by Mark Kurlansky

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The early Celtic salt miners understood their mountains. They realized that horizontal shafts from the mountainside, though a great deal easier to travel and move rock through, would require far more digging to reach the rich salt deposits. Instead they dug at steep angles and skillfully shored up the shafts. The miners had to climb out, flaming torch clenched in their teeth, leather back sack loaded with rock, at forty-five or fifty-degree angles. Though the master ironworkers of their age, they made their picks and other metal tools out of bronze, the antiquated metal of a more primitive era. They seem to have learned that bronze would not be corroded by salt the way iron is. (58)

This quote explores the tremendous, and previously unappreciated, sophistication of the Celtic people. While we mostly think of them as the painted "barbarians" beaten back by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul, through reading this chapter in Salt we learn that they were far more advanced than the Romans assumed. The Celts were people of salt: miners, traders, and experts in extracting and using this material. Their bravery and skill is clearly evident in this quote, which exemplifies the theme of chapter 3, "Saltmen Hard as Codfish." Indeed, without salt, how else could fish and meat be preserved? The Celts were of key importance in making and distributing this essential element to others in the region.

For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished. My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt. Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this. (2)

From this introduction, the reader is immediately fascinated by the seemingly magical qualities of the rock. How could it be nothing more than salt? The author, Mark Kurlansky, masterfully piques our interest by describing all the surprising things his salt rock can do. As a literary device, this is well done, as it creates curiosity in the reader and an intense desire to learn more. With this introduction, we can visualize a salt rock instead of the usual shaker full of granulated salt that most of us keep in our homes. A truly great nonfiction author makes his subject as engaging as any character, and that is what Kurlansky has done here. Salt is the star of this show, and we have the privilege of meeting it if only we choose to read on.

McIllhenny started his pepper sauce experiments with a variation on a sauerkraut recipe, using salt to ferment and extract juices from fresh crushed peppers. He quickly learned that he had to use the ripest peppers, picking each of the fruits of his annual plant at its optimum moment, when it was the brightest red. Stirring half a...

(This entire section contains 957 words.)

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cup of his own Avery Island salt into each gallon, he aged the mixture, trying pickling jars and then pork barrels. He covered the lids with salt, which, when mixed with the juices of the fermenting peppers, sealed the barrel with a hard crust, by chance the same way the Chinese had been aging bean mash for soy sauce for thousands of years. (278)

When a modern, western reader thinks about salt, they tend to focus only on seasoning. Here, Kurlansky leads us on a voyage of discovery as Edmund McIlhenny learns how to create his famous Tabasco hot sauce. We also see connections here between older recipes, such as sauerkraut and soy sauce, which equally rely on salt in order to produce the necessary fermentation. It is amazing to understand that products we see on the grocery store shelves and often take for granted are in fact the result of intense experimentation on the part of their creators. Not only that, but they are also built on a long culinary history from around the world, all of which rely on that one essential ingredient: salt.

The idea that salt enhances the taste of sugar has not entirely vanished from the West. It is a guiding concept of the snack food industry. A clear example of this is honey-roasted peanuts, but in fact salt and sugar are ingredients in most industrial snack food. (399)

Nowadays, with all the talk of high sodium intake and warning bells about sugar addiction, it is important to remember that both salt and sugar were once rare luxuries. The human body craves both, as they are both necessary in certain levels to maintain health. The trouble is that sugar and salt are easier to come by now than at any point in history. This has enabled food producers to create all sorts of unhealthy sugary-salty delights, such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, the honey-roasted peanuts Kurlansky mentions, kettle popcorn, and maple bacon bits. By learning the fascinating history of salt, we can begin to appreciate the reasons these treats are so irresistible. And in so doing, ideally, we can begin to make more conscientious choices for our health.