Last Updated on October 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333
Mark Kurlansky's book Salt, which was published in 2002, is a detailed history of salt and its place in both ancient and modern civilizations. In Kurlansky's words, salt—the only rock humans eat—has "shaped civilization."
Although salt is widely available now, in many societies it was once so prized that it was as valuable—if not more so—than currency. Kurlansky explains that Jericho, in what is now the West Bank, was established as a trading post for salt almost ten thousand years ago. Salt was also pivotal to the early Chinese. In 250 BCE, Li Bing realized—through analysis of salt mining in "brine wells"—that underground natural gas can be used to provide power. As a result, he was able to use natural gas furnaces to build the world's first dam. Kurlansky further argues that salt has been a factor in several wars, including the American Revolution, which he argues was at least partially provoked by salt shortages. In addition, salt taxes are what finally galvanized Gandhi to begin his campaign to abolish British rule in India.
Kurlansky also analyzes how salt has changed our diets and shaped eating habits around the world. Many foods—including soy sauce, olives, and cheese—would not be possible to manufacture without salt. Kurlansky explains how crucial salt is to humans, noting that salt appears in nearly every part of the human body, including sweat and tears. In short, people cannot live without salt, because sodium is essential for the body to work properly. There are health implications, though, in consuming too much salt: Kurlansky explores these and notes that modern Americans eat much more than their European counterparts. Of course, he cautions, it is also dangerous to consume too little salt.
Finally, the irony that we have such a glut of salt in the modern world that we use it to liberally salt our snowy streets in the wintertime is not lost on Kurlansky—particularly given its scarcity and value during much of human history.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1789
Mark Kurlansky has established a name for himself as an author noted for specialized histories, books with a focus so narrow that their topics have been often overlooked by mainstream historical authors. In Kurlansky’s hands, however, seemingly obscure topics assume a new life, becoming truly compelling and comprehensive narratives about surprisingly broad issues. During the 1990’s, Kurlansky published books that dealt with the Caribbean (A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny, 1992) and the resurgence of Jews in Europe after the Holocaust (A Chosen Few: the Resurrection of European Jewry, 1995). These books were followed by others with an even more specialized focus, such as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), for which Kurlansky won the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing in 1997, and The Basque History of the World (1999).
Kurlansky’s research on cod seems to have ignited in him a particular interest. He incorporated some of his earlier material into a work of juvenile literature (A Cod’s Tale, 2001) and now he has included even more of this information in Salt: A World History. The codfish seems perfectly at home in the salty—and far-reaching—world of Kurlansky’s new book. Despite its title, Salt: A World History ventures a long way beyond the use of ordinary table salt throughout the ages. In outlining the various inventions, discoveries, and innovations that have arisen out of the salt industry, Kurlansky manages to include discourses about the origins of soy sauce, leavened bread, ketchup, murex dye, caviar, choucroute (the French equivalent to sauerkraut), prosciutto di Parma, Tabasco sauce, soda water, Chinese cuisine, cheese, and chlorine bleach. In addition, Kurlansky touches on the domestication of camels, the pickling of olives, the development of the alphabet, the origins of the Dutch herring trade, the rise and fall of the Erie Canal, and the liberation of India from English rule. Indeed, one of the criticisms of Salt might be that it can be at times a bit too extensive in its range of topics, veering rather far afield from its central theme for pages at a time. Nevertheless, Kurlansky’s basic premise is that salt provides the essential point of contact for numerous, seemingly unrelated aspects of trade, political development, industrial expansion, cultural innovation, and regional cooking. By the end of the work, readers will come to view salt as the hidden ingredient in a vast number of historical events and as more vital to the spread of human culture than they may have thought.
Naturally, any author who attempts to embrace as many cultures and periods as Kurlansky does in Salt is likely to have some blind spots. For Kurlansky, one of these weaknesses appears to be his understanding of ancient Roman society. In his discussion of De Agri Cultura, the agricultural treatise written by Cato the Elder, Kurlansky shows a lack of mastery of the way Roman names worked. “Cato, like many Romans, was a ham enthusiast. In fact, at a time when Romans often took family names from agriculture, Cato was called Marcus Porcius.” While there is nothing technically incorrect in what Kurlansky says here, his overall conclusion is misleading. Cato’s full name was Marcus Porcius Cato and, according to the rules of Roman nomenclature, it is the second of these names that was the most important part of one’s title, forming a traditional and invariable family name. In other words, Cato was a member of the Porcius clan and neither he nor anyone else of his generation “took [their] family names from agriculture”; their family names were already well established by that time and, unless one were adopted or a former slave, these names were inherited at the moment of one’s birth. As a result, Cato’s “fondness” for ham, if indeed it really existed, would have been an interesting coincidence at best. More telling, perhaps, is the aspect of nomenclature that connects the Roman author’s cognomen (or third name) Cato with the linguistic root meaning “intellectually sharp” or “cunning.” An aficionado of ham Cato may or may not have been, but a particularly keen and sharp observer of his world he most certainly was.
In a similar way, Kurlansky derives the word “Celt” (correctly) from the Greek ethnonym Keltoi but then attempts to link the Latin word Gallus, or “Gaul,” to the Indo-European root for “salt,” sal- or hal-, a derivation that seems unlikely at best. In all probability, the cultural terms “Keltic,” “Gallic,” “Gaelic,” and “Galatian” descend from a single early Indo-European root. Finally, Kurlansky explains the origin of the suffix that appears in such town names as Nantwich, Northwich, and Middlewich by noting that “Anglo Saxons called a saltworks a wich,” a conclusion that, once again, may well be the case but remains less significant than the shared Latin origin of that ending. The suffix “- wich,” along with the “-wick” appearing in such names as Warwick and Kennewick, may be traced to the Latin word vicus, meaning “town” or “district.”
Despite these minor lapses, the true test of any culinary history must be the degree to which it can stimulate the reader’s taste for the subject. Yet, despite the popularity of such salty snacks as peanuts, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, and corn chips, Kurlansky notes, somewhat surprisingly, that per capita consumption of salt has actually decreased in Western civilization since the nineteenth century. Be that as it may, such a decline may be reversed among the readers of Salt: A World History. Salt appears to be lurking behind every great event in Kurlansky’s history of the world, and readers may come away feeling that they have not been getting their share.
At the same time that salt appears to be ubiquitous in both culture and cuisine, Kurlansky also demonstrates that it is equally inescapable in language. The root of the English word “salt,” which appears in Indo-European languages as either sal- or hal- (much as the root for the word “six” appears in both “sextuplet” and “hexagon”), provides the linguistic origin for such diverse terms as “salary” (originally a salt allowance), “soldier” (a mercenary warrior who was once paid in salt), “salad” (greens that were at one time seasoned with salt), and “salami” (a sausage made of meat that has been cured with salt). Similarly, it is this linguistic root that gave rise to the names of a large number of cities, including Salzburg, Salzkammergut, Hallein, and Hallstatt, all of which mean something like “salt town” or “salt market,” as well as the Italian town of Salsomaggiore (quite literally, the “bigger salt town”).
The importance of salt in human history stems from a twofold benefit that salt provides. First, sodium—one of the constituent elements in sodium chloride, the form of salt most frequently consumed by societies around the world—is necessary for the proper functioning of the human body. Without sodium, cells in the human body would die slowly of combined malnutrition and dehydration. The craving that people feel for salty snacks is thus evolution’s way of protecting the organism and of insuring that people’s bodies receive a necessary component for their survival.
Second, salt can be used to preserve many types of foods through such processes as pickling and curing. In the era before refrigeration, salt was a vital ingredient in many foods that had to be kept over a long winter or transported over vast distances. The reaction of salt with food produces a reaction similar to that caused by cooking the food, thus prolonging the food’s shelf life and rendering it less attractive to invasive organisms. Although many foods that were salted for storage or transportation were intended to be soaked in water so that the salt would be removed prior to the food being eaten, a substantial amount of salt remained in some foods even after it was washed. Frequently, consumption of food that was rich in salt led cultures to prefer heavily salted food. Some of these preferences still remain, despite the fact that refrigeration has diminished the original need for salting the food. In this way, bacon, ham, corned beef, and pastrami continue to be cured even though fresh pork and beef are readily available in most parts of the world. On the other hand, some preferences have ebbed over time. For instance, sales of lox (highly salted cured salmon) have declined steadily as customers tended to prefer nova (a less highly salted form of cured salmon that originally came from Nova Scotia) and fresh salmon; in a similar way, pickled herring and surströmming (a heavily fermented fish prepared in Sweden) remain popular only in small, niche markets, usually where these foods are part of ethnic or social customs.
One of the difficulties inherent in any discussion about salt is the number of ways in which the word “salt” may be used. While “salt” technically means “any substance caused by the reaction of an acid and a base” (a definition that Kurlansky inexplicably delays until page 300), most readers associate salt with sodium chloride, table salt. Yet the imprecision of ordinary speech can mislead the unwary reader of Salt. Kurlansky will occasionally express, for example, an observation such as “Salt was strategic, like gunpowder, which was also made from salt,” blurring the distinction between the two uses of the term. What the author means here is that sodium chloride had strategic importance, as did gunpowder, which was made from another type of salt, potassium nitrate. In seeking to produce a concise and arresting sentence, Kurlansky has both obscured his meaning and run the risk of confusing his readers.
None of these minor objections should be taken to imply that Salt: A World History is not a remarkably informative and engrossing survey. Its topics range from the health risks and benefits of salt consumption to the causes of geological subsidence in Cheshire, England, to the origin of the expression “red herring” (originally a false trail of smoked fish that hunters used to draw wolves from their tracks, from which the expression came to mean any superficially promising, but ultimately erroneous line of inquiry). Salt is a light, engaging survey of a subject that has far greater importance than many readers may originally believe. Its short, quickly paced chapters move readily throughout many periods of history, dashing from one edge of the world to the next. The book may be literary snack food but, in the end, it manages to provide a surprising amount of real satisfaction.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (January 1-15, 2002): 785.
The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 2001, p. 15.
Library Journal 126 (December, 2001): 162.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 13, 2002, p. 3.
Natural History 111 (March, 2002): 98.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 30, 2002): 15.
Publishers Weekly 248 (November 19, 2001): 56.