I am going for the full three courses, then will likely choose a cheese plate to follow my mains.
I think this is because I love the taste of salt far more than I should. This flavour-enhancing mineral has had a bad reputation over the years, and in the 1990s when my children were little, it was considered almost irresponsible to add it to any food I cooked for them. I remember confessing to my GP that I thought I ate too much of it, but that I couldn’t really give it up. She asked me how much exercise I did, and when I explained that I played squash and tennis several times a week, she told me to stop worrying as I’d be losing a lot of salt through perspiration. The burden of salt-guilt was suddenly lifted, which I’m not sure was an entirely good thing as I’m now maybe too liberal with the seasoning!
It’s true that too much salt is bad for you, and can contribute to the development of cardio-vascular diseases, and the producers of fast food and ready-made meals have certainly been guilty of over-loading their products with the stuff over the years. But the thinking these days is that moderation is the key, and as long as you limit how much of it you consume, you can enjoy it on your food and in your cooking. It is recommended that you eat no more than 5g a day.
It is still the case that if I spill any, I will throw it over my left shoulder, much to my kids’ amusement as when I do it, they think I’m suffering from some kind of momentary arm spasm. And when I explain that it’s to ward off any bad luck caused by the spilling of the salt, they then google the phone number of the nearest therapist.
But the association of luck and salt goes back many centuries, although I wasn’t sure how far until I read my dad’s column from 15th November 1980. He said that the old superstition may even date back to the Romans. Apparently, when the Romans sacrificed animals to the gods, salt was placed on the unfortunate’s head, and if any were spilled, it was a portent of doom. To avoid this, the livestock would be given fodder beforehand which was adulterated with a drug to keep them docile.
Salt was also associated with friendship as it was an incorruptible mineral, and therefore if it was spilled between friends, it meant that the relationship was under threat. To counteract this, the spilt salt had to be thrown over the left shoulder. Similarly, if salt was spilled between two people at dinner, then that was a portent of a future argument.
It always had to be the left shoulder for the tossing of the salt as this was the side upon which evil lurked. The salt would land in the face of the malevolent spirit who would then be blinded and prevented from carrying out their nefarious plans.
Another superstition was to carry a pinch of salt around in your pocket. It purportedly helped businessmen negotiate successful deals, and at night time, protected the carrier from potential misfortunes concealed within the darkness. It was also used to guard children from the malicious attentions of any passing witches. It was well known that sorceresses had to count every grain of salt in the vicinity before they were permitted to cast any spells, so by having it nearby, the child could be spirited away while she embarked on the laborious task.
The symbolism of spilled salt is possibly most famously depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. The mural was created between 1495 and 1498 and rests eight feet up from the ground in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It depicts the moment when Christ announces that one of the 13 apostles at the table would betray him.
It is easy to identify Judas sitting a little to the right of Jesus, thanks to the upturned salt cellar just by his arm.
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th October and the Gazette & Herald on 11th October 2020