The Edible Rock

A few months back, I wrote about the public speaking competitions held by the Royal Canadian Legion and the Lions Club that I entered year after year as a child.  Now my younger brothers are repeating the cycle.

This year, my fifteen-year-old brother did very well in the public speaking competition sponsored by the Lions Club.  He even reached the provincials this past weekend, though unfortunately did not win.

Hearing about his experience brought back memories from 2003, when I won the Legion Provincials for a speech I wrote about salt.  Curiosity aroused, I hunted high and low for a copy, but couldn’t find it.  The computer I’d used at the time was no longer in existence and I feared my speech had been lost forever.

Grandma saved the day.  Being the proud grandma she was, she had kept a copy to show off to her friends and agreed to make a photocopy for me.  (She would never send me the original, lest this situation occur again.)  It arrived in the mail this week.

My mother returned from the contest, saddened for having heard that the Lions Club is considering discontinuing its public speaking competition.  There’s lack of interest and low participation numbers.  I think this is tragic, for public speaking has been one of the most formative aspects of my education and provided me with a skill that gets used on a regular basis.

To remove it entirely is to deny young people the opportunity to learn an incredibly useful skill.  The ability to communicate is generally lacking, and anything to improve its status in today’s society, I think, is a most worthwhile investment.  More students, however, need to take advantage of the experience.  (Maybe they don’t realize that the grand prize is $1000!)

So, in honour of this past weekend’s competition and for old times’ sake, I’d like to share my speech about salt.


I am holding something in my hand over which wars and bloody rebellions have been waged; it is a building material with which whole cities have been constructed; a currency exchanged for pure gold; a controller of traffic; an ingredient that enhances the flavour of life.  Salt.

How can specks of rock create such fantastic stories of adventure, danger, and romance?  Like a genie, they call forth exotic-sounding names like Taoudenni or Timbuktu.  I can see them now – the endless camel caravans stretching across the Sahara Desert, plodding under a towering load of salt blocks the size of large tombstones.  A cameleer in flowing robes follows the ancient salt route, a barely visible track in the shifting sand, but still a vital link between Africa’s great wealth of salt and the rest of the world.

The salt mines at Taoudenni are remote, about seven hundred kilometers north of Timbuktu, with one tiny village between them.  Today, the black-skinned Malians work these mines for $2 a month, chipping pieces of the earth’s salty crust and packing it on camel caravans to carry on the world’s most desolate delivery route.

The tiny potent granules resurrect an unpleasant aroma.  The year is 2000 BC in Egypt.  I smell salt and rotting flesh, mixed with the occasional whiff of cinnamon.  This odious scent comes from an embalming house, situated near the natron ponds where embalming salt is collected.  Natron salt is as red as the blood it replaces.  For centuries the Egyptians have preserved humans by pickling them in natron.  Millennia later, when nineteenth-century archaeologists brought the salty mummies out of the desert to Cairo, they were taxed as salted fish before being allowed entry.

What stories, what adventures, what crimes has salt forced on man?  Margaret Visser claims that salt has forced man to explore, to think, to work, to travel; that he has fought, built, destroyed, extorted, and haggled.  It is a craving for this edible rock, as she calls it, that urged the Romans to construct the great, ageless Via Salaria, to safely deliver salt to Rome from the mines at Ostia.  Oh, those rapacious, salacious Romans needed every grain they could get, considering the staggering amount of salted rotten fish sauces, salted vegetables, salt drugs, and salt disinfectants that they consumed, and they needed salt just to pay soldiers their salary, a word which, incidentally, means salt.

From the miniscule white rock innocently resting on my palm, the screams of murder and mayhem resound from medieval France as men, women, and children await death by hanging for smuggling salt.  The French monarchy has imposed such impossible taxes on salt that the poor French smuggle it in on their women’s false rears.  The cries are heard until 1789; the protests to this crushing salt tax have ignited the grisly French Revolution.

My grains of salt make me think of the great Mahatma Gandhi.  It’s 1930.  I see old, withered Gandhi calmly marching with hundreds of Indians to the sea where they will take back the salt beds for the people of India.  Indian families had been extracting salt from the sea for centuries when the British snatched away control, leaving thousands of families unemployed and destitute.

Some say there is magical power in a grain or two of salt, enough to break spells, scare witches, and bring peace to quarrelling neighbours.  In his famous Last Supper painting, Leonardo da Vinci depicted Judas as upsetting the salt cellar, a bad omen.  Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians pacified the gods with sacrifices of salt.  They believed the gods listened most attentively to prayers uttered in a salt mine.  Christ told his followers to be the salt of the earth.  No wonder in medieval times people rubbed newborns with salt and sealed every bargain with it.

Maybe this is why salt features so prominently in fairy tales.  Once upon a time, a Russian merchant gave each of his three sons a ship.  Since Ivan the youngest was a fool, he was given a cheap cargo of wooden beams.  His ship was blown off course and he landed on an island of pure salt.  At once his fortunes changed.  After Ivan replaced the wood with salt, favourable winds blew him to a great city, where he secretly added a pinch of salt to every dish of food in the king’s kitchen.  The king ate the delicious food, and demanded to know why it suddenly tasted so good.  He bought Ivan’s load of salt in exchange for gold, silver, and his beautiful daughter.

Salt conjures up a story of a princess who is banished after telling her foolish father that she loves him as much as salt loves meat; a Biblical tale about a homeless woman who is turned into a pillar of salt as she looks back on her burning home.  It recalls the salty tear of a velveteen rabbit from which springs an exquisite fairy. 

How can humble salt, that we throw on our roads and trample on; how can ordinary salt, one of the cheapest items in the grocery store, have such a vibrant, exotic past?  The stories I tell you are true, or I am not worth my salt!

[Katherine Martinko, 2003]


5 thoughts on “The Edible Rock

  1. Wow! What an amazing speech! Some of this I already knew about salt, but I have also learned even more from your speech! I have to reblog this!

    Oh, I do hope the Lions do not discontinue the competitions. I am a firm believer that everyone should have at least some rudimentary public speaking skills. It doesn’t have to be flowery oratory worthy of an Oxford don or elder statesman… just reasoned and intelligent speech.

    As a species, humans are judged not just by their appearance and actions, but how well they speak. There isn’t much else that will make a person completely unforgettable than poor speech.

    I would say two words to today’s young people… ‘job interview’. This is where you get the job or don’t get the job. It’s not your qualifications or experience (well, okay, it is… to some degree, but…)… it is how you present yourself and how you verbalize your thought processes.

    A little story… with no prior customer service or retail experience (‘shopper’ doesn’t count), I went and got myself hired at a Starbucks as an assistant manager… after only one interview… and did I mention no experience? I beat out two applicants with business degrees. It isn’t always what or how much you know… it’s how you present yourself.

    1. That’s really interesting about getting hired so fast. It’s so true that knowing how to present yourself is far more important than any number of degrees you might have. In fact, the irony is that some of the most educated (shall I say, over-educated) people are unable to handle themselves in social settings because they’ve been immersed for so long in the world of academia. They begin to lose touch with how to relate to people – the #1 skill.

      Reminding kids of their future job interviews is a good way to spur them on to appreciate the value of public speaking. I actually need to email the coordinator of the program to give him my take on it, and I’ll be using that point in the letter. Thanks for the tip, and for the reblog!

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