Issue 7.4: August/September 2004

Molokai Paakai

by Paul Devlin Wood

 

It was 1999 when Nancy Gove of Molokai "just had this incredible idea—to find out about sea salt."

It wasn’t a calculated sort of idea. She didn’t research the market or study a how-to book. Basically, she licked her hands after canoe practice one day and thought: That tastes good!

So Nancy started paying attention to salt in the Molokai landscape, the way it forms naturally on coastal rocks and in tire tracks on the shoreline mudflats. She had no background with salt and little experience in business. She’d spent eight years in college studying just about everything, and she’d lived two decades on Molokai as a woodworker. At one time, her sculptures were featured on public television’s Spectrum Hawaii show. But she’d reached a point of restlessness with that work. "My passion started to go away," she says.

"When salt hit me, I got my passion back."

The five years since salt hit have been extraordinarily productive for Nancy. She has invented a way to extract the salt essence from Molokai seawater. She has created a product line, called Soul of the Sea, which features three of these unique salts—white, red and black. (The red derives from the traditional Hawaiian practice of including some iron-oxide-rich alaea clay. The black is treated with activated charcoal. Both the clay and the charcoal are healthy mineral supplements.) She has formed a company called the Hawaii Kai Corporation, which is marketing this salt across the country. And if all goes as planned, her salt-farming method will flourish across the island, giving Molokai residents a new way to earn money on their land.

Soul of the Sea is headquartered in a modest A-frame building on Molokai’s south shore, right next to the Kaunakakai Wharf. The place is amazingly silent. The reef-enclosed sea here is placid and lake-like. The sky is flat solid blue, the air unmoving, the horizon marked by the long and monochromatic outline of Lanai. Sunshine, so abundant here, drives the entire process. Solar panels power the few pumps involved. Mostly you see a few rows of glass-topped boxes that hold trays of concentrated brine. Under the glass, salt is bunching up, forming fantastic crystal structures, looking for all the world as though it’s alive and growing.

 
Nancy Gove

In fact, Nancy and her crew regard their salt as a living thing and they call themselves salt farmers. They are on a mission: to give the king of all condiments the dignity it deserves.


Today, "table salt" is a cheap commodity and so common that we are warned to watch our sodium intake. But Soul of the Sea is not to be equated with the stuff that comes in the cylindrical box. Nancy calls her crystals "the best-tasting and most nutritious salt in the world," and she has good reason to make that claim. Ordinary salt is entirely composed of one molecule, sodium chloride, but Soul of the Sea contains a natural mix of nutrients: sodium chloride and a long list of minerals and trace elements, all of them good for us. Nancy’s process captures the natural chemistry of the ocean, which is where (according to evolutionary theory) our own internal chemistry hatched.

Here’s how it works: Nancy’s salt farm pumps seawater from right offshore. The water is filtered and hit with ultraviolet light. Then it passes to a reduction stage. It circulates through a reverse osmosis device—the same contraption used by sailors to extract drinking water, except in this case it’s concentrated brine that’s used. After some additional evaporation, the salt-makers end up with a triple brine—pure seawater with a saltiness three times that of the ocean.

This dense, slippery-feeling liquid is the matrix for salt production. It gets poured into the "stills," custom-made evaporation pans that allow sunshine to lift the water out of the brine. Once the crystals have grown, they are collected and hung to drain in net bags.

The end product feels, looks and tastes different from the boxed product. The crystals are irregular in shape and slightly damp. They taste somehow saltier than other salt, with some mineral sweetness. They hit the mouth eagerly, like drops of cognac.

Nancy Gove’s five-year process—from first inspiration to full-on commercial production—has elements of "luck" that we tend to associate with good ideas whose time has come. But the fuel behind the process has been Nancy’s personal fervor. Even now, five years into the affair, she says: "Not an hour goes by that I don’t have a salt thought."

She started experimenting with evaporation by using kiddie pools set up in five different locations. Using plywood, she banged together a prototype still. After some two years of trial and error, she succeeded in developing a limited product. That is, she found a way to capture a certain amount of Molokai seawater essence, and she created packaging and labels. At this point, her total monthly output was ten to twenty pounds, which she sold at the local farmer’s market.

Then something odd happened. She started getting phone calls in the middle of the night—calls from chefs at some of the finest restaurants on the East Coast. They wanted that Molokai salt. Turns out a Maui chef, Mark Ellman, had picked up some of her salt and sent samples to all his foodie friends. Soon it was getting passed around Manhattan. Then The New York Times did an article.

Here she was, barely out of the wading pool and already nationally known. She made what has proven to be a shrewd decision. She hired a grantwriter. She got $70,000 of federal money for a feasibility study and set out to prove that salt farming would improve not only the world’s nutrition but also Molokai’s economy. On the strength of her study, Nancy got an additional $300,000 of federal funding to design the production system that’s in place today. With it, she’s been able to increase monthly production from ten pounds to 3,000 pounds.

Nancy also started making contacts with "angels" (metaphorically speaking). The first of these was a process engineer from California, Kent Clampitt. Kent, vacationing on Molokai, stopped by the A-frame to see what Nancy was doing. He looked around and said, "I can help." A process engineer, as the title suggests, knows how to calculate every step of a production process. Kent offered to design the whole Soul of the Sea process in exchange for a role as equity partner.

Six months later, marketer Roger Dubin showed up. He was so taken with the potential of Molokai salt that he, too, asked to join the company. Late last year, the company found an investor, the president of a Fortune 500 company. Soon thereafter, Soul of the Sea salts won the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences’ Five Star Diamond Award. The plaque now hangs above the door of the A-frame.

All this occurred while Nancy’s product was still just a phenomenon of the Molokai farmer’s market.

"Angels, to me, are just people who come into your life and do incredible things," says Nancy. "My job is to hold the ideals. I just stay in my naiveté and work twenty-four hours a day, every day."

Nancy is a non-stop fountain of salt lore. As we walk along the Molokai shoreline, she tells me about the pink salt of Peru, the world’s most expensive, mined in the Andes. We discuss empires that gained power by controlling salt prices—for example, the old Chinese dynasties, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Venetians during the Middle Ages. The Egyptians invented the use of salt to make olives edible, and the Romans used salt as money—hence our word "salary" and our notion that a man is "worth his salt." People in Maine still make salt, Nancy tells me, but it’s no good because they do it by boiling seawater. "That kills it," she says. She equates ordinary table salt to other nutritionally ruined processed foods—white flour, white sugar, white rice.

We reach a mudflat just a quarter-mile from the A-frame. Today the site is a bird refuge and home to a sewage treatment plant. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, however, this area supported an extensive salt works. Old-timers remember a Chinese laborer who used to smoke opium as he worked a paddle device that flooded the earthen salt pans.

 
Salt pans near Kaunakakai,
circa 1901.
courtesy Dorothe
B. Curtis collection

The old maps of Molokai also show a salt works in the area now called Kawela, a few miles east of Kaunakakai. This site was active at least until 1880. People once called the area Kahakapaakai or "perching place of the salt," and one account states that these salt works "were developed to a high state of perfection for chiefs, subjects, and fishermen" in the 1860s, during the reign of Kamehameha V.


In fact, the Hawaiians were prodigious farmers of paakai (salt), and, in the words of one scholar, they were "the only Polynesians who produced salt from sea water by properly constructed salt pans." Besides being the primary condiment for the otherwise bland Hawaiian diet, paakai was an essential element in Hawaiian medicine, useful for healing everything from a headache to a broken leg. In 1778, Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, and his lieutenant recorded their purchase of salt from the Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay: sixteen puncheons’ worth for each of the two sailing ships. That’s a staggering quantity, more than ten tons of pure salt—and that’s not counting the enormous quantities of salted pork the ships took on.

No Hawaiian island has an economic situation quite like that on Molokai, where a large number of people have land but no livelihood. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1922 allowed people of Hawaiian ancestry to homestead on roughly one-third of the island, so the kanaka maoli (native people), who make up over half the island population, can afford to practice a subsistence lifestyle. "Molokai pride" causes this island to resist modernization and deflect the kind of all-out tourism that has brought wealth and change to other islands.

Molokai unemployment, though, stands at about ten percent. Previous experiments with agricultural activities—including pineapple, cattle, honey and watermelons—have come and gone. The island could use a way to make money without losing its soul. Molokai people are known as the salt of the earth. How appropriate, then, for them to harvest the salt of the sea.

Cameron Hiro, a Molokai-born chef, lives on thirty-five acres of homestead land. He told me: "I looked at this salt-farming process and said, My gosh, this is such a simple operation. And the resource is endless. This can really do well in the homestead area.’"

Nancy’s plan calls for the formation of The SaltMasters Guild of Hawaii, an opportunity for every landholder to earn money as a salt farmer. Her company will provide farmers with training, equipment and purified brine. Guild members will dry and harvest the salt, then sell it to Hawaii Kai for packaging and marketing. Because the farming process runs on sunshine, it is perfectly sustainable and adaptable to any size of operation. In this "horizontal business model," everyone profits, says Nancy. And it was this promise of an appropriate improvement in the island’s general fortunes that attracted federal support during Nancy’s early stages.

"We need an industry here," says Cameron. "We need to import dollars and export product. But we don’t want to disrupt the quality of living. There’s a lot of pride on this island in keeping it this way. So whatever we do needs to tie in with traditional customs. I think that’s where we’re going."