Salt of the Earth

This article is by Slow Food Edmonton members Terry Juzak and Jennifer Cockrall-King. It appears in the current Slow Canada newsletter supplement for all Canadian Slow Food members. Posted with permission by authors.

“A meal without salt is no meal.” – Hebrew Proverb

As food writers on the prairies, we’re always on the lookout for interesting local foods. From time to time, we come across a few spectacular regional products that make us well up with culinary prairie pride: Highwood Crossing Farm’s cold-pressed non-GMO organic canola oil, Du Bois lake-grown organic wild rice, Sylvan Star’s aged Gouda and cheddar or maybe just a really great saskatoon pie.

Salt Mound

So when researching and writing a story on prairie salt, we had a small crisis of faith. Food pages everywhere had articles about the rebirth of salt as a gourmet ingredient and we had a major salt production facility just two hours north of our home base in Edmonton. The problem was, our salt had very little glamour (except, perhaps the two of us in our hard hats covered in a thin dusting of salt by the end of the tour), and definitely none of the cachet of those sexy, many-coloured sea salts. This was run-of-the-mill iodized table salt. Pure white. Grainy. Ordinary. And whether you were a Sifto or a Windsor Salt household, there was likely a one-pound bag of pickling salt in your grandmother’s pantry and a rectangular cardboard spout-pour box of table salt in your cupboard too. When we took another look at this simplest of foods, however, we found that though it may be ordinary, what we were also looking at was the original prairie ingredient.

Salt? The original prairie ingredient? We’re not kidding. Some 380 million years ago –– before the berries, the buffalo, the fresh water fish and the wild rice –– a sea covered the prairies. When it evaporated, it left a 300-foot thick bed of salt angling northwestward in a broad band from southwestern Manitoba through central Saskatchewan and into northern Alberta. This halite vein (the mineral name for rock salt) lies underground anywhere from a kilometre (about 3000 feet) to a kilometre and a half (about 5000 feet) deep.

Though it didn’t seem to play an important role in First Nations’ diets in the area, early European fur traders and explorers were quick to take notice of the mineral deposits. In fact, it seems to be the region’s earliest mineral industry. According to an article we found in the Manitoba Free Press of Saturday, March 28, 1908, in the early 1800s, possibly even earlier, Hudson’s Bay Company servicemen were extracting salt from brine springs on the west sides of Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis. Even before the late 1800s, more than 1000 bushels of salt (about 36,400 litres or 1280 cubic feet) were made annually at a place called Monkman’s Springs to supply posts and settlements on the Assiniboine, Red and Saskatchewan Rivers. This was an important source of salt on the Prairies until the railway brought in salt from Ontario.

Salt Crusher

Nowadays, salt production plants are scattered throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the case of the Canadian Salt Company in Lindberg, Alberta, a company drilling for oil in 1947 hit a salt bed instead. (It seems that these prehistoric salt beds also follow natural gas and oil deposits, and resource prospectors sometimes had to settle for salt when they really were looking for more valuable booty.) A year later, the Lindberg salt plant was up and running, producing 125 tons of salt per day using a solution brining method to extract the underground salt, and this is how it’s still done today. Water from the nearby North Saskatchewan River is pumped into five wells drilled into the salt beds. The brine is then extracted and the water is evaporated off using steam generated by on-site natural gas wells resulting in over 40 grades of salt for various household, industrial and agricultural uses. In a landscape that is increasingly under threat from the relentless mining and drilling for the province’s resources, solution brining seemed rather benign and quaint as we were toured through the process from brine to bag, salt lick, water softener and road salt.

Salt Bagging

Though Canadians are the highest consumers of salt per capita – three-quarters of which ends up on our roads for ice and snow control in the winter – our guide tells us that there is enough salt at that location alone to supply all of Canada for the next 2000 years. Unfortunately, this abundance makes salt such a desirable de-icer and about five million tonnes of road salt end up on Canadian motorways each year as a cheap and easy way to deal with winter conditions. This salt effects roadside vegetation, soil and most importantly eventually ends up in our fresh water supply. In surface water, road salts can harm freshwater plants, fish and other organisms that are not adapted to living in saline waters. (Salinity of fresh water impacts agriculture as well. The Colorado River in the US is legendary for its salt content, affecting farmers and the urban areas – Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California – that use its water.) Efforts to reduce the use of road salt in Canada are being made ever since Environment Canada declared road salt a toxic substance because of its environmental impact.

Finally our ordinary salt had a whiff of scandal, and we had uncovered a bit of the history behind that ordinary box of salt in our cupboard.

Jennifer Cockrall-King and Terry Juzak write and publish The Edible Prairie Journal, a periodical magazine that covers the food, people, places and food traditions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For more information, visit www.edibleprairie.ca. Jennifer Cockrall-King is a member of Slow Food Edmonton.