Of all the projects we’ve undertaken thus far, I think lobstering is the hardest. Not only does it require a lot of hard, cold, dangerous work, it involves the acquisition of expertise – what kind of traps, where to put them, how to bait them, when to check them. Lobsters are enigmatic and lobstermen are tight-lipped, so acquiring this expertise isn’t nearly as straightforward as learning about, say, gardening. Gardeners will tell you anything.
At the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum is sea salt production. It requires very little work and absolutely no expertise. All we have to do is get some sea water and put it in a pan on top of our wood stove, so it’s hard for me to explain our fascination with the process. The first time we did it, in the dead of last winter, Kevin and I stood in front of the wood stove for minutes at a time, staring at a pan of evaporating water.
We’ve just started our second year of production, and we’re still fascinated. And it’s not just us. People who know us and follow what we’re doing seem to think that our sea salt manufacturing is our most interesting undertaking. Mushroom foraging raises a few eyebrows, but that’s mostly because people think eating wild mushrooms is a benign form of lunacy. Lobstering is old hat to Cape Codders, and chickens only get us a polite smile. But sea salt!
It caught the fancy of my friend Elspeth, who writes Diary of Locavore and does the Local Food Report for our Cape NPR station, WCAI. Not only did she do a radio spot on it (and me, for which I thank her), she tried it at home. Her husband, Alex, is a serious food guy (if you’re ever in Wellfleet, visit Mac’s Seafood), and he reportedly caught the sea salt bug. “He’s been keeping the house at 110 degrees so he can make more of it,” Elspeth said.
I was also recently invited to speak at a gardening forum at Cape Cod Community College, and the organizer emphasized the sea salt portion of the program. “I know you do a lot of things,” Aimee said, “but make sure you talk about the salt.”
In a way, I find this very gratifying. In another way, not so much. “Hey!” I want to say. “I go out on a small boat in lousy weather to haul 50-pound lobster traps up from the bottom of the bay. Don’t you want to hear about that?
In a word, no. It’s all about the salt.
“Does it come out gray?” I’ve been asked, many times. The first time I did it, I thought it would, and was very surprised when it dried to a pure snowy white.
“Is it safe to eat?” is generally the next question. I suspect, in the history of the world, nobody’s ever gotten sick from salt for the simple reason that it can’t support life. There are all kinds of microorganisms in the water, but they die as it evaporates. There are other things dissolved in the water – minerals and inorganic compounds – and they don’t go away. If I re-dissolve my salt in water, there is a little residue (mostly calcium carbonate, I suspect), but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which it’s going to do me harm.
“Can I just boil the water to get the salt?” ask people who don’t have wood stoves. Of course you can, but it doesn’t make sense. Energy is expensive and salt is cheap. This is only worth doing if the energy involved is going begging. If we got more sun, I’d try a solar version in the summer.
It’s reassuring to me that we’re not the only ones who find this interesting, but I still can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that holds our attention. It may be that, even though we’ve all known since elementary school that salt dissolves in water, the miracle of something useful materializing out of bucket of water still captivates us.