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)...
(The entire section is 1789 words.)