This is what we know to be true about salt: Humans have been using it on their food for at least 8,000 years. Salt was once so valuable that North Africans traded it for gold and the ancient Hebrews used it as a covenant with God. There is salt in outer space and salt in our bodies. Without salt, humans wouldn’t survive, which is why the most reliable, trustworthy, and kind people among us are fondly referred to as “salt of the earth.”
It’s no wonder Livia Youngdahl has a special salt blend named in her honor. Livia, who was born in 1903, was lively. Some might have even called her “salty.” Orphaned young and responsible for raising her younger siblings, Livia still managed to attend Gustavus Adolphus College, a small Swedish Lutheran liberal arts school in Minnesota, where she married her college sociology professor—a risqué move back in the 1920s.
The marriage was a happy one. Her husband, Ben Youngdahl, became the Dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. The couple had three children and they lived in Missouri for 50 years. Livia loved the St. Louis Cardinals and the Minnesota Twins. She was an avid follower of politics, a weaver, an organist, a cook, and a piano teacher. But Livia was especially good at entertaining. Renowned as an excellent cook, Livia’s secret was a special blend of three essential spices: Kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, and just enough garlic to give food a kick without overwhelming its original flavor.
“It’s good on everything but eggs,” Livia loved to say. She stirred giant batches of her special mix, parceled it out into plastic bags, and gave them away as hostess gifts and Christmas presents. Livia had such a spicy flair that she moved back home to Minneapolis as an octogenarian, outlived her three sons, and passed away at age 100. As a final tribute, her niece, Susan Hogan, passed out small bags of Livia’s salt at her funeral. Thankfully for the rest of us, the famous recipe lived on.
“The first time I tried my aunt’s seasoning I said ‘This is too good. We have to share it,” says Susan. “It really does make food taste better.”
Before Livia died in 2003, she gave Susan and her husband, Terence, her blessing to start selling the salt blend at the annual Mount Olivet Lutheran Church bazaar in Minneapolis. Starting in 1997, the couple, a retired kindergarten teacher and retired golf professional, mixed Livia’s in their own kitchen. They packaged it in rustic parmesan shakers, and used Livia’s famous words as the slogan: “Good on Everything But Eggs.” Livia’s Seasoning Salt was launched.
It was such a hit that the Hogans took the salt on the road to sell at farmer’s markets and festivals across the Midwest—from the Grand Marais, MN Fishermen’s Picnic to Clear Lake, Iowa, summer fair. In Wisconsin they sold Livia’s to the teeming throngs of 100,000, who descend on the town of Warrens (pop: 359) several years for its annual Cranberry Festival.
“We would be up at the crack of dawn and be exhausted by the end of the day, but we kept our nose to the grindstone because we believed in Livia’s,” says Susan.
The Hogans often sold out because the customers who tried it, loved it. But they didn’t always agree with its slogan.
“They say it’s good on everything but eggs, but what are they talking about? It’s great on eggs!” says Jenny McGraw, a mother of two from Los Angeles. “Our family just went to Palm Springs for a vacation and we brought Livia’s. We can’t live without it.”
That is a common refrain among Livia users, who are professional chefs, full-time moms, single dads, corporate executives, and just-out-of-college millennials. They sprinkle it on cut-up cucumbers and salmon on the grill or use it in salad dressings and to spice up spaghetti. Livia’s is like “Mother’s Little Helper for Everybody,” but it’s a whole lot healthier and is packaged in a beautiful and efficient 6.6-ounce bottle. And because everyone agrees that Livia’s really is good on eggs, the Hogans changed the slogan to “Good on Everything You Salt and Pepper,” which, for the average American, is just about everything.
In recent years, sales have become so strong that the Hogans commissioned their kids to help with the packaging and orders. They, in turn, employed a world-class spice blender that mixes the proprietary blend in a Kosher-blessed facility. They also started selling Livia’s in independent grocery stores, meat markets, and at Liviasseasoningsalt.com.
“Now people bring it to their cabins, to Mexico on vacation, and to their dorms at college. We get orders from all over the country,” says Susan.
“I never even think to buy salt and pepper anymore,” says Kelly O’Donnell, an insurance sales executive from Chicago. She sends Livia’s to more than 500 of her clients as a holiday gift every year. “The Livia’s team makes it so easy,” she says. “They provide me with a spreadsheet, we plug in our information, and they send it out. Last year only one bottle came back because we gave them a bad address. It was so nice to be able to rely on them during the holidays.”
But the place where the seasoning salt is really stealing hearts is in the schools. Teachers and coaches who sell Livia’s as a fundraiser report that their profits are expanding exponentially because their clients want more.
“I’ve been teaching for 17 years and have sold candles, kitchen products, and all sorts of time-consuming things,” says Rachel Steil, an English teacher and school newspaper advisor at Stillwater High School in Minnesota. “Livia’s is the only fundraiser I’ve done where parents come up to me and say, ‘Hey, let me know when you’re doing that again. I need to order more.’ Our profit has tripled in the three years we’ve been selling Livia’s.”
Steil adds that her students love to sell the seasoning salt because they know the sales are a sure deal. “It sells itself,” she says. “It doesn’t need a sales pitch.”
At Prior Lake High School in Minnesota, each student in the 170-strong marching band is charged with selling 24 shakers, which will generate significant revenue in three weeks, with an aggressive percentage split going to the band. It’s a nice boost for programs that are increasingly charged with securing their own additional funding.
Fans of Livia’s say that it’s the proprietary blend that makes the seasoning so special. We agree. But we also suspect it also has something to do with the love that has gone into every batch since Livia started mixing her special seasoning more than 60 years ago.