What Adam Smith Ate: Salt

taxes what adam smith ate salt taxes on necessities of life

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Salt would have been in Adam Smith’s food, kitchen, and perhaps even on the table. But more than that, Smith understand that salt was a commodity that was used and traded and of great importance to world markets. 
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the simplest ingredients when it comes to food. There are staples that even the ancients knew were critical for everything from baking to preservation. One of them was also an ingredient critical to economies, one for which wars were fought: salt.

Growing up in Kirkaldy, Adam Smith would have seen salt as a critical component of Scottish trade. With salt mines nearby and an active fishing economy, it’s a commodity he would have known very early was an important part of daily life.  Inland traders exported it, fisherman preserved their catches with it, navies survived on it, and the English taxed it. It could even be critical in some manufacturing processes. 

Biographer EG West in Adam Smith: A Man and His Works, notes that the nature of the seaport would have contributed to Smith’s thoughts on free trade since he would have seen “sailors, slaters, colliers, nailmakers, smugglers – all … Smith’s boyhood familiars …”   And he would have seen ships coming and going every day with locally mined salt.

By the time Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Wealth of Nations), salt was considered a taxable good, one that while “dear” as he puts it, was a critical part of a household along with candles, leather, soap, malt, beer, and fermented liquors.  In Smith’s view, access to these goods were an “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people” and he recognized that the lower ranks suffered when the government taxed these essentials. From an economic standpoint, taxes on these “necessities of life” could also driver higher labor costs, poverty, and other economic impacts. 

“Taxes upon the necessaries of life have nearly the same effect upon the circumstances of the people a poor soil and a bad climate,” Smith wrote noting that too often, a government’s solution to lower tax revenues was to, well, raise taxes, which just made things worse.

Couple those taxes with market subsidies (like the herring subsidies) and duties on both Scottish and foreign salt, and you had small fisherman struggling to compete with large fleets because they couldn’t afford the salt needed to get their catches to market. Smith felt very differently about taxes on luxury goods versus taxes on necessities and in his day, even he recognized salt as a necessity.

Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt: A World History details the history of salt in the world including how and why it was both a luxury good and a necessity. Critical to all kinds of foods from bread to pickles, salt was especially useful in preserving food. The Asians might be credited with using salt to preserve vegetables like cabbage, but the French – especially those in the Alsace – made it an art form. Choucroute – salted and fermented cabbage – is still a staple throughout the year, often cooked in the local white wine and served with ham and sausages.  

Salt was also critical to the English who used it – among other things – to make a salty, vinegary, anchovy sauce which later became known as ketchup. (It was not unsimilar to garum, the popular Roman fermented fish sauce considered a staple in ancient times.)

Salt would have been a part of Adam Smith’s daily life both from an academic standpoint and a practical one. While he may have found it on his table, the cooks in the kitchens of the time would have used it for pickling and preserving any number things from walnuts to eggs. (Vinegar and sugar would have been the other staples. Vinegar for pickling and sugar for preserving fruit.)  

While we don’t know what Smith might have enjoyed the most, we can offer up a modern take on a timeless classic he would have encountered in France – Choucroute Garni. We’re not going to ask you to make your own choucroute (which is, essentially, the French version of sauerkraut), but recommend you check with your favorite German butcher or sausage maker. Chances are they have a batch going. (You can also find some good German brands in the jar.)

This recipe is a hearty dish for any time of the year, made possible by the simple necessity, salt.

Choucroute Garni  (Serves 8)

·         2 tbsp oil (or Goose fat), divided
·         3 lbs mixed pork including smoked ham hock, ham steak, bratwurst or other German-style sausage, slab bacon, and pork belly
·         4 lb German-style sauerkraut (either fresh or high quality jarred. Skip the sour canned versions)
·         1 onion, sliced thinly
·         2 garlic cloves, minced
·         1 tsp whole black peppercorns
·         12 whole cloves
·         5 whole star anise
·         10 whole dried allspice berries
·         3 pears, peeled, cored, and chopped
·         2 cups chicken stock
·         2 cups Riesling (preferably from Alsace)
·         2 lbs medium waxy potatoes
·         1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
·         Mustards for serving

1.       Preheat oven to 350F. 
2.       Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large oven proof Dutch oven or roasting plan over medium high heat. Sauté the bratwurst, slab bacon, and pork belly until the outside is browned. Set aside.  Drain and rinse the sauerkraut.
3.       In the same Dutch oven, add another tbsp of oil (if needed), then add the onion and brown until softened. Add the garlic, peppercorns, cloves, star anise, and allspice berries and saute for another minute. Add the pears and saute for 1 minute, then add the drained sauerkraut.  Add the meats and press into the sauerkraut to submerge.  Add the chicken stock and wine.  Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes on the stovetop, then cover and transfer to the oven.  Bake for 2 hours.
4.       Prior to serving, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until tender. Remove the potatoes and drain. Cut them in half or quarters, then toss in the chopped parsley.
5.       Serve the choucroute so each portion has a generous helping of sauerkraut and meats, surrounded by potatoes.  Garnish with French mustards and the remaining chopped parsley.

What to Read (or Eat) More?
Previous posts in our "What Adam Smith Ate" series
The Appendix on Herring and Salt in the Wealth of Nations