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Omaha Magazine

Otis Twelve: Salt

May 23, 2023 03:28PM ● By Otis Twelve
Otis Twelve Not funny omaha magazine june 2023

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Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

About 700 years ago there was a place that was so far away from other places that it became a synonym for “far away.”

My dad would refer to it whenever I dared to ask for a ride to the Overland movie theater on a Saturday morning. “I’m not driving you from here to Timbuktu every time you get a craving for popcorn and Mike & Ikes!”

Yes, Timbuktu, that city of mystery. Exotic, magical, isolated by distance, time, and tall tale, the capital of an empire based on salt... oh, and gold… salt and gold, but you can’t put gold on popcorn when you’re at the Overland Theater on a Saturday morning and this is the magazine’s “Food” issue… so, salt… that’s the thing… if you’re talking food, you’re talking salt.

Anyway, back in the 13th century it became worth it to travel from “here to Timbuktu” because, even though popcorn had not yet been invented…*

*NOTE: Corn was probably first domesticated by humans—known as farmers—in what is now Mexico some 10,000 years ago. Archeologists—some of them, the children of farmers—now report that kernels fell into a fire in Peru some 7,000 years ago and popped. So, it is likely that the Incas enjoyed some tasty popcorn while taking in the spectacular views from Macchu Picchu. Since they had no movies to watch, spectacular views had to do. We do know they also had salt. Otherwise, of course, they would have just left those popped kernels to burn up in the embers, though the salt they used did not come from Timbuktu, as it was too “far away.”

…Everyone needed salt. Yes, man does not live by bread alone, because bread is no good without a little salt in the dough. And mutton is lousy without a few shakes of the old ceramic cat with small holes in its head. Folks needed salt to preserve fish, and a bunch of other things they had to preserve because lots of people got tired of eating fish every day. In fact, one of the early Popes, who hated eating fish every day, declared that fish should only be eaten on Fridays. That decree, of course, greatly increased the demand for salt because there were thus more fish to preserve, and therefore, Timbuktu got even richer.

Salt became so valuable that it was even used as money. Though that didn’t last long because the small grains tended to leak easily out of pants pockets, and Kosher salt is so abrasive it can wear through even Levi’s jean-grade denim, and cashiers with paper cuts on the tips of their fingers refused to make change. Plus, the problem that any yokel could go to any nearby beach and make sea salt also bugged economists like Adam Smith because that would make wealth too accessible and thus collapse all of Western Civilization. Or, just imagine knocking over a big tumbler of ice-water on your kitchen table while paying bills and… well, the only money left would be the salt in your tears. Because of all those factors, salt stopped being money long before we started putting RFID chips in our wallets and our pets.

Time marches on, as they say, and J. Sterling Morton eventually bought a bulldozer and a few miles of shoreline property near Salt Lake City, and coined the slogan, “It never rains but it pours.” Thus, he became, if not a better human being, certainly a richer one because he sold a lot of salt. Then, tragically, someone invented “low-salt” diets, and a lady named Mrs. Dash invented a “salt-free salt.” Go figure. Morton was ruined, and reduced to planting trees and operating a lodge/restaurant in Nebraska City. 

Timbuktu too has fallen on hard times. There’s an airport just south of town and thus traveling there is no longer difficult so long as you don’t book Southwest Airlines. Yeah, Timbuktu isn’t even that “far away.”  In fact, nowhere is that “far away” anymore… except Gretna.
Pass the salt. 

Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 6-10 a.m. Visit for more information.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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