The Salt of the Earth
A family legacy lives on
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
When it comes to kitchen staples, salt sits at the top of the list, thanks to its multitasking nature. It’s a seasoning that boosts the natural characteristics of any food. It’s a preservation agent, the key ingredient in pickling that allows us to safely keep and later eat a variety of items. And sodium derived from salt is an essential element for good health. All types of salt can accomplish these things, yet not all salt is the same. This is a truth Nancy Bruns knows well, and sharing this knowledge, alongside the salt she pulls from far below the earth, is part of her daily grind as a salt miner and maker on the J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works farm in Malden, West Virginia.
She and her brother Lewis Payne started J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works on land that’s been in their family since the early 1800s. And while her lineage is layered with a salt-mining legacy, that’s not what initially drew her to it. In her former life, Bruns was a chef. “I spent 20 years in the food industry, so I had a knowledge of and appreciation for salt,” she says. “I actually collected salts from around the world; I was fascinated by the variety in mineralities and flavors as well as the different crystal sizes and shapes and how those differences interact with and affect food.” When she left the restaurant world in 2008, she was searching for her next chapter. At the same time, she was delving deep into her family’s story. “Even though I grew up here, the salt business side of my family’s background just wasn’t talked about much,” she says.
Bruns learned that her ancestors came to the Kanawha Valley—in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains—in 1817 from other parts of Virginia in search of the rich salt source they’d heard about. They drilled a well that tapped the remains of an ancient sea far underground. Others did the same, and soon, 50 small salt mining operations sprang up, their 100 wells combining to create what was by the mid 1800s the largest salt producing region in the United States. West Virginia’s salt industry took a huge hit during and after the Civil War, and while Bruns’ family held on almost a century longer, mainly by diversifying into other minerals, by 1945, in the face of competition from large-scale, industrial-mined salt companies such as Morton’s, they had to close.
“Once I uncovered more about our personal history with salt, it became something I just couldn’t let go of,” Bruns says.
Her growing interest combined with a dearth of high caliber salt options available crystallized her decision to plug into her heritage and found J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works. “I saw there was an opportunity to meet the demand from chefs and consumers who wanted a quality, artisanal, locally produced product,” she says. Her brother agreed and joined her, and in 2013, they put in their first well and revived their family trade, becoming the seventh generation of their bloodline working in the salt business when they harvested the first batch.
While the process is basically the same today as it was 200 years ago, Bruns and Payne tweaked it in several ways, committed to making it more sustainable by forgoing machinery and fossil fuels and instead relying on hand labor and solar energy. It begins with a salt-soaked solution called a brine that’s drawn from a 350-foot-deep well dipping into a pristine freshwater aquifer that runs through the salt deposits of the former seabed and mineral-rich sandstone. “Think of it like an underground salty river,” Bruns says.
Once at the surface, the brine flows into large tanks, where it sits for about five days, allowing the iron present to oxidize and then settle to the bottom of the tanks. “It would give the salt too much of a metallic taste, so we want that out,” Bruns says.
Next, the power of gravity pulls the brine (minus the iron) to shallow trays inside one of several dome-shaped structures made from clear plastic sheeting. Here, Mother Nature takes over. “We call them sun houses, and as the name suggests, the sunshine evaporates the water, leaving salt behind,” Bruns says. As the water in the brine reduces, its salinity increases, going from 4.5 to 15 percent. At this point, it’s moved to another sun house where it sits again until crystals begin to form. Once they do, they are hand-harvested (scraped and scooped) and placed in containers with screens that catch the crystals and let the remaining brine fall away.
Each batch goes through this crystallization step several times, until no more new crystals are created. Then, it goes through a final drying process in a room with a dehumidifier before being hand-sifted into batches of differing crystal sizes: grinding salt is the largest crystal; finishing salt is a medium crystal; and cooking salt, which Bruns calls popcorn salt, is comprised of the finest crystals. From well to jar takes approximately five weeks.
While the operation and its yield started small, producing 500 pounds of salt in its first year, today, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is producing 20,000 pounds annually. Bruns is proud not only of the company’s growth but also of its product, particularly how it contrasts with table salt made by industrial producers.
Unlike that salt, which has additives such as anti-caking agents and is stripped of all other minerals, J.Q. Dickinson salt is unrefined, meaning it has nothing added, and it isn’t robbed of valuable extras; it retains a little more than 6 percent of inherent trace minerals. That might not sound like much, but in terms of taste, it’s everything. “Every salt from every place on earth has its own flavor because the trace minerals in it vary based on the geography, so our specific mineral makeup gives our salt its unique bold and bright flavor,” Bruns says. The minerals found in J.Q. Dickinson salt are mostly calcium, magnesium, and potassium, as well as another 20 minerals in much smaller quantities.
These minerals do more than impart a signature zest; they also pack a nutritional punch. “Keeping those minerals in our salt provides a lot of health benefits, especially the magnesium,” Bruns says. “Our soil in the U.S. is pretty depleted of magnesium, so fruits and veggies don’t have as much, and most Americans are magnesium deficient. So, getting some in your salt is a good thing.”
With the levels of pollutants, including heavy metals such as lead and mercury, rising in our oceans, the purity of J.Q. Dickinson salt is also a plus. “In West Virginia, because we’re getting our salt from this very stable source that’s not affected by human interaction, it’s protected from contaminants,” Bruns says.
Her pride in J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is obvious as she discusses the ins and outs of creating a company from the ground up. “I am an entrepreneur at heart, so the process of building a business has been amazing,” she says. But her passion for her own endeavors isn’t her only driver. A love of the Appalachian area fuels her too. “From the beginning, I’ve been motivated to bring the salt industry back and to form partnerships with other businesses here to aid in their success,” she says. “In a state so heavily reliant on coal, which was actually kicked off by the salt industry, to take that history and turn it around and help the region become economically sustainable is really important to me.” One example of this sentiment in action is the J.Q. Dickinson Appalachian Mercantile, an online shop featuring the arts and crafts of multiple area makers as well as its own salts and other products. “I love that part of what I do,” Bruns says.
Yet it’s only one aspect in a long list of “loves” that Bruns has fallen for in the last decade. “I feel so lucky to have found such meaningful work, to come to work on land that my ancestors worked so long ago,” she says. “It’s kind of a weight on my shoulders, but in a very good way. Carrying on this legacy is empowering.”