The proposition to create a whole book about what appears a simple and straightforward substance may seem rather daunting. Certainly, one expects that salt could provide a number of amusing or amazing anecdotes, but 500 pages worth? In Kurlansky’s defense, he manages to tell a tale more full-figured than a smattering of interesting errata, but I can’t help but feel as though there was at least 75 pages worth of fluff.
In a move that surprised me, Salt contained very little scientific information about salt beyond a desultory admission of its basic chemistry; to wit, what we call “salt” is actually the compound sodium chloride. Properly, a “salt” is any combination of a metallic element (e.g. sodium, a soft metal) and a nonmetallic element (e.g. chlorine, a deadly gas), and not all of them taste salty. Furthermore, although modern medicine hysteria has fingered sodium as a culprit for hypertension and other ills, the human body needs salt for a number of different things1. But beyond these basics, Kurlansky’s focus is very much on salt’s historical and political important, which hinges upon two important points.
For the thousands of years before refrigeration, salt was how people kept food edible. Think about all the foods you currently enjoy which involve some sort of fermentation or brine: pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce, corned beef, anchovies, etc. Though they are now staples of our diet because we have developed a cultural taste for them (and many of them are damn tasty), they originated not because somebody necessarily thought that putting fresh food and ground up rock in a barrel until it filled with weepy discharge was a good idea for a snack, but because without some way to keep meat and vegetables from decaying, all of our ancestors would have starved to death. It’s difficult to overstate this: without salt, we would not be here. The vital importance of the substance to just about everyone made it a linchpin for governments and societies: governments taxed it as a reliable source of revenue, and people demanded it in larger quantities and lower prices. Gandhi’s famous march to the sea2, after all, was about the onerous British salt tax; the French Revolution was—arguably—sparked into life by the long-standing and much-reviled French salt tax, the gabelle.
Salt was a source of revenue and a measure of control for the ruling class. For the very reasons listed above, salt tended to be an important but oft-forgotten player in armed conflict, both internecine and otherwise. Southern salt manufacturing plants in Viriginia and Florida were favorite targets of the Union army during the Civil War, for instance. Although the South lagged behind the North in most supplies and logistical respects, I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that the South’s difficulty in obtaining adequate supplies to salt to feed its troops was a major contributor to its eventual defeat. For as long as salt has been an important component in the preservation of food, its manufacture and distribution has been regulated, taxed, and in many cases monopolized by a single entity given exclusive rights by the government3.
Early on, most was was gathering via the complicated process of evaporating sea or marsh water in large, shallow pans and scraping the crust of salt that resulted. Optionally, fire could be used to help the evaporation, but of course that was a lot of energy to expend for a small amount of salt. It was not until historical recency, the mid 19th-century, that large-mining rock salt from quarries or underground mines became cheap; early mines, like the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland (beginning in the 13th century) were dangerous and expensive. The advent of steam power and industrial machinery finally made salt mining viable and drove prices down. The aforementioned Wieliczka mine, for instance, closed down in 1996.
All of this is fascinating and to Kurlansky’s credit. Less fruitful, however, is his insistence upon filling his book with old recipes from various cultures. I can see some merit in including perhaps one excerpt from an ancient Chinese text about the preservation of fish or vegetables using salt. But I don’t exaggerate when I say that the book is full of these recipes, all variations on the same theme, and I fail to see their import to the narrative. To the contrary, they’re distracting and unnecessary, and I can’t understand what motivated Kurlansky to sprinkle them so liberally in what is otherwise an engaging historical treatise.
- Including as an electrolyte, a chemical necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses; this is why Gatorade is high in sodium—athletes tend to sweat out electrolytes.[↩]
- Or salt Satyagraha[↩]
- The importance of salt also led to its deep integration in our language, both in terms of idioms and in less obvious etymological ways. A salt-for-slaves trade in ancient Greece led to the phrase “[not] worth his salt”; Roman salt rations (from salarium) led to our modern word “salary”; in fact, the Latin root sal- shows up in all sorts of places.[↩]