If the idea of eating salt formed by a 400+ million year old ocean turns you on, prepare for a monumental thrill when you open a jar of salt handmade by the sibling owners of J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden, West Virginia. The salt’s taste is as mesmerizing as its history —it is considered indispensable by celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Napa Valley, CA), Sean Brock (Husk, Charleston, SC, and Nashville, TN), and Spike Gjerde (Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore, MD).
Sister Nancy Bruns and brother Lewis Payne may have something going here.
The brine the pair evaporates to yield their celebrated salt is the result of freshwater aquifers running through pourus sandstone and redesolving sea bed salts from the more than 400 million year old Iapetus Ocean. The Iapetus name was inspired by Greek myth—the titan Iapetus was the father of Atlas, after whom the Atlantic Ocean was named, as the Iapetus Ocean was something of a precursor to the Atlantic. During the Neoproterozoic and Paleozoic eras, this ancient sea rested between the paleocontinents of Avalonia, Baltica, and Laurentia. Today, it rests beneath the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley and the Dickinson family farm.
How did the pair come to access this ancient sea bed? The narrative follows like a combination of something in one’s bones that calls them to return to family land and a little bit of magic.
Bruns and Payne are the seventh generation to own their family land in Malden, purchased in 1813. By 2012 when the siblings began plans for J.Q. Dickinson, the once very active salt works had been out of operation for nearly 70 years. Originally launched in 1817, their great, great uncle had shuttered the works in the 1940s when mass produced salt like Morton put them out of business.
Nancy Bruns shared, “My husband and I met in culinary school and owned a restaurant together in Highlands, NC. We had been amassing a salt collection that was taking over our home and restaurant pantries. After we sold the restaurant, my husband began pursuing a master’s degree in American history, concentrating on the role of salt in America’s past. He came across the Dickinson family and their long history in the industry. I knew that my family had been in the salt business, but I didn’t realize how deeply we were involved.” Bruns had been collecting and educating herself about salts for years without ever knowing exactly why she felt so pulled toward this culinary essential over countless others.
“After years of tasting, I realized there were few American salts of high quality, and none being made in the region. Amidst the artisanal product movement and the intensifying of America’s desire for locally sourced foods, the opportunity to resurrect our family heritage surfaced. My brother was also looking for a change in his life, so I said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea . . . He went with it.”
How would they choose their drilling spot? By referencing their ancestors’ records. The building on the farm now referred to as “the old salt office,” where business was conducted for decades, contained maps, a log book for every drilling attempt, sales records, employment records, even hand-labeled bottles of salt. With the help of their ancestors speaking through these documents and hearts full of big hopes, they selected their spot.
“It was like the histories you read about drilling for oil. We were standing around the well with our cups, hoping to catch salt water. Sure enough, per ancestral records, we hit the brine at about 300 feet down. We caught it in our cups and tasted. We were pretty sure we had something special.”
Through the “nothing fancy” 6” PVC pipe with a pump now flows the brine of Bruns and Payne’s ancestors, and the salts of the ancient Iapetus. Though in the old days the brine went into a salt furnace, which reduced it to salt by burning timber and coal to turn the product around quickly, today Bruns and Payne insist on a more environmentally and economically sustainable approach that relies on solar evaporation. In “sunhouses” similar to greenhouses, the brine pours into massive, handmade “sunbeds” where it evaporates in 150 degree temperatures for about two weeks before it is moved to another house where it crystallizes and is hand harvested. About 5 weeks pass from pumping the brine to sealing the jars.
After jarring, the salts are ready for use by home cooks and professional chefs. Nancy’s culinary experience has come into play bringing the salt into some kitchens you might have heard about. “It has really helped me to be able to speak a chef’s language. I understand that it is a significant investment for restaurants to move from Morton to J.Q. Dickinson, and am thankful that many chefs are deeply concerned with quality sourcing and willing to make the move.”
And just as chefs concerned about quality sourcing are supporting J.Q. Dickinson, J.Q. Dickinson champions Appalachian craftsmen and producers. For example, the team’s salt-making tools are handmade by Allegheny Treenware, which also makes the cherry salt cellars and scoops that are part of The Savory Pantry’s J.Q. Dickinson Heirloom Salt Gift.
Still thinking about all those old maps, drilling and employment records, and bottles of salt labeled in the early 1800s? Payne is hard at work on preserving the documents and objects, with the aim of creating a museum on the farm. If you visit when the museum is complete, you’ll also be able to see the remnants of J.Q. Dickinson’s salt furnace.
When I asked Nancy what this endeavor has meant for her in terms of family connections, she shared, “It has brought us together. My husband, my brother, my brother’s wife—we all work on different aspects of this project, and our children will grow up with it as part of their lives. It has established an incredible connection to our ancestors, and we are driven and informed by seven generations of heritage. Now, we’re the stewards for another generation. We want this to be something that our kids carry on.” Between two Bruns and two Payne cousins, let’s all toast cups of brine to the chances being pretty good.
Eager for more? Listen to episode #22 of the James Beard award winning Gravy Podcast, "A Salt Story: West Virginia Siblings Mine the Past to Build a Future." Gravy is a production of The Southern Foodways Alliance, which documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.