Seventh Generation Salt Makers Preserving History.
Text by Ginny Heard
One of the basic human tastes, salt is essential when it comes to food, for its flavor as well as its preservative qualities. In a small town in West Virginia, one family is picking up the trade that their ancestors laid down and realizing that their delicious salt preserves much more than food.
Siblings Nancy Bruns and Louis Payne are in the seventh generation of a salt-making family in the river town of Malden, located in the Kanawha River Valley, just outside Charleston. Their family started making salt in 1817 when their ancestor William Dickinson invested in properties along the Kanawha River where he had heard of people boiling brine from nearby springs for the resulting salt. These springs bubbled forth from the Iapetus Ocean, an ancient, untouched sea trapped below the Appalachian Mountains.
Dickinson drilled for the brine, using hollowed-out tree trunks for piping, and became one of the first major salt producers in the town that grew to be known as the “salt making capital of the east.” Massive growth in the salt industry was fueled by the meatpacking industry in Cincinnati in the 1800s and early 1900s. J.Q. Dickinson Company was soon one of 50 different manufacturers tapping the same source. With more than 100 wells in the valley, the salt harvesters produced three million bushels of salt a year.
In the mid-1800s, however, the salt industry started to falter—the meatpacking industry moved from Cincinnati to Chicago, and soon after, Union troops destroyed many of the salt-works in the area during the Civil War. After the war ended, Dickinson’s company was one of only a few that rebuilt. The company survived into the 1940s, when, with more widespread refrigeration, a pendulum swing toward convenience foods, and the discovery of salt mines in places like Utah and Michigan, it was no longer profitable to boil down the brine. The company closed its doors, the wells were capped off, and there they sat, untouched.
That is, until Nancy, a chef who’s worked in kitchens all over the country, including her own, pursued her interest in salt. Knowing her family’s background and watching her pantry being taken over by salts from around the world, she started to think about the land that her family still owned. Knowing the food trends toward small-batch ingredients agreed with her, she realized her family needed to make salt again. She called her brother, Louis. “He has a real love of food,” Nancy said. “We grew up cooking a lot with our parents, and we’re a very food-oriented family.” Louis jumped right on board.
The siblings replaced the old well on the family property in May of 2013. If one of them didn’t point it out to you, you’d hardly notice the capped, 10-inch PVC pipe sticking out of the ground. It’s hard to imagine that 350 feet below the surface, a pump is pulling brine from the unseen depths. The brine is placed into a large tank, where it is allowed to sit as iron oxides and settles out. After settling, the liquid is poured into shallow beds in evaporation sun houses, where with time the salt crystalizes from the brine. Once the crystals get to the right size, the salt is hand-harvested with a wooden scoop, tied in bags, and left to allow any remaining liquid, at this point referred to as nigari, to drip away.
Nancy and Louis then hand package the salt in jars, which are sold in stores across the country as well as on their website, alongside wooden salt cellars and miniature versions of their cherry wood scoop. Along with their original chunky-textured finishing salt, they are now offering a popcorn salt with the same bright flavor but with a finer grain that clings perfectly to each kernel. And with J.Q. Dickinson, the byproducts of salt production are not wasted. “We’re working toward having no waste from our brine,” Nancy says. They bottle and sell the nigari, a mineral liquid that is traditionally used to make tofu and can be used to make cheese, on their website. They’re even working with a company in Alabama to use their iron oxide as a natural dye.
If you look at those interested in Nancy and Louis’s products, you’ll realize they have inherited the family talent for salt-making. Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Maryland, and Blackberry Farms in Walland, Tennessee (just to name a few) are supporters of their salt and the craftsmanship behind it. Nancy and Louis, in turn, look to support local artisans. They’ve partnered with local companies like Allegheny Treenware in Thornton, West Virginia, who makes their cherry wood rakes and scoops that they use to harvest the salt. “Sourcing locally and regionally as much as possible is important to us and is a part of being a sustainable community,” Nancy explains.
Nancy and Louis’s family history makes them feel connected with the area, and the feeling is mutual for many in the community. “People show up at the salt-works and share stories about their history in the area. They share pictures and such good memories,” Nancy says. As it turns out, this retelling of their family history is also a retelling of the history of the entire area. They give tours at the salt-works, during which they show the old salt office that has remained untouched for 50 years. “It has records dating back to the 1870s, old photographs, and even stencils that were used to mark the tops of the barrels of salt,” Nancy says.
These days, each jar of salt is hand-numbered to let you know which batch it came from. “I don’t see this turning into an industry like it was before,” Nancy says. “It is important to us to keep it small-batch.” With her experience in the food world, Nancy believes that high quality products are what people are craving these days. Nancy and Louis love the fact that people are getting back in touch with where their food comes from. “I think people are realizing what they sacrificed for convenience, and now we’re swinging the other way,” Nancy explains. “The importance of sourcing ingredients from high-quality producers regionally is becoming a way of life again.”
The more artisanal take on Nancy and Louis’s incarnation of salt doesn’t separate them from their past, however. It’s the same salt, the same ancient sea, the same land that their ancestors used before them. Their salt has preserved so much more than food; it has preserved a way of life and the history of an area. “I feel so lucky to have found something that is so incredibly meaningful,” Nancy says. “It has brought my love for food and our family heritage together. It has been a deeply satisfying experience.”
To order J.Q. Dickinson Salt, visit jqdsalt.com.
The clean, bright taste and crunchy texture of J.Q. Dickinson’s salt stands up well to bold flavors and gives an extra boost to varied cuisines. When Chef Sean Brock first tried it he said he’d take it by the truckload. Here are few of many chefs who are clamoring for more:
Sean Brock – Husk
Charleston, South Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee
Linton Hopkins – Restaurant Eugene
Spike Gjerde – Woodberry Kitchen
Ian Boden – The Shack