by Mark Kurlansky

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Mark Kurlansky’s nonfiction book Salt, the characters are not fictional people but historical individuals. The book moves more or less chronologically, with the first two parts devoted to the ways in which salt was important to various cultures and the way it was prepared.

Nicolas Appert

One of the figures treated at length by Mark Kurlansky is Nicolas Appert, the so-called “father of canning.” Kurlansky explains that little is known about him (his first name may even have been François, not Nicolas) and that he was a confectioner who believed that canning goods would successfully kill the rotting agent. Once he developed this process, Napoleon’s navy used canned goods. Appert wrote a book in 1809 that was titled The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years. Despite Appert’s contributions, the patent for canning was earned by Peter Durand, who identified tin as the ideal material for this new type of preservation.

Clarence Birdseye

Kurlansky describes Clarence Birdseye as an “eccentric New Yorker.” Birdseye moved from New York to Labrador with his family, where he patented a method of fast freezing using calcium chloride. He was inspired in this endeavor by the way that indigenous peoples freeze and preserve fish caught in the winter. Birdseye used salt with small crystals that would facilitate rapid freezing and would not interfere with the flavor of the food. Birdseye moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts (which was a thriving New England fishing port) and established his now-famous frozen food company in 1925.

Mahatma Gandhi

Another comparatively famous individual treated by Kurlansky is Mahatma Gandhi. The famous Indian nationalist spent several years in prison, where he read voraciously. Gandhi was responsible for fighting against the British ban to regulate the production and sale of salt. Gandhi was a staunch anti-colonialist whose efforts were ultimately successful. This allowed Indian people a degree of freedom to regulate their own commercial ventures with respect to the valuable commodity.

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