Saltpetre, potassium nitrate, is added to food to give meat products a nicer colour. One winter in the 70s when we were living in Connecticut, my dad went to a New York drug store to buy saltpetre for our traditional Christmas ham. And the elderly druggist winked at him and said this odd thing.

“Hehe, it’s an old army trick!”

As my dad told us later that night, he had to ask what on Earth the guy meant. And then he learned that the druggist thought he was going to take the saltpetre as an anaphrodisiac, to decrease his sex drive. Supposedly the US armed forces did this as a matter of course to improve discipline and troop morale, adding saltpetre to the rations.

Now I find that this idea, that somehow stuck with me, is a widespread piece of unfounded folklore. Saltpetre does not decrease a man’s sex drive, and the armed forces have never added it to rations.

A few years later I learned, though, that you can mix saltpetre with sugar and make your own fireworks.

Comments

  1. #1 Nomen Nescio
    January 6, 2012

    the yarn about something-or-other (exactly what varies hugely) being added to army food for just this reason has probably been around forever. i heard it in the conscripted Finnish army, early 1990’s, and most of us didn’t believe it then. somebody could likely make a nice little anthropology doctorate out of analyzing the urban legends of military barracks and work out how they keep spreading even though nobody ever seems to believe them.

    saltpetre and sugar fireworks are fun, but saltpetre and charcoal black powder is even more fun. (the sulphur is optional, though it does make a better explosive.)

  2. #2 Doug K
    January 6, 2012

    we had the same tale in the conscript S. African army, early 80s..
    maybe not saltpetre, but here was certainly something in those Army beverages – “if this is coffee, I want tea; if this is tea, give me coffee”

    I read Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy on WWII and thought it sounded just like the Army I knew.. on the grunt/infantryman/legionary level, all Armies are the same. I wonder what they put in the legionaries’ posca..

  3. #3 chris y
    January 6, 2012

    It’s illegal to buy saltpeter in Britain without jumping through enough hoops to put you off. They think you’re going to make explosives with it. I have a bunch of recipes for hams ans cured beef that I’d love to make, but I can’t.

  4. #4 The Phytophactor
    January 6, 2012

    Even small amounts of saltpeter (saltpetre) are annoyingly hard to buy having disappeared from drug store shelves and stocks largely because of fear it will be used in explosives, even the small amounts needed to cure my annual corned beef brisket. Boy, I just hate it when the war on terrorism affects my St. Patrick’s Day dinner.

  5. #5 Pat
    January 7, 2012

    Bromide was the usual suspect in the British forces. It was unlikely to be used on soldiers as it is a sedative.

    Snopes has a little article on it, of course.

    http://www.snopes.com/military/saltpeter.asp

  6. #6 anon
    January 7, 2012

    Even small amounts of saltpeter (saltpetre) are annoyingly hard to buy

    Try small grocery stores, deep in farm country, where people grow and preserve lots of food; look in the canning supplies section. Where there’s a ton of NH4NO3 in every barn, nobody cares much about four ounces of KNO3.

  7. #7 Adrianna
    January 7, 2012

    When I was seven (or so) a popular TV SciFi, very nicely, gave us all the recipe for gun power! Back then we all had a fully stocked chemistry sets that included saltpetre and sulphur, and the fireplace supplied the charcoal! I’m truly amazed I didn’t blow the roof off.

  8. #8 Nomen Nescio
    January 7, 2012

    small amounts of blackpowder aren’t that very dangerous, especially if you don’t confine it in anything that would let the pressure build up. the stuff will burn relatively peacefully if in the open. of course, packing it into any kind of solid container changes matters considerably, so don’t do that unless you know what you’re doing.

    (i bet i can buy blackpowder ready-made where i live — rural Michigan state. not in drugstores or supermarkets, granted, but certainly in the town’s gun shop and probably in those of the sports stores that sell firearms. i’ve no idea if saltpetre by itself is regulated here, but i see no reason it should be when i could easily buy far more dangerous stuff than that.)

  9. #9 Derek in DC
    January 8, 2012

    I may not be recalling this correctly, but I seem to remember the movie/broadway musical “1776” mentions saltpetre for armaments and for keeping the Minute Men focused.

  10. #10 Mattias
    January 9, 2012

    Ah, the good ol’ school days, making gunpowder. I remember we had to experiment for a while, before finding the right proportions – at least half the volume should be charcoal, I seem to remember.

  11. #11 Birger Johansson
    January 10, 2012

    I may have mentioned it earlier, during the 30-year war the crown had people traveling around Sweden boiling the soil from underneath barns to extract salpeter (or some other gunpowder ingredient) formed from animal urine stewing in the warm soil.
    Empires literally runs on excreta, which I find very symbolical.

  12. #12 Nomen Nescio
    January 10, 2012

    you’re misremembering, Mattias. it’s closer to 75% saltpetre, 15% charcoal, 10% sulphur. best thing is to mix them together with enough water to make a paste, to ensure the stuff won’t prematurely catch fire while mixing it (and to keep down any unhealthy dust as well), then press the paste through a colander to make granules and dry them.

    at one point, collecting and properly composting animal waste to produce saltpetre was a big business and a large concern of many different nations. must’ve been a shitty line of work to be in, is all i can say…

  13. #13 Mattias
    January 10, 2012

    I see, N.N., thanks for reminding me.

  14. #14 ffrancis
    January 15, 2012

    Back in the early 1970s, perhaps about the same time Martin’s father was buying saltpetre in that New York drugstore, Larry and Ronnie, born and raised in Brooklyn, went back to the land in rural New Brunswick (Canada). They discovered that fireworks, readily available in New York, were illegal in their new home. However, this was more than compensated for: dynamite could be obtained at the local hardware store. They happily blew things up for years. Clumps of alders, mostly, and the occasional boulder, but sometimes just sort of booms de joie. A 20 litre grease can remained impaled on the top of a poplar tree near the road on their farm for almost a decade after they’d given up and left.

  15. #15 guthrie
    January 24, 2012

    A bit late, but Chris Y at #3 is wrong re. the UK, I have saltpetre bought from a re-enactment supplier. Look up traditional materials, a company selling such stuff.
    What is illegal is to store blackpowder without a licence.

  16. #16 Martin R
    January 24, 2012

    Yes, and there’s a widespread misunderstanding regarding Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot. The reason he was executed wasn’t that he wanted to blow Parliament up. It was that he stored gunpowder under Parliament without a licence.

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