By Ashley Kang and Dylan Suttles
Twenty-six Syracuse fourth graders file into the back entrance of the Syracuse Salt Company. The family-run business sells salt made from Syracuse’s naturally occurring brine, along with salts infused with flavors like ghost pepper and umami. Co-owner David Iannicello welcomes the group from Salem Hyde Elementary with one question.
“Did you all make salt in class?” he asks.
All nod, responding with a sing-songy “yes.”
“So, you know everything about salt that you need to know?” he next asks. “So, we’ll learn how we do it, because now we’re doing things a little different than they used to do way back when.”
While he uses a more modern method, in many ways Iannicello and his daughter Libby Croom have brought Syracuse’s storied salt industry back to life.
In the 1800s, Syracuse served as the hub for the production of salt in the United States. The industry’s rapid rise in our area is what led to the nickname “The Salt City.” But by the 1900s, salt production began to decline due to competition and the exhaustion of concentrated salt brine in and around Onondaga Lake.
But the brine still exists — deep under our city’s surface.
“In between those red posts out there is our well,” said Iannicello, pointing out of the building’s back entrance. “That little thing with the silver top … That’s our well. That’s a big hole in the ground. And it’s about 300 feet deep. So, imagine a football field on its side. That’s how deep that well is.”
A pump pulls up the brine from 280 feet underground. It sits behind an unassuming building off Pulaski Street. The water is about four times saltier than the ocean.
On this visit, students first taste the brine by dipping popsicle sticks into a sample. Many of their faces pucker after that first taste, from the high concentration.
Once pumped, the brine is stored in large vats, then heated in 100-gallon tables that look like mini swimming pools. As the moisture evaporates, chunks of salt emerge.
Iannicello’s business partner and daughter, Croom, next shows the students how the large chucks are placed in a machine to shift through the large crystals. The strategy: rapid shaking.
The brine originates from water flowing deep underground that dissolves salt as it moves from south of Syracuse — just as it formed thousands of years ago.
That’s the local history the Onondaga Historical Association wanted to honor with its new partnership with the Syracuse City School District. The association’s executive director Lisa Romano Moore said the two entities worked with the Syracuse Salt Company to bring the city’s 80 classes of fourth graders a unique hands-on learning experience.
“With the New York state curriculum in fourth grade, they learn about local and state history. There was a discussion about salt, and how a lot of students don’t understand the history of the Salt City,” Romano Moore said. “We talked a little bit about how to infuse history with other kinds of project-based learning opportunities.”
Teacher Margaret Sayles said students spent three weeks making their own salt, sourced from actual Syracuse brine.
“The first day was putting the brine in and kind of talking about it. And then every day they had an observation log,” said Sayles, noting the students would spend the first five to 10 minutes each day looking at their tray, marking down what they noticed had changed and what was different.
“Then by about week three, we had complete salt and no brine anymore,” Sayles said.
The final result was not the table salt many students are familiar with. Student Mehdi Ridah said he liked watching the translucent rocks develop.
“I like how it looked,” he said. “Some of them like snow, and some of them look like crystals. Like ice.”
The students actually turned their salt into a salt dough, and used that to create Mother’s Day gifts.
Beyond the Syracuse Salt Company, all 1,600 fourth graders in the district also toured the Salt Museum at Onondaga Lake Park and visited the nearby “Hungry For History” historic marker honoring salt potatoes. It is said the famous dish was created by Irish immigrant Daniel Keefe who settled in Syracuse in the early 1840s. Many of the newcomers worked the salt mines and would throw unpeeled potatoes into the brine to eat on their lunch break.
“I think a lot of kids have had salt potatoes, but don’t know that history either,” Romano Moore said. “So, we had an actor portraying one of the Keefe brothers telling his story about how the salt potato came to be.”
Keefe’s sons, Arthur and James, later ran a grocery store that doubled as a tavern called Keefe Brothers. Local historians say salt potatoes were the only items on its menu.
Now in Syracuse, the dish is often a staple at summer celebrations like graduations, clam bakes and barbecues. And if a city fourth grader is in attendance, they can tell you exactly how this iconic meal came to be.
A version of this story originally appeared on WAER 88.3 FM.