Art to Taste: A Cow Meets Salt Story
by Megan Pruiett • September 3, 2015
Salt lick sculpture. (Photo by Baker County Tourism)
Some claim a sweet tooth. But a salt tooth? Gazing at your plate, have you ever grazed your fingertip along stray grains of salt, just to savor the taste? Salty chips, chocolate with sea salt, sushi dipped in soy sauce, a crunchy pickle—there are so many delectable ways to satisfy our desire for what Mark Kurlansky describes in his estimable book Salt: A World History as “the staple food sodium chloride, NaCl, from the only family of rocks eaten by humans.”
Too much salt is considered unhealthy, too little, lethal: we need it to survive. Sodium chloride combines two unruly elements (the former, flammable, the latter, poisonous) into a stable combination that facilitates intercellular communication, nutrient transportation, and the balance of fluids within the body. What’s lost through urine, sweat, and tears must be replaced, and often. Since we can’t produce our own supply, we obtain our necessary (or more than necessary) quota from the foods we eat.
Salt is present in meat and nearly absent in plants; were we to subsist on steak, we’d never need to reach for the saltshaker. Since the invention of agriculture, most humans have supplemented plant-based diets with salt scraped from rocks and briny shores.
Herbivores must likewise seek out external sources of salt. According to Kurlansky, North America’s winding back roads are “simply widened footpaths and trails, and these trails were originally cut by animals looking for salt.” Following in their hoofsteps, people settled near natural salt licks to ensure their own supply. Nowadays, ranchers provide livestock with large blocks of salt, rather than relying on the local bog. Over time, the animals’ broad tongues wear deep grooves and whorls into the blocks, testifying to their persistent yen for salt.
A few years ago, I heard an intriguing story on NPR, wherein a man named Whit Drescher described a time when he was “sitting on the porch of a friend’s cabin admiring the shape of a salt lick the deer had worked on and I began thinking that it sure beat some of the sculptures in parks and in front of buildings.” One thing led to another, and Drescher decided to start a contest for these animal-licked works of art. Every year since 2007, the Eastern Oregon burg of Baker City has held the Great Salt Lick Contest, an irreverent-yet-sincere art auction that donates its considerable proceeds to support Parkinson’s Disease research.
Comprised of white, pink, russet, and even blue-hued salt, the sculptures are raised on elegant pedestals for crowds to enjoy, the most aesthetically promising among them auctioned live by a dizzyingly fast caller. To honor the silent artists, a pair of handsome cows are ceremoniously presented with a virgin block of salt.
Cows enjoy a celebratory salt block while art enthusiasts peruse entries into the Great Salt Lick Contest held annually in Baker City, Oregon. (Photo by Baker County Tourism)
Human history has been powerfully shaped by sought-for, traded, taxed, hoarded, fought-for, fortune-making salt. How satisfying to think of bovine artists at work, gradually shaping their chosen medium into evocative emblems of our shared need for salt.
This Thursday, the Exploratorium presents its own tribute to this essential ingredient at Pairings: Worth Your Salt. Join us to learn about the restoration of San Francisco Bay salt ponds into tidal wetlands, pique your culinary curiosity with cooking demonstrations, and enjoy salty lassis, cured salmon, and assorted pickled pleasures.